Sunday, January 9, 2011

Step into the Past at Port Townsend

It was supposed to be Seattle. With its strategic location on Puget Sound and a strong possibility of becoming the western terminus for the new transcontinental railroad, Port Townsend was destined for fame and fortune. Many were convinced it would become the biggest and busiest port on the West Coast.
Water Street
Captain George Vancouver, while sailing around the north Pacific in 1792, was one of the first to observe the excellent location at the entrance of Puget Sound and noted the “safe and spacious harbor” in his ship’s log. He named the spot, Port Townsend after his friend, the Marquis of Townshend. The town was founded in 1851 with high hopes of becoming the New York of the West. And, for a while, Port Townsend prospered by shipping Washington timber down the coast to a booming San Francisco. Sailors, sea captains, and speculators kept the downtown commercial district hopping; while proper families built their stately Victorian mansions on the bluff above. Times were good and bound to get better, but the Panic of 1893 led to a sharp economic downturn and the anticipated railroad never arrived. Seattle soon eclipsed Port Townsend to become the preeminent Puget Sound port and metropolis. Folks moved on in search of better prospects and the town languished for decades. The fancy Victorian homes were chopped up into apartments and many buildings in the downtown stood empty for years.
In the 1970s, the town was “rediscovered” by counter-culture folks and artists drawn to the town’s off-the-beaten-path and inexpensive lifestyle. Developers and architecture aficionados also took notice. Downtown commercial buildings were revitalized, and abandoned Victorian houses renovated and reinvented as bed and breakfast inns.
Today, much of the town is a designated a National Historic Landmark. Its location at the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula makes it a logical gateway to that area, and the town’s handsome architecture, shops, boutiques, restaurants, and pubs attract over one-million visitors annually.
Port Townsend is a good place to visit on foot. While you can drive there (about 100 miles north of Olympia), it’s more fun to arrive via the Washington State Ferry from Keystone on Whidbey Island.
 The fare is a bargain at $2.75 ($1.35 for the over-65 public) as a walk-on passenger and the scenic, 35-minute ride provides a good look at Puget Sound and its wooded islands. The ferry terminal is right downtown, making it easy to explore without a car. Grab a walking tour map from the Visitor Center and begin with a stroll down Water Street. While items in the boutique and gallery windows may catch your eye, be sure to look above the first story for a closer inspection of the impressive brick and cast-iron facades of these commercial buildings. Stop in at Elevated Ice Cream Parlor (631 Water St.) for a cone of homemade, Swiss Orange Chocolate Chip ice-cream before heading up the bluff to Uptown Port Townsend.

Starrett House
Here you will find a residential area dotted with well-preserved, historic houses and churches, most dating back to the 1880s and 1890s. Not to be missed is the Queen Ann mansion called the Ann Starrett House (744 Clay St.). Built in 1889 by George Starrett, a prosperous carpenter and architect, for his wife, this spectacular structure cost $6000. It now operates as a hotel and appears to be for sale (probably for more than $6000).

While a number of homes have been converted to inns or bed and breakfasts, most are private residences. The Rothschild house, at the corner of Jefferson and Taylor, is one property open to the public. Operated as a museum by the Jefferson County Historical Society, it provides a good glimpse of the life of a wealthy town merchant. Twice a year, several other homes open their doors to the public during the Victorian Festival in March and the Historic Homes Tour in late September.
Port Townsend celebrates its maritime heritage each September with its annual Wooden Boat Festival. The event, held this year from September 9 to 11, is the largest in the U.S. with nearly 300 wooden boats from schooners to kayaks.

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