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.