Emerging from its Time Warp: The Once and Future Port Gamble


Port Gamble, the picturesque mill town and popular stopover en route to the Olympic Peninsula, is about to experience something it hasn’t in decades: Growth.

And lots of it.  Over the next few years, developers will converge on the sedate, 19th century village, erecting more than 250 homes, plus commercial buildings, a sports complex, a sewage plant and possibly a 100-room hotel. The town population will increase dramatically, as will business and traffic.

The timber company that owns and manages Port Gamble believes this can be done while preserving the essential character of a major historic landmark. How well they do this promises to be a fascinating case study of exurban growth management, an attempt to balance the interests of housing, recreation, and historic preservation.

Port Gamble is an authentic regional gem — Some three dozen 19th century homes, a steepled church, general store, specialty shops and a community theater – surrounded by verdant lawns and whitewashed picket fences. In the summer it’s a popular spot for weddings and weekend festivals ranging from renaissance fairs to classic car shows and an annual gathering of ghostbusters.

As suburban Kitsap County has sprawled a few miles to the south, this company town has remained frozen in time, a postcard-like reminder of an idyllic Puget Sound landscape as it might have looked in the 1800s.

Port Gamble was founded in 1853 by Andrew Pope and William Talbot, New England timber entrepreneurs who built a sawmill to produce lumber for the California gold rush.  The townsite they selected, at the mouth of a small bay at the north end of the Kitsap Peninsula, had been occupied for centuries by the S’Klallam tribe, who were summarily evicted and forced to move to a new site across the bay.

The architecture and layout of the town were modeled on Pope and Talbot’s hometown in coastal Maine. Company towns were not uncommon in the 19th century Pacific Northwest.  While timber was plentiful and cheap, labor was scarce. To lure workers, mill operators needed to provide homes, roads, stores, schools,  transportation and more.

Most of those company towns closed down decades ago.  But Port Gamble persisted, fed by Pope’s vast timber holdings across the region. As recently as the 1980s, it was a thriving town with scores of homes and shops in the shadow of the enormous plant that sustained them, all encompassed by timberlands to the south and rafts of sawlogs anchored along the shoreline.

That mill produced lumber, smoke and steam for some 140 years, making it the nation’s longest operating mill until it closed in 1995. The company dismantled the mill, then set about cleaning up the polluted bay while deciding what to do with the townsite and its surrounding timberlands.

Pope Resources, a spinoff successor to Pope and Talbot, launched a development plan, which proved to be far more complicated than they could have imagined.  Pope’s town and thousands of acres of timberlands were of interest to an array of groups.  The S’Klallam Tribe had a deep, ancestral interest in those lands, and had the resources and sophistication to press its case.  Environmentalists argued for preservation of forestlands in Seattle’s back yard.   Hikers and bikers wanted access to miles of wooded trails.  And Kitsap County wanted to balance the region’s need for housing and for open space.

As uncontested landowners, Pope seemed to be in the driver’s seat. And the company hired Jon Rose in 2002 to manage the process.  Rose knew it would take time, “but I had no idea,” he recalls. 

An early proposal for 1,200 homes, commercial districts and a marina might have seemed reasonable given the thousands of acres in play, but it faced stiff opposition and proved dead on arrival, sending Pope back to the drawing boards. 

Rose organized the townsite itself, renovating and renting homes and shops while adding an event venue on the bluff overlooking the sound.  Eventually, the site became self-supporting, with rental and event income covering the costs.

Meanwhile, Rose and other Pope officials reached out to the various interest groups – especially the tribe, which aired 150 years worth of claims and grievances.

“We had good times and bad times,” Rose says. “The key is listening, and respect.   When you’re a young hard charger, you don’t listen well.  When you learn to respect each other, it’s easier to listen.”

Over time, this led to a series of significant concessions.  Pope returned a long-forgotten S’Klallam cemetery to the tribe, then sold 900 acres of woodlands along with development rights to part of mill site that had once been the S’Klallam village.

There were similar negotiations with conservation groups, hikers and mountain bikers. “The timetable was daunting,” Rose says. “But you learn there is no way to speed up.  It’s like pushing rope.”

But Rose relished the challenges. “How many people in my profession get the opportunity to restore an authentic 19th century town?” he asks. “There is no instruction book.  You learn as you go.”

As the uncontested landowner, Pope set the agenda. Rose contrasts his situation with state officials who run Fort Worden, the huge state park adjacent to Port Townsend a few miles to the north.  Fort Worden offers a similar array of assets – waterfront, woodlands and historic buildings.  But park officials were frustrated by conflicting laws and economics, many of them attached to some 100 aging buildings.  Some are worth restoring, others are not, but state law doesn’t recognize the difference. 

Pope didn’t have that problem.  They preserved what they wanted — the general store, the church and some handsome homes.  The others are long gone.

Corporate culture was another huge factor in the development, says Eric Baker, the deputy Kitsap County commissioner who has worked with Port Gamble for many years.  After 170 years, Pope Resources remained largely in the control of Pope family descendants who influenced the negotiations. “They moved the needle,” Baker says. “It’s a story of public-private collaboration.”.

Three years ago, an agreement seemed near.  Then came the pandemic and the shutdown.  Just weeks later, Pope Resources was acquired by Rayonier Inc for $554 million.  A quiet family company headquartered in nearby Poulsbo appeared to be at risk of being swallowed by a multinational corporation based in Florida.

Rayonier, however, took Pope CEO David Nunes on as its own chief exec, and retained Jon Rose to run its property arm, Raydient, making it clear that they intended to close the deal. “That was crucial,” Baker says. “It kept the train on the same tracks.”

With the S’Klallam Tribe and other interest groups warily on board, Port Gamble is about to be transformed.   Raydient will “do the hard stuff,” says Rose, including the permitting and construction of a new residential road parallel to the highway. Then the townsite will be turned over to one or more developers to build some 250 homes, commercial buildings and more.   Plans include a mountain bike park and an area set aside for small farms, a winery and cidery.  Ultimately, Port Gamble will cease to be a company town. 

Kitsap County acquires 3,500 acres of previously logged Pope timberlands which will be developed into a rustic woodland park, with trails and parking areas.  Rayonier, however, will hold onto timber rights to selected areas, enabling the company to do limited logging in the future. 

For the moment, it looks like a happy ending to 20 years of give and take.  The S’Klallam Tribe gets a cleaned up bay and much of its ancestral village site.  Hikers and conservationists get rich forestlands close to home.  The county gets open space and housing and new tax revenues. And, topping it off, the timber company still gets to harvest trees.  

As land use stories go, it all sounds too good to be true, so it probably is.  But Port Gamble is well worth watching and keeping. 

Ross Anderson
Ross Andersonhttps://rainshadownorthwest.com/
Ross Anderson is a founding member of the Rainshadow Journal collective. He retired to Port Townsend after 30 years of journalism at the Seattle Times.


  1. Excellent article Ross. My grandfather and uncle both worked at the mill so Port Gamble has long been a part of our family culture. This plan does almost seem to good to be true. One element that missing is the future of the Highway. With the nearby Hood Canal bridge cluster muck rendering the related transportation network insufferable during the summer tourist season, neglecting the Port Gamble section could contribute to the terrible traffic congestion. Roundabouts in Gamble and at each end of the bridge would go a long way towards providing a cost effective alternative to the current mess.

    • Good point. My understanding is the highway route through town will remain, including that 90 degree turn. And I believe a roundabout is planned for the west end of the Hood Canal bridge, at that intersection with the road to Port Ludlow.

  2. Nice piece, Ross. After college, I tried to get on at the mill. Luckily, I was never called up. While waiting with others, I noticed many of the older day workers were missing fingers. Mill work was dangerous.

  3. My suggestion, as with Port Townsend, is to consider a connection with Seattle users: conferences, summer festivals, a destination restaurant, youth camps for the arts.

  4. One or two developers for 250 homes sounds like those buildings will be quite similar, one from the other. Diversity in housing makes for a much more interesting town, drawing more diverse homeowners. Developments with House Models A – F, will look like Levittown, NY and Levittown, Penn. (Google them). “Levitt and Sons only built six models of houses in Levittown, all single-family dwellings with lawns: the Levittowner, the Rancher, the Jubilee, the Pennsylvanian, the Colonial and the Country Clubber, with only modest exterior variations within each model.” Yuck!

  5. So, as I understand, Seattites looking for a second home, or retirees with no expectations of services will rejuvenate this area.
    If you like this idea, i have some land that is cheaper south of Montesano.

  6. Ross, you neglected to mention that the 250 homes and recreation facility would not be in Port Gamble, but down on Port Gamble Rd between Bond Rd. and Hwy 104. That is currently zoned Rural Wooded 20, and the Raydient/Rotary/YMCA consortium has applied for conversion for Rural Residential 5 plus one Rural Commercial 20. The tribes are opposed, Poulsbo is opposed, the development would be outside any Urban Growth Boundary, several Critical Areas, Port Gamble Creek and aquifer recharge would be impacted, wildlife habitat would be lost, and there’s no allowance (or funds) for the increased traffic on already heavily traveled 2 lane highways. Plus Poulsbo has had plans for a recreational complex up by Ohalva planned for 25 years, and is just starting the project. Lastly given Pope/Raydient’s track record, the homes would not be affordable. See the Arborwood development near Kingston for a comparison. 750 total $600-750K homes on rural backroads, with little infrastructure support.

  7. Ross, thank you for writing an article about North Kitsap County’s “authentic regional gem”. In your last two sentences, you state that Port Gamble is worth watching and keeping and “as land use stories go, it all sounds too good to be true, so it probably is.” As one of many residents of North Kitsap County, I couldn’t agree with you more that Port Gamble is worth watching and keeping. However, the land story part is not yet true as Andrew MacMillen points out in his comments. The sports complex and the homes are still only a vision but many oppose this vision as Mr. MacMillen point’s out. The project for the sports complex and housing is being proposed by North Kitsap United, a partnership between the Kingston Rotary, YMCA and Raydient, which is totally separate from what Raydient wants to do to the town of Port Gamble. The big thorn that North Kitsap United is trying to push into our county is to change the Rural Wooded zoning from 20 acres a dwelling to 5 acres. This is not just for the 400 acres Raydient owns where it wants to put its sports complex and a cluster of 80 homes, this is for the entire county. Our county and the tourists value our forest land, so if Raydient gets their way, we can say goodbye to our beloved trees. Ross, perhaps you can write another article updating folks on the other side of the sound that not all is as it seems, so yes, as land story’s go, it all sounds too good to be true.

  8. A follow-up piece on the massive environmental cleanup of uplands and tidelands around Gamble Bay that Pope/ORM fought tooth and nail to avoid would be a good counterpoint to this article. Prospective homebuyers may be interested in learning about the groundwater monitoring wells, over 1,000 creosote-treated pilings removed, and Raydient’s efforts to portray itself as a responsible steward of the environment. And perhaps a sidebar piece on the local Rotary Club’s outsize efforts to help Raydient rezone Raydient properties for development — not an activity that most non-profit community service organizations typically embrace.


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