July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
For a gentler picture of town life in its early days, plan to spend an hour or so at the Jefferson County Historical Museum, located just off Water Street. It houses a wonderfully miscellaneous collection of artifacts, including a display of napkin rings made of ivory, tortoiseshell, silver, and jade. Emilie Rothschild, the young daughter of one of the pioneer families, collected them, and knowing of her interest, sea captains brought them to her from all over the world. Also on rotating exhibit are some forty or fifty photographs by a turn-of-the-century Port Townsend banker and photographer named James McCurdy. Recently printed from his glass-plate negatives, they record the picnics and camping trips of a century ago with crisp immediacy.
By 1890 Port Townsend’s population had reached seven thousand. Then its luck began to change. When steam replaced sail, ships bypassed Port Townsend for Seattle and Tacoma, which had better rail connections with the rest of the country. The Northern Pacific never built the extension it had talked about, and local efforts to finance a line ended in failure. Hope returned in 1898, when the U.S. Army began constructing Fort Worden on nearby Point Wilson as part of a network of harbor defenses, but the few troops stationed there never made much impact on the local economy. In 1911 the port of entry was transferred to Seattle, and Port Townsend slipped into obscurity.
You can’t help imagining the pioneer families pushing farther west, farther north, until saying to themselves, here .
Today the population remains at about seven thousand, thanks in part to the perennial problem of how to earn a living. Some people manage to find work at a nearby paper mill, or in the arts, or in the cafés and bookstores that have sprung up to serve the tourist trade. Many residents have to create their own jobs and work at more than one. A recent arrival from the Midwest gives walking tours for a few dollars. From under the broad brim of a straw hat, she speaks of the town’s legends and landmarks, revealing in the process her hope that no more newcomers will take up residence in Port Townsend. After a year in town she considers herself a native and joins all the others in wanting to shut the gate.
Travelers, fortunately, are still made to feel welcome. I visited last September, timing my stay to coincide with the annual Wooden Boat Festival. Not all the vessels that crowd the marina are the square-riggers of a century ago, but enough schooners and gaff-rigged sloops assemble to produce a cheerful chaos of spars and rigging. There are demonstrations of boatbuilding and sailmaking, and you can tour some of the larger boats. I particularly liked the ninety-three-foot houseboat cruiser Lotus . Built in 1909, its numerous small cabins are fitted out with the same faintly rumpled charm as the houses on the bluff in town.
The sun shone brightest on the last day of the weekend. Somebody aboard one of the boats was picking out songs on a banjo. Children were clambering in and out of a giant papier-mâché salmon. Adults strolled around in a slow, self-aware, late-sixties sort of way, their dogs, wearing bandannas for collars, trotting beside them. The festival’s organizers may not have aimed at any deliberate evocation of times past, but for several days Port Townsend felt like the boom town it was when it was a port of entry. After the festival ended, the locals liked having the town to themselves again, and the few tourists who lingered for a day or two liked feeling like locals.