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Victorian Secret

April 2024
5min read

Port Townsend, Washington, is a place that residents would prefer to keep to themselves, a tranquil Victorian seaport on the Olympic Peninsula overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound. On a clear day the snow-covered peaks of the Cascade and Olympic mountains are visible in the distance, and almost every house in the center of town seems to have a view.

Water Street, Port Townsend’s main commercial thoroughfare, runs along the bay. Lining the street are handsome cast-iron buildings whose jutting cornices and narrow arched windows make them seem taller than their three or four stories. Behind Water Street is one more avenue of shops, and then a bluff rises sharply, separating the downtown from the residential district. A steep flight of steps leads up the bluff to a tidy neighborhood of two- and three-story houses, some modest, some with towers and turrets, nearly all built between 1870 and 1900.

What preserved all this Victoriana until the present day was not civic enlightenment but simple poverty. Port Townsend was born, flourished, and declined all within a few short decades, and when ruin came, it was complete. To judge by photographs published in an excellent local history, Port Townsend: Years That Are Gone (Quimper Press, $9.95), old houses weren’t repainted, much less remodeled or torn down to make room for new ones. Spared any drive for urban renewal, Port Townsend survived almost unchanged until the late 1950s, when new settlers began buying up buildings and restoring them. More noteworthy individual examples of Victorian architecture exist, but it is rare to find intact an entire community of residential and commercial buildings. In 1976 the heart of town was designated a National Historic District.

A walk to the end of Water Street past the marina will take you to Point Hudson, a grassy bank where Klallam Indians were camped when the British explorer George Vancouver sailed up the strait in 1792. He named the site for his friend the Marquess of Townshend, who had fought with Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. (The h was later dropped.) No settlers arrived until the 185Os, and when they did, they were Americans, all territory south of the forty-ninth parallel having been ceded to the United States by treaty in 1846. Indians and whites coexisted side by side long enough for the Indians to be well documented by local photographers.

A black high-prowed dugout canoe—some twenty-six feet long—serves as a monument to the Indian encampment on Point Hudson. It looks something like a Venetian gondola, and fleets of them once fished and traded off the point. By the early 1900s the Indians had been pretty well displaced to reservations. Today the land they occupied is a trailer park, which seems fitting somehow; trailers are the nomadic tents of our own era.

Standing on Point Hudson, you’re only ninety miles from the northwest tip of Washington. You can’t help imagining the pioneer families, many of them New Englanders, pushing farther west, farther north, and finally saying to themselves, here . The scenery is spectacular. The climate is mild. The rainfall is about eighteen inches a year, compared with a hundred or even two hundred inches elsewhere on the Olympic Peninsula.

The only problem the pioneers faced was finding a way to earn a living. At first they tried farming and logging, but before long they turned to the maritime trade. Port Townsend’s location at the entrance to Puget Sound gave it an advantage over towns on the eastern shore, for farther inside the sound, the winds diminished. Sailing ships carrying cargo might have to add several days onto their journey to make it to Seattle or Tacoma. In 1854 the U.S. government made Port Townsend the official port of entry and customs clearing center for Puget Sound.

Residents were overjoyed. While ships were clearing customs, their crews would come ashore and spend their wages. Saloons and brothels and more respectable businesses sprang up to serve them. Before long there was talk of extending the Northern Pacific Railroad north from Portland, Oregon. Town leaders expected the population to reach twenty thousand and planned accordingly, ordering up a courthouse and customhouse worthy of a substantial city. Both still stand, stolid Richardsonian Romanesque structures that testify to the ambitions of the age. One optimist went so far as to call Port Townsend “an inevitable New York.”

A government official named J. Ross Browne visited at the start of the boom years, and the report he sent back East suggests he may have met with a little too much boosterism. “None who have seen that remarkable city,” he begins, “can hesitate a moment to admit that it is a commercial metropolis without parallel.” The architecture, he continues deadpan, “is a mixed order of the Gothic, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The houses, of which there must be at least twenty in the city and suburbs, are built chiefly of pine boards, thatched with shingles, canvas, and wooden slabs.” The streets are “paved with sand. … The principal luxuries afforded by the market of this delightful sea-port are clams, and the carcasses of dead whales that drift ashore. … A newspaper, issued here once every six months, is printed by means of wooden types whittled out of pine knots by the Indians. … The cast-off shirts of the inhabitants answer for paper.” Browne may have been taking some license with the facts, but reading his account today, you sense a measure of truth behind the humor.

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.

—Jane Colihan TO PLAN A TRIP

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