Port Townsend:

History & Renaissance
of a True Victorian Seaport

The famous Hastings Building in downtown Port Townsend. Built in 1890, it is one of the most photographed buildings in the city.


The bay area that is now known as Port Townsend, Washington was paid a visit by British Captain George Vancouver in 1792 during his exploration along the area in the Pacific Northwest.  The safe and protected harbor, he noted, surpassed the nearby Port Discovery which was being used at the time by the British.  He decided to name it for his friend, the Marquis of Townshend, who was a well-known British general.

When the United States sent the Exploring Expedition of 1841 to see what they had gained from the British, they came across Port Townsend and added it to their charts.  The town was officially settled in 1851 by citizens of the United States, and by the end of the 19th century Port Townsend was a major seaport in the Pacific Northwest.  

Because of its ideal location and large, safe harbor, it was an ideal place for sailing ships entering Puget Sound to stop.  The wind notoriously blew hard out of Puget Sound, so boats would stop here for respite before continuing on into the sound.  This made Port Townsend a natural place to establish a Port of Entry in the Puget Sound Customs District.


Sailboats at the beautiful Point Hudson Marina in Port Townsend


The Initial Boom

The rapid transformation of Port Townsend from a small and insignificant port to the Official Port of Entry for the area caused a great deal of speculation among businesspeople.  They wagered that it would soon become the United States’ largest harbor on the West Coast.  Investors with plenty of change to spare flooded the town in order to secure their stakes in this sure-fire deal.

As wealthy people have always done, the investors at Port Townsend wanted to exemplify their socio-economic status by building houses of great beauty for all to see.  This was the height of Victorian architecture, so the town swiftly transformed itself into the elaborate Victorian seaport that you can still see today (http://www.ptguide.com/history-a-attractions/historic-buildings).  

The major impetus to this boom had to do with getting goods from Asia to the major population base of the United States which was still on the East Coast.  Normally, these products were put on boats that had to to sail through the Indian Ocean, and then round the southern tip of Africa at Cape Horn – a notoriously dangerous route.  Many boats were lost at sea making this passage.

If, on the other hand, the boats could simply cross the Pacific to Port Townsend where the cargo could be unloaded and shipped via rail to the East Coast, that would save 12,000 dangerous miles of sea travel and replace it with the much safer and more reliable form of rail travel.

The major railroads were not far off.  By this time, rail had been running to the silver mines in nearby Idaho for some time and the rail lines were quickly advancing towards the Pacific Coast.  Logic held that the railroads would go wherever there was strong commerce as there would be money to be made by transporting goods.  

The prospect of importing good from Asia was not the only thing Port Townsend had going for it.  The local timber industry was growing rapidly and certainly the pristine and unique timber of the Pacific Northwest would make an ideal commodity for overseas trade.  As far as the investors saw it, there was no way they could lose.


Viewing Platform at Pope Marine Park on the waterfront in Port Townsend


Enticing the Railroad Companies

In 1887, keen on getting the railroad to Port Townsend as soon as possible in order to maximize their investments, some of the wealthier investors established the Port Townsend Southern Railroad Company. Their efforts were in vain, however.

Another two years passed with no railroad having made an appearance, so the town decided to build a section of rail themselves.  Perhaps if the railroad companies saw that they were willing to invest their own funds, and that once they arrived there would be existing infrastructure to which they could connect, the townspeople reasoned, it would be too good of a deal to pass up.

Investors got together and raised the money for the construction of 6 miles of railroad heading out of town.  For one reason or another, the project quickly ran out of funds and only a single mile of railroad was laid.  The project was then abandoned.

Not easily deterred, the town came up with a new idea.  In June of 1889, they created a trust fund worth $100,000 at the time – a rather tidy sum – and offered it to the railroad that first reached Port Townsend.  This was finally enough to get the interest of a railroad company, and in a month’s time they had reached an agreement with the Oregon Improvement Company.  The deal stated that the Company would receive the $100,000 if it could run tracks from Port Townsend to “any major transcontinental artery.” 

Old sign painted on the side of a building in Port Townsend


Debt Catches Up with the Railroads 

Most construction projects suffer to at lest some degree with changes to initial plans, and the project of running rail out of Port Townsend was no exception.  Delays further added to the challenges of changes to the initial plans.

To say that the railroad companies in North America had grossly over-extended themselves would be an understatement.  Massive debt had been accrued by every single major railroad company at the time as they raced one another to the Pacific Coast.  Running rail through mountains and wilderness was a wildly expensive venture.  Had they had worked cooperatively, the outcome may have been different; but, in their greed, each railroad chose to run its own separate line which simply multiplied the overall cost of bringing rail to the Pacific Coast.

Eventually, their number was up.  By 1890, railroad companies were beginning to file for bankruptcy – the Oregon Improvement Company among them.  By that time they had only completed 27 miles of track south of Port Townsend.


Back side of a building the Port Townsend Waterfront.


The Great Panic of 1893

The Great Panic of 1893 was a financial crisis of global proportions.  Initially precipitated by a crash in wheat prices in the US, and then followed closely by a coup in Argentina, a substantial run on gold was exacted on the United States Treasury by European investors who quickly converted their investments to gold before they became worthless.  Silver investors caused a second run on gold, and nearly 500 banks closed virtually overnight.  With no avenue to secure funds following the bank closures, unable to pay their employees and their creditors, the large railroads went belly-up overnight.  

This was the death knell for the investors’ dream of Port Townsend who had wagered heavily on the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.  Throughout the remainder of the 1890’s, the residents and investors of Port Townsend packed up and left town.  From their perspective, there remained no hope of building the town of which they had once dreamed.  The grand Victorian homes and businesses were simply abandoned.

Three military forts in the nearby vicinity – Fort Worden, Fort Casey, and Fort Flagler which had been established in 1897 – kept the town going through the 1920’s, even if barely so.  The timber industry from neighboring areas also helped to keep Port Townsend from becoming a ghost town.  However, in 1978 the dock that supported the loading of ships with timber was  condemned.

The town somehow managed to eek out an existence for another few decades, but when the military closed the three forts in the 1950’s, there was a second major economic downturn.


Current day Water Street in Port Townsend


What Happened to the Railway

The transcontinental railroads did make it to the West Coast, but they opted for the eastern side of Puget Sound, nearer to where Seattle is today.  In short, it was cheaper to reach the water there because it meant laying fewer miles of track, and the population base was (and still is) much higher.  As a matter of course, the Customs Port of Entry was moved to Seattle in 1911.

It wasn’t until 1915 that the 27 miles of track that had come at such a high price were finally put to use.  Instead of linking to a transcontinental line, it was joined with two neighboring port towns:  Sequim and Port Angeles to the west.  As opposed to the initial intention of using the rail for trade with Asia, it was used to transport local timber in the area – a venture in which it saw some success.

Some folks had the idea of making the railway into a passenger train.  However, in 1931 the long-awaited Olympic Loop Highway was finished, and with automobiles being all-the-rage at the time, there was little interest and the idea eventually failed.

In 1940 and 1953, the federal government extended the boundaries of Olympic National Park.  It was a move that saved pristine areas of forest for us to enjoy today, but for Port Townsend it was just another kick in the teeth.  The few remaining investors who had counted on the timber industry as their ticket to wealth realized that the expanding Park boundaries meant significantly less timber to be harvested.  Then, in 1978, the wooden dock that was made to support trains that carried lumber to ships was condemned due to instability.  The rail industry in the area came once again to a screeching halt.

Not content to let it die, other investors tried to revitalize the railway during the early 1980’s.  However, their attempts failed in the end, and in 1987 the tracks were at last pulled from the ground.  But the story of the railway doesn’t end there.

As was the case in a number of areas in the Pacific Northwest, yesterday’s rails became today’s trails. In the case of the Port Townsend railway, it became a part of the Olympic Discovery Trail.  The 130 mile long Trail, makes its way from Port Townsend on the northeast part of the Peninsula to the Pacific Ocean on the west side.  It is used by pedestrians and cyclists.  

Railways were built using the shortest and easiest paths.  Oftentimes, that meant filling in estuaries and saltwater marshes in order to lay track, and this was the case for several parts of the Port Townsend railway.  During the last 15 years, the railways and rail beds have been removed in order to restore natural habitats in the area critical for many aquatic and avian species.

Waterfront in Port Townsend


Port Townsend Renaissance  

When the 1960’s rolled around, there had been a radical shift in the American culture, and a counter-culture that disavowed mainstream everything.  Young people tried to distance themselves from their parents and the “Establishment,” but being young and not motivated by financial incentives, they were forced to find places to live that were inexpensive.

As it so happened, Port Townsend had just that – and in spades.  Writers, artists, musicians, and so-on flocked to the town to take advantage of the cheap rent, large spaces, and beautiful Victorian architecture.  It was too good to be true.

As the town continued to grown, the local Chamber of Commerce saw an opening.  It began advertising Port Townsend to the city dwellers in the Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia areas as a get-away town.  The Chamber focused on the wide variety of outdoor activities in the area, many of which were available in the  increasingly-popular Olympic National Park which was just a few minutes away.  Camping, skiing, sailing, hiking, and backpacking were all possible from Port Townsend.

The sudden uptick in popularity of the town caught the eye of investors once again.  This time, it was real estate investors who descended on the town and bought up and restored the somewhat neglected, but still in overall good-shape Victorian buildings.  Their prices were grossly undervalued, and the repairs needed were reasonable.  

Property values began to soar as more and more people came to see Port Townsend and then did not want to leave.  Where there once was an over-abundance of empty buildings, there was now a huge demand for business space and housing, and the investors who had bought the cheap properties 20 years earlier were rolling in cash.

By this time, the counter culture folks who had moved to Port Townsend in the 1960’s had aged 20 years and had mellowed out a bit.  Although they still retained their spunk and independence, they were interested in making money for their crafts.  They opened flourishing businesses along Water Street – art galleries, book stores, boutiques, and fancy restaurants.

Even the nearby Fort Worden which had been closed by the military in the 1950’s experienced its own renaissance.  In 1973 it became a state park with campgrounds for tent campers and spots for RV’ers.  Today it is a virtual Mecca for special events and large festivals, of which there are many.  Fort Worden’s vast campus can accommodate very large groups easily and its many buildings can be utilized for formal indoor events.

Shops today along Water Street in Port Townsend


A True Victorian Seaport

Sunset Magazine once referred to Port Townsend as the “Paris of the Northwest.”  It is a fitting description that summarizes the worldly, yet down-to-earth atmosphere.  Remember those counter-culture kids who showed up in the 1960’s looking for cheap rent?  Well, they never went home.  Instead, they became business owners who opened up everything from charming bed and breakfasts to fusion restaurants.  Their natural artsy nature brought numerous festivals .

Today in Port Townsend you can attend film and theatre festivals, learn to sail, go on gallery walks, take historic walking tours of the Victorian-style buildings, and more.  Ironically, Water Street used to be shunned by the well-to-do because it offered not much beyond with drinking establishments full of sailors who had had more than their fair share, brothers, and other such institutions.  Today it is now the place to be in Port Townsend.  Water Street and the surrounding area are filled with upscale restaurants and breweries, concerts on the docks, wooden boat festivals, and more.

The Port Townsend online events calendar (http://www.ptguide.com/pt-events) is a great way to get the most out of your visit.  No matter what you choose to do while there, you will be enveloped by the Victorian nature of this town.  Port Townsend is unique in that it is not a port town masquerading as a Victorian seaport as a way to draw in tourists.  It is as authentic as it gets, so instead of feeling like you have arrived at a kitschy tourist trap, you instantly sense the genuine vibe that pervades the town.  In fact, there are only three Victorian Seaports recognized by the National Register of Historic Places – and Port Townsend is on that list.

Although it had a challenging time in its early days getting its feet on the ground, Port Townsend is now a world-renowned destination with a thriving economy.  Although the railway never panned out, the roads and the ferries seemed to find their way there – as did airplanes.  No matter how you choose to get there, it is guaranteed to be a beautiful trip.

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