What is up with the state capitals?

When I think of the big cities of America, I think (roughly in order) New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, San Diego, etc. These are the cities people GO to. So how come not one of them is a state capital? When you look over the list of state capitols I cant think of one where I think to myself “Oh ya, I gotta go there!” As a Californian, I have to say that Sacramento has never inspired any sort of Capitolish vibe in me or any other native I know.

So what gives? Why are state capitals so… uninspiring?

Sorry for the hijack, but no Seattle? Come on, you listed Vegas, but no emerald city? The first ‘big three’ I think of are New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

We now return you to your regurarly schedule thread.

Edit: And I agree about state capitals. Washington’s is Olympia, though IIRC, it does have the distinction of having one of the higher crime rates in the state. yay?

First guess - capitol cities were chosen long before the other cities became what they are today. And they’re political centers - how exciting is that, tourist-wise? People come to DC for the Smithsonian and oh-by-the-was-there’s-the-capitol.

Secondly, a state is more than just its most famous city, and the capitol won’t necessarily reflect the characteristics of that one city. And why should it? It’s not a state in miniature.

Third, Baltimore may be the biggest city in Maryland, but Annapolis is way cool. Especially if you’re a sailor, which I am. I know that has nothing to do with your question, but I had to throw it in there.

At least in the case of New York, Albany was chosen as the capital precisely because it’s not the bustling, sexy metropolis that is NYC. In short, if NYC were the capital of New York State, it would dominate New York politics even more than it already does, and all the people who live upstate would be pushed to the sidelines. For New York, it was an equity issue.

Also, Boston, the capital of Massachusetts is a fine city, interesting to tourists and residents, and a place I’d recommend anyone visit. In fall or spring, not winter :slight_smile:

Sante Fe, the capital of New Mexico, is one of my most favorite places in the US. And I absolutely loved living in Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii, for 2 1/2 years.

Oh, and Denver, Colorado, is worth a visit, too.

I think some capitals were selected because they were in a central location and therefore most equitably accessible to state residents. That’s the case for Columbus and, IIRC for Lansing, MI (can’t remember if they were ignoring the UP or if it wasn’t part of Michigan when the capital was selected).


Often the big cities became big because they are geographically advantagous to making money. Designating them as state capitols would take much of that prime real estate out of the tax base for use as state office buildings.

The capital of Texas was moved from Houston to Austin in the mid-1800s for a similar reason. They wanted the capital to be out closer to the “western” ranchers and farmers. Back then, the area WAY out west where I grew up didn’t have much activity to speak of.

Austin is a great little city to visit if you can put up with the rest of the state.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was chosen as capital in 1812 both because it was reasonably central, given where most of the voters lived at the time, and because it wasn’t Philadelphia. Like New York City, Philadelphia was already a large city that dominated its state; no sense making it the capital and just reinforcing the imbalance.

I’ve heard some people say it was chosen because it’s half-way between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This theory has two problems with it. First, in 1812, Pittsburgh was still a small place, and I see no reason to believe anyone knew it was going to become the second power center of PA. And second, look at the map - if that’s “half-way between”, I’ll eat my hat :dubious: Way closer to Philly. And that makes sense, because Western PA was regarded as mostly wilderness in those days.

This is also an advantage for Sacramento; LA and SF already dominate the state, they don’t need more oomph. The Central Valley gets some influence, and no one remembers that anything exists at all north of Sacramento (we’re not bitter though :rolleyes: ). Though I don’t think that’s the reason it was chosen; I seem to recall that there was some cheating involved. I’ll have to look that up.

Santa Fe is the capital for long historical reasons as well. After all, it’s pretty much been the capital of the area around New Mexico for centuries and is gonna be 400 in 2010.


Stories of attempts to lure the capital to Sacramento aside, the city was very important and centrally located at the time (1850’s), in terms of population distribution in the state.

In the 1850’s, most of California’s population was (1) in the Gold Country of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains; (2) in San Francisco, which was the major port serving the state as people flooded in during the Gold Rush; and (3) centrally located in Sacramento, which was the launching point for miners headed from San Francisco to the Gold Country.

By that time, however, Sacramento had already been established as a “destination” by virtue of Sutter’s Fort, which served the pioneers well before the Gold Rush and statehood.

I should add that some people did live in SoCal in the 1850’s, but for the most part, SoCal really didn’t take off in population until a combination of (1) the railroad coming in the 1880’s; (2) oil discoveries in the 1920’s; (3) the movie industry growth in the 1930’s; (4) the midwetsern dust bowl problems in the 1930’s; and (5) the population boom of WWII.

Back when I was in high school in Massachusetts, the drinking age in VT was 18, so we headed up there. We decided since Montpelier was the capital, it would be hoppin’. Nope.

I’m in SC now, and I think most people go to Charleston or Myrtle Beach rather than Columbia.

The capital is supposed to be boring! Sheesh, who wants to send their legislator someplace where the party never stops? They are supposed to conduct business in town, then get the hell out, minimizing cost to the taxpayer and also reducing the chance of passing silly laws.

But then you go having capitals like Annapolis, or Madison, or Austin, where people actually want to be, and all bets are off.

Actually, by 1812, Pittsburgh proper already was the second center of Pennsylvania. It was a strategic military location; Ft. Pitt was established as a British, then American stronghold, and was a significant enough city that the Whiskey Rebels planned to burn it in the late 18th century. It also had a thriving manufacturing base in the form of boatbuilding and coal. It was also in an ideal geographic position since goods and coal from other parts of Western PA could travel along the river systems to the Midwest. It’s true that much of Western PA was (and still is) fairly rural, but that’s not true of Pittsburgh. You’re right that the isolation probably killed its chance of becoming the state capital.


Maryland’s capital, Annapolis, is a bit of an odd case in that it’s much more of a Federal city than a state one. Sure, the center of state administration is there, but so is the Naval Academy. There are a few good laid back places, mostly owing to being on the water, but the big party time is up in Baltimore or down in DC (which is both a major administrative center and a fun place).

The story I heard was that Shay’s Rebellion (in the US, after the revolution but before the Constitutional Convention) started partly because farmers in Western Massachucettes felt disenfranchised as it was difficult for their representitives to make it to the capital in Boston to vote on bills that effected them, especially as most of them needed to stay somewhat close to their farms. Seeing the discontent this caused, some other states made an effort to locate their legislative buildings in towns that were more centrally located and closer to rural areas.

I have no idea if the story is true, though, I can’t remember where I read it now.

I’ve heard that the lack of bustling is the reason the capitol of California hasn’t been changed form Sacramento to San Francisco.
There actually was a time when Sacramento was a 24 hour city and had a lot to offer. I want to say it was in the 1920’s but I’m not certain. My understanding is that its become a “cow-town” over time because of bad choices by city officials.

I knew I would forget one or two, so I weaseled out and threw in the ‘etc’ to hedge my bets. Consider Seattle added to the list, certainly ahead of San Diego. As Bill Simmons accurately pointed out, between Microsoft et al tech companies, grunge music, Starbucks, and movies about those things, Seattle might have made the most significant pop-culture contributions over the last 20 years.

Siam Sam, I’ve never been to Santa Fe. What are some of the things you like about it? And for the record I have been to Austin and had a fantastic time. That is one capital that breaks the mold. Honolulu doesn’t get credit because you could make a shack on the beach in Hawaii the capital and it would still rule. I’ll grudgingly give Boston credit even though I have a major personal vendetta against that city. Denver I will admit to being ignorant about. What do you in Denver when you are not dead? I’ll give a little love to Hot-lanta, I had fun when I visited there briefly.

But I still think it is odd. All the good arguments posited here aside, I think a state capital should be a city where you go and say “Damn, this place is the SPOT.” If I knew nothing of America, just landed here, wanted to go where the action is, my first instinct would be to go the capital of whatever state I was in.