All Over The Map: Who named the ‘Inland Empire?’

Jan 7, 2022, 7:46 AM | Updated: 9:51 am

The nickname “Inland Empire” probably peaked in usage on maps and tourist literature decades ago, but it’s still something that anyone who’s lived here long enough has likely heard before to describe a geographical and economic region with Spokane at its center.

Just where, exactly, is the Inland Empire? This description of the region comes from the first volume of a four-volume history called “The Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest,” which was written by Spokane historian George Fuller and published in 1928:

“In the basin between the Rockies and the Cascades – a region as large as France – nature framed a broad theater for human enterprise and furnished it with an abundance of resources, which for a long time stood unrecognized. Across the empty stage passed explorers and fur traders. Missionaries came and labored, with small success, to open the eyes of the Natives to the uses of soil and water and timber, as well as to teach them religion.”

In a Facebook post this week on a Spokane history page, a history graduate student at Eastern Washington University in Cheney named Jake Rehm wondered if anyone knew the origins of the phrase.

There was much speculation in comments on the post that “Inland Empire” had something to do with boosterism – that still common practice of promoting a city or region in order to attract more residents, and to improve prospects for businesses – and, in the 19th century, in particular, to fuel profits for real estate speculators.

It didn’t take long for Rehm to track down the person who is generally believed to be the originator of the phrase “Inland Empire” as a way to describe and promote parts of Washington, Idaho, and even British Columbia. Rehm found the answer on page two of Fuller’s 1928 book.

Credit, Rehm says, goes to a Massachusetts-born missionary, journalist, educator, and railroad booster named Reverend George Henry Atkinson.

“He came to Oregon in the 1840s and he was aware of the kind of the climate of Eastern Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and he described it as a ‘vast Inland Empire,’” Rehm told KIRO Radio. “And now, whether or not that was the first time that term had actually been applied to the Inland Northwest, no one knows.”

According to George Fuller’s book:

“The Reverend George H. Atkinson, who arrived in Oregon city in 1848, made several trips to the interior and secured samples of soils from the Walla Walla, Palouse, and Klickitat regions and from various parts of what is now Wasco County, Oregon. After analyzing them and comparing them with samples of soils from Europe, he declared that the interior would become a great wheat growing region and that stock raising would be gradually crowded out.”

In the mid to late 1870s, Atkinson wrote a series of pro-Northwest newspaper articles for The Oregonian and the Portland Bee. Newspapers in Washington Territory reprinted, excerpted, or paraphrased many of Atkinson’s articles, and they were also compiled and issued as a pamphlet in 1878. The publication was sponsored by the Northern Pacific Railroad and called “The Northwest Coast.” It’s unclear if Atkinson directly profited in any way from his work on behalf of the railroad, and it’s also unclear exactly where the phrase “vast Inland Empire” first appears in print in Atkinson’s work – if it does at all.

The 1870s was the era when boosters in the Pacific Northwest were trying to generate interest in getting the northernmost of the government-surveyed transcontinental railroad routes built. Atkinson’s booster activities weren’t limited to only writing; a decade earlier – in 1868 – he traveled east and gave a talk to the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, called “Possession, Settlement, Climate and Resources of Oregon and the Northwest Coast including some remarks upon Alaska.”

The Reverend Atkinson appears to have really gotten around, especially for the 19th century, and he was a busy guy at home, too. His day job was serving as a preacher in Oregon City, and he’s also considered the father of Oregon’s public schools.

David Nicandri is an author and is the retired former director of the Washington State Historical Society. He says Atkinson kept “extensive meteorological records” and “became, if you will, the Cliff Mass of his generation.”

“The NPRR [Northern Pacific Railroad] liked him because he fell into the ‘rain follows the plow’ school of agrarianship,” Nicandri wrote in an email. “With his help, they could hope to sell off that vast tract of farmland they owned along their line. That is, ‘If you plow the Palouse, the requisite rain will follow,’ [and] ‘Don’t worry; be happy.’”

“[It] didn’t quite work out that way,” Nicandri wrote, “necessitating the Columbia Basin Project” to irrigate all that new farmland.

In 1878, a newspaper called The Inland Empire was founded in The Dalles, Oregon, and this seems to be the time when the term really began to catch on. Atkinson died in Portland in 1889 when he was almost 70; the transcontinental railroad had reached Oregon in 1883.

The Inland Northwest – as the region is also sometimes called – does not have a monopoly on “Inland Empire.” There’s part of California east of Los Angeles also known as the Inland Empire, and it might have been named a bit earlier, perhaps as early as the 1860s (there’s even a lifestyle magazine published in that area called “Inland Empire”). Somewhat surprisingly, if old tourist decals are to be believed, Illinois has been known in the past as the “Inland Empire State.”

Lastly, David Lynch – of Northwest noir “Twin Peaks” fame – made a film in 2006 called “Inland Empire” that has no relation to anything local, but for which there is an interesting name-origin anecdote.

It’s a shame that Lynch’s film doesn’t have a connection to the Northwest. Not to be greedy – what with all the economic development generated by the coffee and cherry pie at Twede’s Café in North Bend – but those anthropomorphic rabbits in “Inland Empire” seem like they’d be right at home in the Evergreen State, and surely some modern local booster would find a way to make a profit.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

Feliks Banel

The ash cloud from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 brought darkness to Eastern Washington; this ph...
Feliks Banel

Local music legend Chris Ballew’s bizarre story of surviving the eruption of Mount St. Helens

Forced off the freeway, they turned around and headed toward Spokane – battling falling ash, blizzard-like visibility, and fear of the unknown.
19 hours ago
A view across Carlisle Lake of the Onalaska Smokestack, which was built in the 1920s. (Onalaska All...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Searching for Washington’s historic smokestacks

The recent addition to the Heritage Register is an artifact of an old mill that closed 80 years ago. It's called the “Carlisle Lumber Company Smokestack.”
6 days ago
A portion of Washington state's 1909 abortion law, which was in effect until Referendum 20 passed i...
Feliks Banel

History of abortion laws and politics in the Evergreen State

Washington voters have twice approved pro-choice ballot measures in the past – including a few years before Roe v. Wade, and again in 1991.
8 days ago
VE Day...
Feliks Banel

How Seattleites observed VE Day in 1945

When VE Day – marking Allied “victory in Europe” – came to Seattle on Tuesday, May 8, 1945, the sidewalks weren’t jammed with jubilant sailors kissing nurses, and no confetti rained down on the streets. While London and other European capitals had much to celebrate in this fashion 77 years ago this week, the appropriate […]
11 days ago
Vintage map of the Pacific Northwest, annotated to indicated the "Big Bend" of the Columbia River i...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: In search of Washington’s ‘Big Bend Country’

You may have already visited the Evergreen State’s “Big Bend Country” without even knowing you were there.
13 days ago
The Harvester King was one of two vessels converted into car ferries for the initial phase of servi...
Feliks Banel

Will Anacortes-Sidney ferry return with belated centennial celebration?

The Anacortes to Sidney ferry – which connects Washington and Vancouver Island – has been shut down for more than two years because of the pandemic.
15 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
Experience Anacortes

Coastal Christmas Celebration Week in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
All Over The Map: Who named the ‘Inland Empire?’