In 1804 Lewis and Clark sat off on a grand adventure to explore the newly acquired western portion of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase. This expedition led these men through lands they’d never seen before, crossing the Continental Divide of the Americas before finally reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1805. Their feet hit the ground on October 16, 1805, alongside our magnificent Columbia River, stopping to camp in what is now the city of Pasco. As a result, Pasco earned the title of the oldest city within the Tri-Cities metropolitan area and went on to become a thriving, diverse community full of beauty and limitless possibilities in the form of agriculture and outdoor adventure.

History of Pasco
An ox team and wagon at the corner of 4th & Lewis in 1914. Photo courtesy: Franklin County Historical Society

Much like other major cities in Washington, Pasco was initially inhabited by Native Americans who referred to the land as Great Forks when Lewis and Clark arrived. They set up camp at what is now the Sacagawea State Park, named in honor of the group’s Native American guide. After this initial stay of the explorers, fur trappers and gold traders began to frequent the area in search of the land’s treasures. Pasco served as a sort of trading post and camping spot for these adventure seekers, with little changes occurring until John Commingers Ainsworth’s arrival to the area in 1850.

Ainsworth was brought west by the California gold rush, but in his quest for this precious mineral, he suddenly found himself settling down in a town he dubbed Ainsworth southeast of modern-day Pasco, ultimately making the town its precursor. Since the town was close to the Snake River, he constructed the first sternwheeler in the area and then built a fleet of magnificent ships, leading to the town’s ultimate success.

History of Pasco
Early transportation in Pasco consisted of trains, boats, and of course horse and buggy. Photo courtesy: Franklin County Historical Society

Only three decades later, the Northern Pacific Railways started working on the Snake River Bridge Project to reach the Ainsworth Township, converting it into a bustling railroad town in the process. With all the extra traffic, the town was even appointed the county seat when Franklin County was created in 1883. However, in the end, this track through Ainsworth would be its downfall as it snaked its way to the Pasco region.

This was all because the Northern Pacific Railways shifted gears once they made it to the area, moving their operations to that region for the construction of the Columbia River Bridge. The new town’s location proved to be the perfect place for growth as it was between three major rivers and now the connecting railroad tracks that allowed people to come and go.

History of Pasco
Once the railroad made its way to Pasco, the city became a booming town. Pictured is a steam train crossing the Columbia River. Photo courtesy:
Franklin County Historical Society

By the 1880s, the word was already getting around to the rest of the United States about all Pasco had to offer, including talk about how ethnically diverse the city was. There was even a small Chinatown near the train tracks, including a general store owned by Wong How.

Budding Pasco continued to rise to prominence, so much so that the Franklin County Courthouse was relocated to the new town site in 1887 and thusly appointed as the new county seat.

With the new city off to a booming success, it wasn’t long before it was incorporated on September 3, 1891. Construction engineer for the Northern Pacific Railway, Virgil Bogue, is credited with naming the now thriving region, although there are several theories on where he got the name. One such theory is that he got the term from a recently built railroad he had just finished placing in the Andes called Cerro del Pasco in Peru. A second theory suggests that Bogue was naming the city after a Mexican town village called Pasco, which was most “disagreeable” at the time. Yet another theory speculates that Bogue couldn’t think of a designation for the town at all and happened to glance at a railroad car when asked that was emblazoned with the initials of the Pacific American Shipping Co, aka PASCO.

History of Pasco
Pasco City Hall, located at 525 N. 3rd Avenue, was the former home of Pasco High School and McLoughlin Middle School. The former school building was renovated in 1995 to become City Hall. Photo courtesy: Franklin County Historical Society

Whatever the name’s actual origin, the growing township was soon well established, thanks to the busy railroad yards and steamboats that were up and running. It didn’t take long for the area to become an agricultural hub, as the nearby rivers proved to be successful for prosperous irrigation. By 1910 the vast acres of the surrounding shrub-steppe landscape was covered with green farms and orchards after years of hard work on methodical irrigation projects.

From there, Pasco began to grow as abundantly as the crops growing in its fields. By 1920, its population had grown to 3,362, and since the neighboring cities of Kennewick and Richland were increasing just as fast, it was time to “bridge the gap,” as they say. Thus, a bridge was completed in 1922 over the Columbia River, connecting Pasco and Kennewick for the very first time.

History of Pasco
The Franklin County Courthouse after it was newly built in 1913 to represent the growing city. Photo courtesy: Pasco Police Department

Today, the beloved Pasco is home to more than 77,000 community members with a population just as diverse and rich with agriculture as it was when it got its start all those years ago and will continue to be for generations to come.

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