Surprising Facts About Every State Capital
State capitals are given their designation for a variety of reasons — location, economic impact — but the same thing is true of all 50 U.S. capitals: They’re the meeting place for the state’s government. Something else they have in common? Each capital city has its own unique curiosities, from historical landmarks to geographical oddities to influential figures who once lived and made an impression there. Even if you pride yourself on knowing all 50 capitals, chances are you don’t know all of these strange facts about every state capital.
The Alabama State Capitol is also known to locals as Goat Hill. In 1820, Andrew Dexter, one of Montgomery’s founders and owner of the land, decided to reserve the particular plot for a future state house. The untended lot became overgrown, attracting free-range cattle and goats who grazed on the grass, and the pasture became known as Goat Hill. As the boundaries of Alabama eventually moved eastward, Montgomery’s location close to the state’s geographic center was a deciding factor in naming it the capital in 1846. The current capitol building houses the Goat Hill Museum, operated by the Alabama Historical Commission.
Juneau is one of the most unique U.S. state capitals. At 3,255 square miles, it’s the largest state capital by area, but remains one of the most sparsely populated (32,061 residents as of 2020) and, of course, one of the most remote. It has the distinction of being one of only two state capitals you can’t access by road (the other being Honolulu, Hawaii) — you’ll need to take a plane or ferry to get around the surrounding ice fields, waterways, and glacial mountains.
The desert doesn’t typically conjure up images of pumpkin patches, but there was a time that Phoenix’s ancient waterways were rich with crops of squash, corn, beans, and pumpkins — the latter of which almost led to the city being named Pumpkinville. That name, along with Salina and Stonewall, was nixed in favor of Phoenix, a suggestion from British traveler Darrell Duppa. While visiting the valley in 1868, Duppa likened the settlement’s growth to a mythical phoenix rising from the ashes.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock is named quite literally — after an actual little rock. In 1722, French explorer Benard de la Harpe was leading an expedition up the Arkansas River when he noticed a rock formation along the banks. He reportedly called it “la petite roche” — which translates to “the little rock” — in order to differentiate it from a larger cliff across the river. The 1818 Quapaw Line treaty referred to La Petite Roche as the Little Rock, making it the first official use of the name for the area.
Beneath the current city streets of California’s capital lies a network of underground walkways and the remnants of the original city of Sacramento. After devastating flooding tore through the Gold Rush town in the early 1860s, the streets and buildings were raised 10 to 25 feet above their original footprints throughout the 1860s and 1870s to prevent a similar fate in the future. The tunnels that remain are lined with original buildings and can be toured through the Sacramento History Museum.
Elvis Presley once took his private jet to a Denver diner just for a sandwich. The peanut butter, jam, and bacon sandwich known as the Fool’s Gold was created at the (now closed) Colorado Mine Company. It consisted of a hollowed-out sourdough loaf filled with peanut butter, blueberry jam, and a pound of bacon. During a fateful visit from Presley in 1976, restaurant staff suggested the sandwich, and the rock ‘n’ roll icon loved it so much that he later returned on his private jet straight from Graceland just to pick up sandwiches for his daughter Lisa Marie’s birthday. The sandwich was very similar to another favorite of Presley’s — the fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich that has become synonymous with the singer.
In the mid-1850s, Connecticut native Reverend Horace Bushnell conceived of a publicly funded greenspace for the city of Hartford, working with Swiss-born landscape architect Jacob Weidenmann to bring it to life. Bushnell Park became the first publicly funded public park in the U.S.; today it has a designation on the National Register of Historic Places and hosts over one million visitors every year.
Music as we know it wouldn’t be the same without Dover native Eldridge Reeves Johnson. After graduating from the Dover Boys Academy, Johnson was told he wasn’t fit for college, and that he should instead learn a trade; he did just that, spending time honing his skills as a machinist. The skills would come in handy: He later adapted Thomas Edison’s phonograph (a.k.a. the record player) into a device that allowed better ease of playback and recording, and he created systems for more easily duplicating recordings for others to enjoy. His innovations with the Victor Talking Machine Company (later sold to RCA) transformed the music industry and are on proud display at the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover.
Historians believe the first Christmas celebration in the U.S. took place in present-day Tallahassee. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived in 1539 to establish a new colony; during a winter encampment in the Anhaica village of the native Apalachee Indians, de Soto’s expedition group — which included three Catholic priests — are believed to have observed Christmas mass. The site is now a historic state park and archaeological site in Tallahassee.
Almost fifty percent of Atlanta is covered by trees — no wonder the Southern town’s nickname is “City in a Forest.” Although the city’s density has remained relatively low — approximately 3,500 people per square mile — recent population booms and expanded building permits on single-family residential lots (where most of the trees live) have threatened the renowned canopy. Citizen groups have banded together to protest the removal of the towering trees, some dating back more than 200 years.
The U.S. has just one official royal palace, and it’s in Honolulu. Iolani Palace, located in the city’s downtown, was the official residence of King Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani, who succeeded him after his death in 1891. They were the last ruling monarchs of the independent Hawaiian Kingdom before a coup led by Europeans, Americans, and local Hawaiians forced Queen Lili'uokalani out in January 1893. Iolani Palace, with its Italian renaissance-inspired architecture, was then used for government offices, and can currently be toured in all its restored royal glory.
When in Idaho, you could simply eat some of the famous potatoes the state is known for, but why not go to Boise and stay overnight inside a giant potato hotel? The six-ton statue was originally created in 2012 by the Idaho Potato Commission as a touring marketing stunt, and in 2019, was turned into a surprisingly tasteful, livable space. The Big Idaho Potato Hotel sits on 400 acres of beautiful farmland complete with a converted silo spa and a pet cow who roams the grounds.
Where Abraham Lincoln got his political start, Springfield is home to more Lincoln historical sites than anywhere else in the U.S. Among the attractions in the “Land of Lincoln” are the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; his family house and neighborhood, which has been restored to look like it did in the 19th century; his local law office; and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site in the Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Lincoln and his family were laid to rest. A bronze bust of Lincoln sits at the tomb, where people are encouraged to rub the well-worn nose for good luck.
Much to the chagrin of locals, Indianapolis has been dubbed “Naptown” over the years for its slow-paced, sleepy reputation. The name originated with local blues musician Leroy Carr, who in 1929 sang of the “Naptown Blues.” Over the years, local radio DJs and business owners tried to reclaim it as a fun nickname, but as the city grew — most notably in the spotlight of the 2012 Super Bowl — residents started to view the name as not much more than an outdated jab.
Des Moines, Iowa
Until as recently as 2009, late-night dancing was illegal in Des Moines. The little-known (and rarely enforced) law applied to the wee hours between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m Monday through Saturday, and was put into place in 1942 in an effort to enforce last call at bars and clubs. It wasn’t until members of the nonprofit Des Moines Social Club tried to plan — and were denied — an after-hours party at their downtown building that the old ordinance surfaced. The city council voted to repeal the law, though don’t expect too much more local late-night dancing as a result.
One man’s trash became everyone’s treasure in the form of a Topeka art display named Truckhenge. After being pressured by the county to clean up his collection of aging vintage trucks, Ron Lessman instead half-buried the vehicles and painted their pointed-up remains with various slogans. Over time, more items were added to the property — several structures, such as a sleeping buffalo, were constructed out of beer bottles — and it’s since become a must-see grassroots folk art exhibit in the state capital.
The first ladies of Kentucky get their own special tribute in the Frankfort capitol building. Lining the halls are some 60 miniature dolls, encased in glass cabinets, each in the likeness of the wives of the state’s governors — and one doll for the state’s only female governor, Martha Layne Collins, who served from 1983 to 1987. (There is no doll of her husband.) The idea for the doll display came from a local women’s group in 1971; each first lady is custom-made and dressed in a gown to match the ones worn to their husband’s inaugural ball.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Attendees at Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium once celebrated a win so enthusiastically that they caused an earthquake. On October 8, 1988, the LSU Tigers defeated Alabama’s Auburn Tigers in an unexpected fourth-quarter comeback. The eruption from the crowd was so uproarious that it registered as an earthquake on a seismograph located approximately 1,000 feet away in LSU’s Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex. It lasted for 15 minutes, but the memory of the earth-shaking win lives on.
In the easternmost state capital in the U.S. stands the oldest surviving wooden fort in the country. Old Fort Western, located next to the Kennebec River, was built by British settlers during the French and Indian War in 1754. The fort was initially used as a military storehouse and shelter — Benedict Arnold and future Vice President Aaron Burr used the fort before heading on their expedition to capture Quebec — and later as a trading post. Today, the fort is a historical landmark.
Maryland doesn’t take crabs lightly. Not only does the state have an official crustacean (the blue crab), but the capital, Annapolis, is home to the largest crab feast in the world. Over 2,500 people attend the all-you-can-eat-and-drink extravaganza, held every August for the past 75 years, all in the name of raising money for community and cultural organizations. The feast puts an emphasis on sustainability and environmental preservation, using as many compostable dishes and cutlery as possible.
Christmas was once banned in Boston — and the entire state of Massachusetts — for over two decades. In 1659 the English Protestants who largely populated the region followed the lead of their Puritan-led English parliament and banned the holiday, insisting instead that it was a day for fasting and shame. It was considered a criminal offense to publicly celebrate; anyone caught taking time off work, partaking in feasts or any other celebratory activity would be subject to a five-shilling fine. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1681, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony overhauled some of its unfavorable laws, but public celebrations remained controversial until 1856, when Christmas became a public holiday.
Lansing residents have a couple of scammers to thank for their present-day home. In early 1836, two brothers from New York came to the area now known as REO Town to plot out a place called Biddle City. They returned to New York and sold the plots as a promising small city, complete with a church, a public square, and more. The group of 16 men who purchased land traveled to the area only to discover the promised land lay completely underwater on a floodplain. The men traveled slightly north and persevered with establishing their settlement regardless, naming it after their New York hometown — Lansing.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Beloved comedic actor Bill Murray is part-owner of the St. Paul Saints minor league baseball team. Murray has been involved in the minor-league world since an old friend, artist-turned-minor-league-owner Van Schley brought him on board in the late ‘80s. Murray co-founded the Saints with two other sports business vets, Marv Goldklang and Mike Veeck, in 1993, even handing out programs on opening night. To this day, Murray often amuses fans with appearances at games, whether in the crowd or checking tickets at the games, or, of course, throwing out the first pitch. The team has referred to Murray as their “Team Psychologist” in the past, and said his duties include "morale boosting and train spotting."
Jackson has some major history buried deep underground: An extinct volcano lies 2,900 feet below the city of nearly 200,000 people. Remnants of the Jackson Volcano aren’t easily visible from the surface, and in fact, one of the city’s major structures, the Mississippi Coliseum, is actually built over its peak. Scientists believe the site to have originally been a 420-square-mile volcanic island that’s about 70 million years old and has been extinct for at least 66 million years.
Jefferson City, Missouri
The original incarnations of several capitol buildings have been lost to fire throughout history, but in Jefferson City, Missouri, the capitol has burned down twice — once because of lightning. The first capitol building was completed in 1826 and burned down in 1837, possibly as a result of a cigar in the building’s library. In February 1911, the dome of the second structure was struck by lightning, and as the flames spread through the building’s wooden supports, the city’s underdeveloped water system and volunteer firefighters could not contain the blaze. The third and current capitol was completed in 1917; it stands in the same spot as its predecessor overlooking the Missouri River.
Residents of Helena, Montana, turn their Christmas trees into homes for fish. The “Pines for Perch” program, administered by the City of Helena and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, sees upwards of 3,500 trees dropped into the Canyon Ferry Reservoir each year. The trees create places for yellow perch — which have faced major population decline due to walleye predation — to spawn. The trees must be free of all Christmas decor, of course, before being affixed to a helicopter and dropped in the reservoir.
America’s most popular fast food restaurant owes a piece of its menu — and a great innovation in food science — to Lincoln. In 1972, Professor Roger Mandingo of the University of Nebraska received a grant from the National Pork Producers Council to create a product made of pork trimmings that could be sold in McDonald’s restaurants. He came up with a process to make what he calls “restructured meats,” resulting in the McRib sandwich. Mandingo, however, claims he did not come up with the idea to shape it like a back rib — that, he says, was all McDonald’s.
Carson City, Nevada
Carson City — named for the famed frontiersman and trapper Kit Carson — is one of only two state capital cities bordered by another state. Out in the middle of the stunning Lake Tahoe, which is just 20 miles from the city center, lies the California border. The other state capital bordered by another state? Trenton, New Jersey, which borders Pennsylvania.
Concord, New Hampshire
Every morning when you hit snooze on your alarm clock, you can thank (or curse) Concord, New Hampshire, resident Levi Hutchins. Hutchins, a clockmaker by trade, preferred to start his work day even before the roosters crowed, at 4:00 a.m. So, he affixed an extra gear to one of his brass clocks, put it inside a wooden cabinet, and attached a bell that rang when tripped by the gear early in the morning. Hutchins did not patent or attempt to mass produce his alarm, but it nonetheless became the first known mechanical alarm clock used in the U.S.
Trenton, New Jersey
Trenton, New Jersey, once served as the U.S. capital. During the American Revolutionary War, the city was the site of George Washington's first military victory when, in 1776, Washington and his army defeated the German troops stationed there. In the years that followed, the city briefly became the national capital in 1784. While it was considered as the permanent capital for the new country, the southern states weren’t in favor of a location above the Mason-Dixon line.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The oldest capital city in the U.S. (and in North America) is Santa Fe, New Mexico. The city was founded in 1610 by Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Peralta, over 100 years before America became a country. Santa Fe also houses the oldest American public building, the Palace of the Governors, and hosts the oldest community celebration in the U.S., the Santa Fe Fiesta. Santa Fe is the second-oldest city in the U.S. after St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded in 1565.
Albany, New York
Next time you stock up on toilet paper, thank Albany, New York, for those handy perforations. In July 1871, the United States Patent Office issued Albany businessman and inventor Seth Wheeler a patent for sheets of perforated wrapping paper. From there, his Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company went on to apply the easy-tear technology to toilet tissue. If it weren’t for this Albany success story, we’d still be taking individual sheets out of bundles that are held together with string.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Raleigh isn’t just the capital of North Carolina — it’s also home to a controversial statue homage to The Andy Griffith Show. The popular ‘60s sitcom took place in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. When TV Land erected the bronze Raleigh statue that depicts Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his young son Opie (Ron Howard) on their way fishing, the nearby city of Mount Airy protested. They claimed to be the actual inspiration for the TV show town (not to mention it was Griffith’s birthplace). One year later, in 2004, Mount Airy got its own monument — and Griffith even showed up for the unveiling.
Bismarck, North Dakota
The North Dakota capital’s name came from the famous German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The city hoped that the naming honor would encourage investment from the statesman for their fledgling railway, so in 1873, it was changed from Edwinton to Bismarck. While the chancellor did acknowledge the stateside gesture with a kind thank-you note, it was unfortunately the only form of gratitude he sent.
If location is indeed everything, Columbus is the place to be. A 2011 study determined that a whopping 48 percent of Americans live within 600 miles of the Ohio capital — a strong selling point for the city when trying to attract economic growth. Several major cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, and New York City, are less than a day’s drive away. When the data is expanded to include all of Ohio, half of the population of the U.S. and Canada live within 500 miles of the state.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
The Oklahoma State Capitol, located in Oklahoma City, is the only capitol building in the world with working oil wells on its grounds. The active rigs can be seen in front of a massive Greco-Roman structure; one of them is even referred to as Petunia #1 (though its legal name is Capitol Site #1) due to its drilling location in the middle of a flower bed. The wells are part of the larger Oklahoma City Oil Field.
Salem, Oregon, is home to one of the smallest city parks in the world. Measuring approximately 12 feet by 20 feet, the tiny piece of land called Waldo Park sits at the northwest corner of Union and Summer Streets NE. It contains nothing but a plaque and giant sequoia tree — yes, one of the biggest types of tree in the world. The tree was planted in 1872 by William Waldo, a prominent attorney, judge, and state senator, on what was once his property. In 1936, the tree and its surrounding ground were classified as a city park in order to save it from being lost to development.
Many state capitol buildings share marbled, domed, and pillared design elements in the style of Greek or Roman architecture, but the Pennsylvania State Capitol stood out enough to be deemed the “handsomest” state capitol President Teddy Roosevelt had ever seen. The beautiful Beaux-Arts influenced design was the work of architect Joseph Miller Huston; he was only 36 years old and had limited experience when he won a design competition to complete the building.
Providence, Rhode Island
If breakfast treats are your thing, a trip to Providence is in order — the unassuming capital of Rhode Island has more doughnut shops per capita than any other U.S. city, with 23.25 doughnut shops per 100,000 people. The city has held its sweet reputation since at least 2010; a surge of independent gourmet shops has helped it hold the high honor to this day. It’s not hard to believe that a New England state would be the winner in this competition — the Quincy, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts is only a short 40 miles away.
Columbia, South Carolina
Columbia is known as the “Soda City.” No popular soft drinks were invented nor are they manufactured in the South Carolina capital. Instead, “Cola” is a longtime local abbreviation of the name Columbia. Coca-Cola is, of course, the most popular soda around the world — and so the cola-soda association was born. The nickname, which has been most commonly used since the 1990s, is so commonplace that it’s even recognized and accepted on mail by the U.S. Postal Service.
Pierre, South Dakota
Pierre, South Dakota, named after the fur trader Pierre Chouteau Jr., is the only capital and state combination in the U.S. that doesn’t share any letters between the two names. The state capital that shares the most — in fact, all — of the letters in the state’s name is, of course, Oklahoma City, which is the capital of the state of Oklahoma.
Nashville is known by many as “Music City” thanks to its early prominence in the recording, performance, and broadcast areas of the industry — and its enduring role as the country music capital of America. The phrase, which has even become the city’s official nickname, was coined live on the radio by local DJ David Cobb. In 1960, Cobb, while ad-libbing a break between songs, said the sounds listeners were hearing on WSM radio were coming from “Music City, USA.” Cobb, along with Louie Buck and Judd Collins, was also one of the first three announcers at the famous Grand Ole Opry.
Austin lives up to its slogan “Keep Austin Weird” in many ways. For example, the city is home to Texas’ only nude beach. Hippie Hollow Park is located on the shore of Lake Travis in the northwest of the city. Locals and tourists alike flock to the beach’s rocky shoreline, surrounding greenery and crystal clear blue waters — as long as they’re 18 or older. While nudity isn’t required, as the only legally sanctioned clothing optional public park in Texas, you certainly won’t be judged for it.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City consumes more Jell-O per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. The Utah capital loves the classic jiggly dessert so much that, in the late ‘90s, when Des Moines, Iowa, briefly became the top consumer, the entire city banded together to take back their rightful title. Shortly after, in 2001, it was declared the official state snack, and when Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, a commemorative pin featuring a bowl of green Jell-O became one of the event’s most sought-after collectables.
It’s hard to think of many features as ubiquitous throughout U.S. cities as the Golden Arches, but Montpelier has the distinction of being the sole state capital without a McDonald’s. The Vermont city is the smallest state capital, with a population of only about 7,500 people, and local businesses rule the market. If locals need their fast food fix, they don’t have to go too far: They can get their McNuggets in the nearby city of Barre.
The Palladian-influenced state capitol building in Richmond was designed by Thomas Jefferson. The founding father and third president of the U.S. was a self-taught architect who, serving as America’s minister to France at the time, was inspired by the Maison Carrée building in southern France. He invoked the style as a statement of America’s independence from British architecture. Jefferson worked with architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau on the design, and the building, completed in 1788, would influence government and commercial buildings for centuries.
Earth Day has become increasingly important observance for people around the world, and in Olympia, they go all out, staging a major costume party and parade called the Procession of the Species. The community event is meant to inspire and foster an appreciation and protection of the natural world, and many of the colorful and elaborate animal and plant costumes are made of natural or recycled materials.
Charleston, West Virginia
Downtown Charleston is home to a rogue but meaningful piece of public art that inspires people every day — the Mortar Man. Hidden high up on the Gates building on Capitol Street, the tiny two-by-four-inch sculpture is the work of artist P. Joseph Mullins. As he worked on a renovation next door some 35 years ago, he carved the face out of leftover mortar and tucked him away for people to discover. Mullins has said the now-famous hidden treasure is a symbol for the working class and “represents every little man in the world.”
The University of Wisconsin Arboretum is well regarded for its work in ecological restoration — but it’s also the site of a long-abandoned and overgrown housing project. Known by locals as “The Lost City,” the early-1900s project known as Lake Forest aimed to be an early suburban escape, and was situated on the outskirts of a forest and complete with streetcar lines, playgrounds, and schools. The land, however, wasn't suitable for building, and almost as soon as construction began, structures began to sink in the marshy grounds. Eventually the land was bought by the University, and much of it became the current arboretum.
Every year during the last two weeks of July, the city of Cheyenne becomes the home of the biggest outdoor rodeo in the world. Known as Cheyenne Frontier Days, the western celebration has been in action since 1897 when an employee of the Union Pacific Railroad suggested a festival similar to Greeley, Colorado’s “Potato Day” festival. Early festivities included pony races and bronco busting; today, professional cowboys compete for millions in cash and prizes, while more than 140,000 attendees enjoy cook-offs, a midway, dancing, and more.