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5 Most Surprising Stories About How Cities Became Their State Capitals

Bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to selecting a capital town

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Statue of a young Abraham Lincoln in downtown Springfield, Illinois.
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The last time you were quizzed on the names of state capitals was probably in elementary school. The ones that always stumped me were the states in which the capital is not the biggest city. It’s easy to remember that Boston is the capital of Massachusetts. But why isn’t New York City the capital of New York or Chicago the capital of Illinois?

Here are five surprising origin stories of state capitals.

1. Pennsylvania

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Aerial Perspective Harrisburg state capital of Pennsylvania along on the Susquehanna River - Afternoon light hits the buildings and downtown city center area in Pennsylvania state capital at Harrisburg.
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If asked to name the capital city of Pennsylvania, most people who live outside the state would probably guess it’s Philadelphia. The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, and the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed there. Often called the “birthplace of America,” Philadelphia seems like a perfect location for a state capital.

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The actual capital, though, is a small city called Harrisburg. 

How did Harrisburg steal the capital crown from Philadelphia? The answer goes back to the founding of our nation.

From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia served as the U.S. capital, before that designation moved to Washington. Sharing posed problems, and in 1799, Pennsylvania moved its capital to Lancaster.

The move proved short-lived. The problem with Lancaster was that it took two weeks by horse-drawn carriage to get there from the farthest reaches of the state. After a businessman donated 4 acres of land in what is now Harrisburg, the capital moved there. Harrisburg sold itself by being centrally located.

2. Alaska

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Shops line Franklin Street in a tourist area in Juneau, Alaska.

Juneau takes the cake as the most inaccessible state capital. Nestled at the base of steep mountains along the coast of Alaska’s panhandle, Juneau is technically on the mainland, but the rugged terrain makes it impossible to get to by car. You can only get there by boat or plane.

Juneau was founded as a gold rush town. It officially became the capital of the Alaska territory in 1900, at a time before Anchorage, the largest city, was founded. Alaska joined the union as the 49th state in 1959. A year later, calls to move the capital started.

Because of Juneau’s remote location — a 41-hour ferry ride or one-hour plane ride from Anchorage — there have been 10 ballot initiatives and several legislative attempts to move the capital to a more central location. The most recent of these was in 2022. They are unlikely to cease.

3. New York

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The New York State Capitol Building in Albany, New York is over 125 years old.
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New York City is the biggest city in the country — the center of finance and the arts and the “city that never sleeps” — but it’s not New York’s capital. That honor goes to Albany.

The first New York capital was Kingston, on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. In 1777, officials in Kingston declared New York a sovereign state and convened the first legislature there. A month later, British troops burned Kingston to the ground.

The New York State Legislature convened in New York City, Poughkeepsie and Albany in the following years. In 1797, Albany was established as the permanent capital for its central location and its history as a military hub.

4. Illinois

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Aerial Perspective Harrisburg state capital of Pennsylvania along on the Susquehanna River.
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The story of how Springfield became the capital of Illinois is also the story of the rise of its most famous resident: Abraham Lincoln.

In 1837, Lincoln and a group of eight state legislators — known as the “Long Nine” for their commanding height — led the fight to move the capital to Springfield from Vandalia. Illinois’ capital had already moved once.

Sen. Stephen Douglas — of the famous Lincoln-Douglas slavery debates — opposed the move and accused Lincoln and his group of trading votes.

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“They used every exertion and made every sacrifice to secure the passage of the bill,” Douglas said.

Lincoln prevailed, raising his star in the process.

5. Idaho

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The Boise, Idaho city skyline with colorful trees in the fall season.
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The original capital of Idaho was Lewiston, a city in the northern panhandle of the state. Residents of Lewiston still lament losing the capital to Boise — and they didn’t give it up without a fight!

After prospectors struck gold in the Boise Basin in 1862, Boise eclipsed Lewiston in population. In 1864, Boise legislators won a vote to move the capital there.

Lewiston fought the move in court. City leaders locked the territorial seal and papers in the Lewiston jail, so Boise representatives couldn’t move them to the new capital.

Tensions escalated even further when the Idaho governor, a Lewiston resident, traveled out of state for a duck hunt. The acting governor, a wealthy Boise resident, paid federal troops from a nearby fort to accompany him to Lewiston to retrieve the jailed papers and seal.

Lewiston took the capital dispute all the way to the Supreme Court. Boise won the case, and the capital has remained Boise ever since.

Share your experience: Do you know how your state capital came to be? Tell us your version in the comments below.

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