Thursday, January 2, 2014

Port Gamble: Where the Past is Always Present

Turn onto Rainier Avenue in Port Gamble, Washington, blink twice, and you’d swear you had been transported to a tree-lined village in New England. And, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

In 1853, Maine lumbermen, Andrew Pope and William Talbot, sailed around Puget Sound seeking the right place for a Northwest logging outpost for their successful San Francisco- based timber and shipping company. They chose a small harbor off the Hood Canal, brought in mill machinery, and constructed a saw mill, bunkhouse, store, and cookhouse. Named Port Gamble, it became one of several successful, company-owned logging towns taking advantage of the plentiful, first-growth forests around the Olympic Peninsula.

When gold was discovered in the Klondike, workers abandoned their lumber jobs to seek fortunes in Alaska. It was obvious to the company that married men would provide a more stable, dependable workforce.  Pope and Talbot sought to recruit workers from their hometown of East Machias, Maine, and to lure them into taking the long trip west, they recreated the town on the shores of Puget Sound. A proper church, school, and Victorian frame houses complete with picket fences and lawns transformed the rough sawmill town into a little bit of New England in Washington State.

The mill and town thrived and timber from Port Gamble was shipped to ports all over the world including Australia, Hawaii, and England. However, by the late 20th century, overharvesting, economic downturns, and some bad business decisions forced the company to shut down the mill in 1995. It was the oldest continuously operating mill in North America.

However, the company (now called Pope Resources) recognized the unique value of the town, and poured money into restoring the community to its former glory days.  The only remaining company owned town in Puget Sound, Port Gamble is now listed as a National Historic Landmark with tourism replacing timber as the main business.  The homes, commercial buildings, common outdoor areas, and water/sewer system are all owned by Pope Resources and are leased rather than bought and sold.

A good place to begin a visit is the General Store. In the downstairs level, is the Port Gamble Historic Museum (open May through October) where local history is interpreted through a number of realistic tableaux. On the mezzanine, is Of Sea and Shore Museum featuring a remarkable collection of seashells, part of one of the world’s largest private collections. The store, dating back to 1916, sells everything from candy to
sweatshirts, and houses an excellent restaurant serving breakfast and lunch.  Get there early as it is quite popular, but a good alternative is the award-winning Mike’s Four Star BBQ located nearby in the former service station.

The main street is lined with a number of attractive, frame homes and commercial buildings now occupied by antiques shops, retail stores, and a tearoom. You can’t miss the grandiose Walker-Ames house, next door to the General Store. The Queen Anne mansion, built for the mill manager, faces the bay so ship captains would spot it first. Today, it has a reputation for being haunted with mischievous ghosts residing in the basement.

Walker Ames House
Beyond the iconic, wooden water towers, sits the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, also a company-owned property. Built in 1879, its Gothic windows and needle spire are reminiscent of the Congregational church in East Machias, Maine. The church and a new pavilion overlooking the water have made Port Gamble an increasingly popular wedding destination.

To reach Port Gamble from the south, follow Interstate 5, US Hwy. 101 from Olympia, and Wash. Hwy. 3 past Bremerton and Silverdale. If you want the ferry experience, take the Seattle-Bainbridge Island or, further north, the Edmonds-Kingston ferry.  Other sites nearby include the neighboring town of Poulsbo known for its Norwegian roots, and the Victorian city of Port Townsend. Or, make your stop in Port Gamble a launching pad for a visit to the Olympic Peninsula.

A handy and comprehensive “Walking Tour of Historic Port Gamble” with map, photographs, and descriptions may be downloaded from the following website:

No comments:

Post a Comment