December 7, 2023 in Washington

The Town Time Forgot: How Port Townsend, WA Became a 19th Century Time Capsule

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Early History

The Port Townsend area was originally inhabited by Coast Salish Native American tribes, including the Klallam, Chemakum, and Twana peoples. The Klallam made their winter home at the head of Port Townsend Bay, while the Chemakum inhabited the shorelines near Discovery Bay.

The first European explorers arrived in the late 18th century, with Spanish expeditions led by Manuel Quimper and Francisco de Eliza surveying the region in 1790 and 1791. Captain George Vancouver of Great Britain also explored and mapped the area in 1792, claiming it for Britain.

Early 19th century explorers included Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition and Captain Cadwalader Ringgold of the U.S. Navy. Both contributed to mapping and naming the region around Port Townsend Bay.

Various settlements came and went through the early 1800s, including alcohol-fueled communities like “Port Rumsend” that sprouted up around trading posts or sawmills then faded away. For decades, the Port Townsend area remained sparsely populated by both Native Americans and European settlers.

19th Century Growth

In the mid-1800s, Port Townsend experienced significant growth as more settlers arrived via ship from the east coast. Its prime location on the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula with access to Puget Sound made it an ideal seaport location.

The town became a major shipping point for trade items like lumber, as the nearby forests provided access to abundant timber. Lumber mills were constructed and became a vital part of the local economy. The port enabled the establishment of robust maritime industries.

As word spread of the area’s business opportunities, immigrants from Europe and other parts of America relocated to Port Townsend. The influx of new residents brought rapid population growth and development. Land speculation was common as businessmen aimed to profit from the town’s expansion.

Within a couple of decades, Port Townsend’s population surged from under 100 to over 5,000 residents. New buildings popped up all over town, including churches, schools, and commercial blocks. The thriving seaport was incorporated in 1860.

For a time in the late 1800s, there was even discussion of Port Townsend becoming the largest harbor on Puget Sound. The port was considered a leading contender for the terminus point of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which would have further boosted the local economy. Though the railroad ultimately ended in Tacoma, Port Townsend remained an active and prosperous seaport into the early 1900s.

Significance as a Victorian Seaport

Located on the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula overlooking the Puget Sound, Port Townsend emerged in the late 19th century as one of the most significant seaports and shipbuilding centers in the Pacific Northwest. Its location along a protected deep-water harbor made it an ideal homeport for sailing ships headed to Alaska and foreign ports across the Pacific.

During this Victorian heyday, Port Townsend was the region’s primary maritime gateway for transporting timber, minerals, and agricultural goods. Its shipyards were filled with the sounds of sawing, hammering and industry as new vessels were constructed for the thriving commerce along the coast. The town’s population boomed, grand Victorian buildings sprang up downtown, and a bustling waterfront hosted traders from around the world.

Today, over 100 historic Victorian-era buildings still stand in Port Townsend’s downtown and residential areas. This remarkably intact concentration of late 1800s architecture provides a window into the prosperity and vibrancy of Port Townsend during its golden age as a Victorian seaport. From the Northwest’s first jail and first Carnegie Library to ornate hotels, saloons, and brothels, the Victorian legacy remains at the heart of the town’s identity and charm. Port Townsend owes its enduring Victorian character to being bypassed in the early 20th century after the railroads chose other Puget Sound cities, causing the town to fall into an economic decline that ironically helped preserve its architectural heritage.

Decline of the Port

As the 1800s came to a close, Port Townsend saw a decline in its importance as a seaport. Several factors contributed to this downturn:

  • Competition from other ports – The rise of other ports in the Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle and Tacoma, drew shipping traffic away from Port Townsend. These ports had larger populations, more industry, and better rail connections, making them more attractive shipping hubs. Port Townsend struggled to compete as the railroads bypassed it.
  • Economic depression – The Panic of 1893 led to a nationwide economic depression that curtailed shipping and international trade. Port Townsend saw less activity as economic uncertainty slowed maritime commerce on the West Coast. The depression caused many businesses and factories to close or relocate.
  • Population decline – With fewer ships coming to port, many workers left to find jobs elsewhere. Port Townsend’s population declined steadily from a peak of over 5,000 in the 1890s down to around 2,000 by 1910. The exodus of residents and businesses left the waterfront quieter.

By the early 1900s, Port Townsend had fallen from its status as the predominant port in Puget Sound. The formerly bustling seaport grew much quieter, with empty storefronts lining Water Street. Though it remained an active port, it would never regain the importance it held in the late 1800s as one of the Pacific Northwest’s shipping hubs.

Preservation Efforts

Port Townsend’s historic downtown features many restored Victorian buildings due to major preservation efforts in the 1970s. The city was facing economic struggles as the port declined, with many old buildings falling into disrepair. Local citizens banded together to save the historic architecture and ambiance of this former Victorian seaport.

In 1973, Port Townsend’s downtown area was designated as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. This allowed building owners to qualify for tax incentives to renovate the aging historical structures. The downtown revitalization picked up momentum as residents, business owners, and city leaders worked to preserve Port Townsend’s Victorian charm.

Dilapidated buildings were purchased and meticulously restored to their former glory. Shop fronts were renovated, retaining their original ornamental details. Intricate wooden trimwork and gingerbread scrollwork were repaired and repainted in vibrant historically-accurate hues. Stained glass windows were uncovered and buildings regained their Victorian styling. The restoration helped Port Townsend appear almost as it did in the late 1800s when it was a thriving seaport.

The preservation efforts transformed downtown into a pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining district lined with dozens of restored Victorian-era buildings. Visitors are transported back in time as they stroll down the main streets past the ornate architecture. This commitment to preserving its past make Port Townsend one of the best examples of a Victorian seaport in the United States today.

Development of Tourism

Port Townsend has emerged as a popular tourist destination in recent decades due to its well-preserved Victorian-era architecture and natural scenic beauty.

The town’s quaint streets lined with Victorian buildings have made it an increasingly attractive getaway spot. Several historic inns and bed and breakfasts have opened to cater to tourists interested in the Victorian ambiance. The uptick in tourism led to the opening of more restaurants, cafes, galleries, and shops aimed at visitors.

Key attractions drawing tourists include the architecture of downtown’s Victorian seaport, the Fort Worden State Park located nearby, and the natural beauty of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Annual cultural events like the Port Townsend Film Festival, Centrum’s Workshop Series, and the Wooden Boat Festival also attract crowds.

Tourism became a crucial part of the local economy starting in the 1970s and 1980s as the town moved away from the declining resource industries that previously supported it. Hotels and vacation rentals have proliferated. Tourism and hospitality are now major employers. The influx of tourist dollars helped spur preservation and renovation, as many old Victorian buildings were restored.

While some worry about excessive tourism potentially detracting from Port Townsend’s charm, most agree that visitors spending money at local businesses make the town more lively and vibrant. The growth of tourism helped transform it from a fading 19th century seaport into a quaint, pedestrian-friendly destination popular for weekend getaways and vacations.

Arts Community

Port Townsend has developed a thriving arts scene and is known as a creative hub on the Olympic Peninsula. This is largely due to an influx of artists from the 1970s onward who were drawn to the Victorian seaport town for its natural beauty and historic charm.

Many artists and craftspeople opened galleries, studios, and shops in the downtown historic districts, taking advantage of the inexpensive commercial rents in buildings dating back to the late 1800s. Today, there are more than 30 art galleries as well as shops selling handmade crafts, antiques, and collectibles. The variety of galleries feature paintings, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, glass art, and more by regional artists.

Popular annual arts events include the Port Townsend Film Festival and the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes which bring in visitors. During summer weekends, there are also art and craft markets in uptown with local artists selling their creations.

The non-profit Centrum Foundation hosts various arts workshops and programs year-round, including writer’s workshops, jazz festivals, and a chamber music series. Centrum draws participants from around the country to hone their skills.

With its small-town charm, natural setting, and architecture frozen in the Victorian era, it’s easy to see why Port Townsend appeals to the creative spirit and continues to foster artistic talent within the community. The town revels in its artsy and bohemian vibe, with residents passionate about preserving historic buildings that now house an ever-growing arts scene.

Recent Times

The city of Port Townsend has undergone changes in recent decades as industries have shifted. Tourism has become a major part of the local economy, with many festivals and events aimed at visitors throughout the year like the Wooden Boat Festival. The Victorian-era downtown appeals to tourists, who also enjoy the hiking, biking, kayaking, whale watching and more in the surrounding natural areas.

Maritime trades remain an important industry, with boat building and repair still active at the Port Townsend Shipwright’s Co-op. The town is also home to maritime heritage organizations like the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

The population of Port Townsend has fluctuated over the years but has seen a gradual increase in recent times. As of the 2020 census, the population was 10,113. Demographically, the population is predominantly white at over 90%, with a median age of 54 reflecting a large retiree community. However, there are also young people and families drawn by the natural amenities, arts scene and quality of life.

The city has worked to balance the old and new through historic preservation and adaptive reuse of buildings alongside new business development, restaurants, and housing. Community events and a vibrant local culture keep the town active despite its small size. Moving forward, Port Townsend seems poised to hold onto its Victorian seaport roots while continuing to evolve.

Key Historical Figures

Port Townsend was shaped by many influential figures throughout its history. Some of the key historical figures include:

  • Captain George Vancouver: An English officer who explored and charted the northwest coast in the 1790s. He named Port Townsend after his friend, the Marquis of Townshend.
  • Albert Briggs: An early settler who arrived in the 1850s and platted much of the town. He built the first store and dock, catalyzing growth.
  • Loren Hastings: A businessman who invested heavily in Port Townsend starting in the 1880s. He financed many large brick buildings downtown.
  • John Pope: A sawmill owner and banker who spurred lumber exports starting in the 1850s. His Pope & Talbot mill dominated the economy for decades.
  • Victoria Woodhull: A pioneering suffragette who moved to Port Townsend in the 1880s after running for President. She promoted women’s rights and progressive causes.

The vision and investments of these settlers and entrepreneurs were instrumental in establishing Port Townsend as a thriving late 19th century seaport. Their leadership and accomplishments contribute to the town’s lasting regional significance.

Legacy and Significance

Port Townsend has left a lasting impact on the Puget Sound region that continues to shape the area’s culture and economy today. As one of the nation’s best examples of a Victorian seaport, Port Townsend retains much of its 19th-century charm and historic architecture. The city’s well-preserved buildings and streets give visitors a window into late 1800s life when the port was a boomtown for shipping and trade.

Port Townsend’s legacy stems from its significance as a maritime gateway to the Puget Sound. During the city’s heyday in the 1890s, the port bustled with shipbuilding activities and housed the U.S. Customs House for Puget Sound. Though it fell into decline after 1900, Port Townsend’s Victorian-era prosperity helped establish it as a major commercial and transportation hub. The city’s Victorian seaport roots remain central to its identity today.

Key historical attributes that endure in Port Townsend include its Victorian-style architecture marked by ornate details, the port’s waterfront warehouses and commercial buildings, and the visible maritime influences that shaped the city. Port Townsend retains these touches of its past more than most cities in the region, giving it a unique old-world character. The preservation of these historic sites keeps the city’s culture rooted in its legacy as a Victorian seaport. This lasting charm makes Port Townsend a popular tourist destination and inspires the city’s annual Victorian Festival. More than a century after its heyday, Port Townsend continues making the most of its heritage.




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