The Biggest Port that Never Was

Published: April 25th 2012
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Maritime artifactsMaritime artifactsMaritime artifacts

Maritime artifacts from the 1870s, when Port Townsend was the largest town in Washington Territory
The founders of Port Townsend in 1850, Alfred Plummer, Charles Bachelder, Francis Pettygrove, and Loren Hastings, believed they had an unbeatable opportunity.

Their new port sat directly on the mouth of Puget Sound, the most important harbor north of San Francisco.

They intended their town to be the largest in the Pacific Northwest.

For a while, things went just as planned.

Merchant ships docked by the thousands, and traders became rich.

They built a whole series of Victorian buildings downtown, done in bricks to show their wealth (timber was readily available and cheap; bricks had to be imported and were expensive).

Then, the Northern Pacific railroad reached Puget Sound in 1873.

The railroad planners set their terminal at Tacoma on the other side of the sound, because it was easier to reach.

The leaders of Fort Townsend realized they were in trouble (see The City of Sunshine), and quickly financed a railroad of their own to Tacoma, the Port Townsend Southern.

Construction proceeded at a slow pace.

A stock market crash in 1893 proceeded to wipe out both their wealth and the railroad, and Port Townsend’s fortunes sunk soon afterward.

It became a well preserved Victorian relic, the grand port
Port Washington jailPort Washington jailPort Washington jail

The jails where many people spent the night in the late 1800s, including (supposedly) a young Jack London
that never was.

Jefferson County History Museum

The history of the town, and early seafaring in the area, is described by the Jefferson County History Museum.

It is located in City Hall in what used to be the police department.

City Hall itself is a grand brick building that dates to the town’s heyday.

The first part of the museum covers settlement in the area.

People know about the British and the Americans, but the Spanish and Russians also sent explorers to the area.

Eventually both Britain and the United States claimed the area drained by the Columbia River.

The two countries nearly fought a war over it, until they agreed to compromise and split the claims in 1846.

The United States half ultimately became the states of Oregon and Washington.

Port Townsend was founded soon after the treaty, in 1850, making it one of the oldest permanent settlements in Washington State.

The port thrived on fishing and trade with China.

Settlement really boomed after the Navy designated Port Townsend a Port of Call in 1854, which required all ships entering Puget Sound to stop and pay customs duty.
Downtown Port TownsendDowntown Port TownsendDowntown Port Townsend

Typical Victorian building in downtown Port Townsend

The museum has an entire section on this practice, which involved as much bribery as actual payments.

During this era, Port Townsend attracted a large number of immigrants.

I noticed many parallels with another western boomtown, Deadwood (see Gold Fever).

People poured in while the economy was booming, created infrastructure for themselves, faced discrimination as things soured, and ultimately mostly left.

Like Deadwood, Port Townsend had a large Chinese community, of which little trace now remains.

Since the museum is located in what used to be a police station, it contains some things found in no other history museum.

Located in the basement is the original jail, which has been restored to the era.

This section is filled with stories of brawls, booze, and confidence tricks of all sorts.

Policemen were very busy in Port Townsend in the 1850s and 1860s; the town had a worldwide reputation as the bawdiest port on the west coast after San Francisco.

Worst of all was the practice of Shanghiing.

Merchant ships left Port Townsend regularly for China.

When captains could not fill their crews with volunteer
Seattle from Mount WalkerSeattle from Mount WalkerSeattle from Mount Walker

Downtown Seattle from the top of Mount Walker, a fairly rare view
sailors, they paid people to find them by other means.

Drunk and drugged men were kidnapped off the street at night and forced onto the boats.

The jail also has the supposed story of one young man who stopped in Port Townsend on the way to Alaska to prospect for gold and got so drunk he ended up in jail for the night.

His name was Jack London.

Next to the jail, the museum has a display on something that was widespread in the early west, but never talked about now, prostitution. (WARNING: Site may be offensive)

The oldest profession was very active in Port Townsend’s early days.

On city maps, houses of ill repute were listed as “female boarding houses”, and they were everywhere near the docks.

They hung red lanterns outside their doors, hence the name “red light district”.

Promoters presented their businesses as glamorous, but the reality was anything but.

Abuse by both promoters and clients was constant, and the local police routinely rounded people up for bribery money.

The display mentions that many participants ran away from abusive situations on farms, only to
Mount Rainer from Mount WalkerMount Rainer from Mount WalkerMount Rainer from Mount Walker

Mount Rainer, the highest peak in the Cascades, from the top of Mount Walker in the Olympic Mountains. This view appears less than ten days a year!
face equal abuse after they arrived.

On the whole, the display is a balanced look at a difficult subject.

Most regional history museums contain some rather quirky exhibits, and Port Townsend is no exception.

The quirkiest has to be a large display of buttons.

They were collected by a local resident, who then donated them to the museum.

The museum also has a large display of carpenter’s tools.

They all belonged to one man in the early 1900s who used them to build many of the houses which still exist in town.

Port Townsend has an attractive downtown, and I spent some time wandering around.

Most of the buildings date to the Victorian era when the port was at its height.

As noted earlier, virtually everything is made of bricks.

Old ads are still painted on some of the buildings.

These days, the buildings mostly hold art galleries and some really good restaurants.

On the bluff above sits a long line of Victorian houses.

Once people earned some money, they built their houses here to avoid the “moral decay” of
Olympics from Mount WalkerOlympics from Mount WalkerOlympics from Mount Walker

View of the Olympic Mountains from Mount Walker. The closest mountains block a view of the central peaks.
life near the docks.

The most notable building is the Fire Department Bell Tower from 1890.

As the name should imply, people used it to summon the fire department.

Mount Walker and Puget Sound

After Port Townsend, I had some time free, so I spent it exploring the eastern side of the Olympic Mountains.

This side gets the least amount of rain on the peninsula.

The first thing I explored was Mount Walker.

This outlier of the Olympics is much shorter than the main peaks in the range, but it makes up for it by sitting directly on the shore of Puget Sound.

The view should be fantastic.

A dirt road leads to the top of the peak.

Anyone who finds Hurricane Ridge difficult should stay far away from this one, because the road is one lane wide, steep, washboarded in many places, filled with potholes in others, and has no guardrails.

The reward for this hair rising drive is a pair of overlooks on top, one looking north and the other south.

Between them they give a full view of the area.

The view of the
Rocky Brook FallsRocky Brook FallsRocky Brook Falls

The prettiest waterfall in the Olympic Mountains
Olympics is not very good because mountains near this one block a view of the central peaks.

The jaw dropping vista is the other direction.

If the weather cooperates, most of Puget Sound appears in the view!

Seattle was clearly visible across the water, its office towers and the Space Needle gleaming in the sun.

If the weather really cooperates a series of jagged peaks appears behind the city, the Cascades.

This day, two very large conic mountains covered in snow appeared on the horizon, looking like a mirage.

They are Mount Baker and Mount Rainer, and seeing them from the Olympics is a rare treat indeed.

Rocky Brook Falls

Next up was the best waterfall in the Olympics, Rocky Brook Falls.

A paved backwoods road leads to an unmarked parking lot next to a bridge.

A trail heads into the woods here, next to an old power plant.

It quickly leads to the waterfall.

The place is obscure enough I would not have found it without my guidebook.

The hunt was worth it.

The waterfall is a tall and very steep slide down a rock wall.
Big Quilcene River Big Quilcene River Big Quilcene River

The gorge of the Big Quilcene River

Different parts of the water hit little ledges and splashed out over the rock.

Others slid down the rock face in waves.

The waterfall spreads out as it falls, creating a beautiful feathery waterfall.

My last item was a river gorge, the Big Quilcene River.

The trailhead lies at the back of a campground between the river and the road, Falls View.

Two trails head out from the parking lot.

The first gives a view from the rim of the gorge.

The gorge is granite surrounded by pine trees.

About half way along the trail, a side stream drops directly down the far wall of the gorge into the river.

Officially, it has no name, although my guidebook calls it Falls View Falls.

The other trail heads into a ravine on a series of steep switchbacks.

It soon reaches the bottom, carpeted by alder trees with hanging moss.

The ravine leads to the gorge, and I ended up on the river bank.

From here, the water is mesmerizing, blue-green color surrounded by grey rocks.

The trail continues quite a ways along the river, but I turned around at this point.

Hood Canal Floating Bridge

After the gorge, I headed west.

This meant tangling (and that is the right word) with one of the area’s human engineering feats, the Hood Canal Floating Bridge.

In the 1940s, the state of Washington planned a large series of bridges across Puget Sound to connect the various islands.

Hood Canal was one of the first.

The bridge really does float, on a series of pontoons.

The bridge is also narrow and caries a high traffic load, so it is notorious for its backups.

It also proved far more expensive than the ferry service it replaced, so the overall scheme was dropped.

On a clear day, the view from the bridge is truly special.

The Cascade Mountains stretch on the horizon on one side, and the Olympic Mountains dominate the view on the other.

I had to force myself to look at the road so I wouldn’t crash.

After much driving, I ended up in the little town of Manchester.

The town has a picturesque state park, where I spent the night.


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