In 1890 the people of Port Townsend hoped it would be the New York of the west coast. It was already an ideal port and had a vibrant waterfront. In 1890 Port Townsend was the very first port on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Strait of Juan de Fuca was easy to navigate, even by sailing ships, and led directly to the Pacific Ocean. The port was open to deep water yet it was protected from the open sea because it was facing east.
Water Street is the main road downtown in Port Townsend and is home to the commercial area. They had the U.S. Customs Headquarters for the Washington Territory and a very productive fishing fleet. Nearby was an unlimited forest which was an ideal export product.
If you want to drive to Port Townsend from the south it is a long way starting in Tacoma or Olympia. We arrived from the north after driving down from Whidbey Island on then crossing the channel on a Washington State Ferry. Here is a link to the tale about our crossing. Our RV Floats
The army put Fort Townsend about four miles south of town. Fort Townsend’s purpose was to protect the area from possible uprisings of the displaced population of Native Americans. It was a small fort and when we visited there all we saw was the beach. Nearly everything historical on the Fort Townsend site is gone. When checking it out, I thought that given it has the same name as the town, it would have been the premiere fort in the area. I was wrong. Fort Worden, to the north, is way more impressive. Washington State turned all the historical forts in the area into Washington State Parks.
The oldest and nearly the only commercial area is downtown on Water Street. About a hundred years ago Water Street even had a trolly. What remains downtown are very nice Victorian-style buildings. Most of the pictures of buildings in this article are of buildings on Water Street.
Water Street was downtown in Port Townsend. Uptown in Port Townsend is one block away built on the bluff overlooking downtown. A hundred and fifty years ago “the gentry” in Port Townsend would not go downtown because it was a rough area. It was located right on the bay and all the commerce in the town was on Water Street.
These steel and glass rectangles on Water Street have a story behind them and can tell you about the construction of the buildings downtown. The rectangles are skylights. Below the skylights are rooms under the sidewalks. Most of the rooms, if they are still in use today, are used for storage. The glass allows light from the street level to go into and light the rooms. To prevent flooding Port Townsend built the entire downtown area well above the previous natural ground level. Now the street level is probably twenty feet higher than it was when the town was first founded.
We have seen these types of skylights in other cities and wrote about them before in the article about Pendleton Oregon. I still find the story very interesting. Don’t skip the part about the new preacher. Pendleton
Just to the north of Port Townsend were Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada, and Vancouver the largest city in Canada on the west coast. Port Townsend was the closest port to both Canada and every place to the west, all the way to Japan. Everything, according to the founders of the town, was ideal to become the largest trading post on the west coast, north of San Francisco.
Port Townsend in 1870 had the fourth largest population in the Washington Territory. Only Walla Walla, Olympia, and Seattle were larger. By 1890, the population was growing steadily although not as fast as Seattle.
Ready for a Train
The one thing that Port Townsend didn’t have was a train and this was the number one priority that would ensure success. They had everything other than the rail link to the rest of the nation. Seattle and Olympia also didn’t have a train and were also in competition for that connection. Both Seattle and Olympia were much further from the open ocean than Port Townsend.
Port Townsend built most of the old buildings pictured in this post between 1870 and 1893 anticipating huge growth. The new Post Office Building and Jefferson County Courthouse were either under construction or finished. The downtown waterfront was thriving.
The railroads had decided ten years prior that they weren’t coming to Port Townsend and to the locals, that didn’t matter. They decided that they would build their own track and connect to the rest of the nation.
Everything was looking up until a national financial meltdown known as the Panic of 1893. Money was no longer available. Port Townsend wasn’t getting a rail connection to the rest of the country and over the next few decades gradually people moved away.
If it wasn’t for the military buildup for World Wars One and Two and the establishment of the coastal defenses on the entrance to the Puget Sound, Port Townsend would have probably failed. The military buildup sustained the town in the early 1900s.
Port Townsend got a break and more jobs when a they built major paper mill south of town. Still, it was not enough to make the town big, rather it was just enough to keep it going.
Charming Port Townsend
The reason Port Townsend is charming is that it didn’t change. During our travels last fall we saw the same kind of thing in Charleston South Carolina. Here is a quick link to our story about Charleston. Charleston Charm
In both cases, when the money stopped flowing to the area the existing buildings were preserved rather than replaced. We had a wonderful visit to Port Townsend and the area. Who knew that Port Townsend was a city that seemed to be locked into a time warp of a hundred years ago? Water Street was amazing with its Victorian buildings and new vibrant atmosphere as if we were walking through a museum.