The intrepid English Captain George Vancouver named Port Townsend’s harbor at the entrance to Puget Sound for his friend the Marquis of Townshend. According to local historian C.H. Hanford, American patriots and fur traders in 1843, anxious to hold the Oregon Territory for America, placed their fingers on Port Townsend bay as a strategic point to unfurl the American flag. From there, overland routes point to the south and the east. Also, that junction established a counter-threat to the British presence in Victoria, British Columbia. Thus began a long international struggle.
When Americans Alfred Plummer, H.C. Wilson, and George Bachelder came off the San Francisco brig George Emery, and staked claims below the future town’s vertical clay bluffs in April, 1851, they kept the name Port Townsend and applied it to a townsite. Within three years (by 1853) Port Townsend was named the official Port of Entry to Puget Sound for ships from around the world. The small clapboard Customs House was part of the “deal” negotiated by Seattle pioneers Arthur Denny and Daniel Bagley, giving Seattle the university, Walla Walla the penitentiary, and Vancouver the state capital (later changed to Olympia).
Port Townsend’s reputation in the 1860s resembled a Pacific Northwest version of Sodom and Gomorrah. The “Downtown,” was a sailor’s paradise, boasting barrooms, prostitutes, gambling and smuggling. One roving band, calling themselves the “Forty Thieves,” became famous for engaging in every sort of nefarious waterfront activity. Proper families retreated to “Uptown,” and hunkered down in beautiful Victorian mansions, many of which remain today.
Boosters in the 1870s gave Port Townsend the title: “Key City of the Sound.” It was not a hollow phrase. Port Townsend hoped that the Northern Pacific Railroad Company would choose it as their western terminus, snaking up the west side of Puget Sound to be closer to the Pacific Ocean. When Tacoma won the railroad prize, residents of Port Townsend turned to the prospect of grain shipments from the Columbia River as the key to Key City.
In the 1880s, naturalist John Muir provided a word picture of the town. “This being the port of entry, all vessels stop here, and they make a lively show about the wharves and in the bay. The winds stir the flags of every civilized nation, while the Indians, in their long-beaked canoes, glide about from ship to ship, satisfying their curiosity of trading with the crews. . . . Groups may often be seen, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Scandinavians, Germans, Moors, Japanese, and Chinese of every rank and station and style of dress and behaviour.”
The grain shipments did not come, so the boosters started shipbuilding at nearby Irondale, established a new sawmill at Hadlock, continued construction of the sturdy buildings we see today, and began planning a railroad of their own, called the Port Townsend Southern, to run down the west side of Hood Canal.
An era of land speculation roared out of Puget Sound country in the 1890s. Port Townsend got aboard. When that died out in the 1893 Panic, the Key City was spent. It was left with some of the finest homes and commercial buildings north of San Francisco, many of them empty or half-built. Those grand edifices have become another version of Key City, a quaint and colorful metropolis facing two bodies of water and gazing across at Mt. Baker.
Tourism, boating, recreation, and retirement amenities have replaced a hellbent sailor’s town and the real estate speculator’s paradise of earlier days. Summers now boom in Port Townsend, and winters bring cozy drinks, filmmakers, and festivals both in the town and at the nearby old Army Fort Worden, home of Centrum and its year-round feast of the arts and crafts. At long last, real estate prices have repaid years of hope over the railroad that never came.