Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 24, 2016

The Old Port Comes to Life: Port Townsend, Washington

As the 19th Century began, the Pacific Northwest of the United States was becoming more populous, and there was a steady increase in oceangoing traffic to and from the Puget Sound area, in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the very tip of the Olympic Peninsula, a virtual gateway to the Sound, was an ideal deep water harbor that became a busy port: Port Townsend (red flag).


(Please see end of article for key to colored circles.)

The town grew prosperous, and by the 1870s and ’80s, Main Street was lined with impressive brick buildings.


Port Townsend’s future glowed with promise. The Northern Pacific Railroad planned a line to connect the port to Portland, Oregon. Financial investment in Port Townsend swelled.


Then, the Panic of 1893 resulted in one of the most severe depressions in history, lasting until 1897. With the failure of financing, the railroad stopped at Tumwater, near the southern end of the Sound. Shipping in and out of Port Townsend declined radically, businesses closed, people left. Tacoma and Seattle became the principal ports of the Sound, and Port Townsend faded.

Port Townsend clung to life and started reviving in the 1920s, but never fully regained its momentum. There was a hidden benefit as the decades passed with the town merely running in place: No new boom times meant no urge to tear down old buildings and replace them with new ones. As a result, Port Townsend retained a lot of its 19th-Century buildings, both residential …


…. and — along the main street near the harbor, Water Street — large commercial structures, like the notable Hastings Building.


With its popularity as a tourist destination, Water Street has its share of shops catering to visitors, like Nifty Fifties, a soda fountain shop equipped with a wealth of period pieces.


The exteriors of the business district structures echo towns across America, and give Port Townsend a memorable character.

(Click on an image for full view)

Port Townsend is experiencing a moderate revival driven by a strong arts community, traditional crafts such as wooden boat building and it’s popular with retirees.

Near the north end of Water Street you can see wooden boats being constructed at the Northwest Maritime Center.


Regular ferry service connects Port Townsend with Whidbey Island, the largest island in Puget Sound.


In that view, looking southwest up Port Townsend Bay, you see the snow-capped Olympic Range, about 45 miles distant.

Water Street runs along the foot of a high bluff, visible in this view from a pier into the harbor.


On the right is Port Townsend’s bell tower, used from 1890 until the 1940s to sound the alarm to volunteer firefighters.

At the far left is the mansard-roofed Bartlett House, from 1873.

Farther to the southwest — to the left of the above photo, overlooking the town stands the 1892 Romanesque style Jefferson County courthouse with its 125-foot tower.


Not far away is a massive stone building. It was intended to serve as the customs house for the booming port, and construction began in 1889.


The building was completed in 1893, at almost the exact moment of the Panic. Financing for the railroad and numerous other local enterprises evaporated, and the vision of a massive port disappeared. The customs operation was little needed. Instead, the building still houses the post office, and the interior is a remarkable look at the postal service style of almost 125 years ago.


As I mentioned, Port Townsend is home to a significant arts community. There’s an annual blues festival, jazz festival and a film festival, among other events. I have to put in a plug for the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop, because the faculty includes Harmonica Phil Wiggins, who taught me to play harmonica many years ago in the mountains of West Virginia.

For all you writers, here’s a shop downtown you don’t want to miss.


The Writers’ Workshoppe is an absolute must-visit. 820 Water Street, Port Townsend, WA.

You can easily spend a day exploring Port Townsend, even if you’re traveling on.

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula merits at least a week of touring: mountains; rainforests; dramatically rugged coastline and landscape, wildlife and culture in abundance. I’ve written several articles about portions of the peninsula, marked on the map at the top of this post. Here are links to the blog posts:

Red Circle, upper left: Wild and remote Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the contiguous 48 states.

Yellow Circle, bottom left: Lake Quinault in Olympic National Park, where we saw bald eagles.

Green Circle, upper center: Port Angeles, where I spotted a wall mural that led to a series of posts about the spectacular but now-lost Kalakala Ferry.

Black Circle: The spectacular forest in Olympic National Park at Sol Duc Falls

Blue Circle, far upper right (“mainland” Washington, not on the peninsula): Concrete, former logging town on the edge of North Cascades National Park

Have you been to Port Townsend? What did I omit from my brief overview? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2016


  1. What vibrant, eye catching architecture! Love ❤️ it!


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: