The City of Dreams, Port Townsend is one of the finest examples of a Victorian Seaport in the United States.
Originally named 'Port Townshend' by Captain George Vancouver (for his friend the Marquis of Townshend) in 1792, Port Townsend was immediately recognized as a good, safe harbor, which it remains to this day. The official settlement of the city took place on the 24th of April, 1851. Called the "City of Dreams" because of the early speculation that the city would be the largest harbor on the west coast, wealthy and prosperous, somehow though, those early dreams failed to materialize...
For several thousand years the only occupants were native Indians. In the late 1700s and early 1800s the Indian population was decimated by disease transmitted by contact with white explorers. In some places disease - notably smallpox and measles - killed 90% of the Indians; by the time white settlers arrived local tribes had populations of no more that a few hundred and were so weakened they could not effectively resist the intruders.
American Indian tribes located in what is now Jefferson County in the mid-19th century included the Chemakum (or Chimacum), Hoh (a group of the Quileute), Klallam (or Clallam), Quinault and Twana (the Kilcid band - Anglicized: Quilcene).
There is only one reservation (created in 1893) in Jefferson County: the Hoh occupy 640 acres on the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Hoh River on the west end. Other tribes have disappeared from Jefferson County by combination of disease, warfare, migration, intermarriage and assimilation. (Source: Rootsweb)
When the first non-Indians settled at Port Townsend in 1851, the Klallam Indians whose lands encompassed the future city were led by Chetzemoka's older brother S'Hai-ak, who granted permission for the settlement. S'Hai-ak drowned soon after, and Chetzemoka succeeded to leadership of the 1,000 or so Klallams.
Like his brother, Chetzemoka was friendly with the new settlers, whom he assisted in many ways, including in their relations with other Indian groups. Chetzemoka lived with about 200 of his people, including his two wives See-hem-itza and Chill'lil and their children, in a village of large cedar plank lodges not far from the new settlement. In a not-so-subtle form of ridicule, likely inspired by their difficulty in pronouncing the Klallam names, the white settlers, as they did with other Indians, bestowed names of British aristocrats on Chetzemoka and his family, calling him the Duke of York, his wives Queen Victoria and Jenny Lind, and his son the Prince of Wales.
The supposed difficulty of pronouncing Chetzemoka was raised when the name was proposed for the park, but a local newspaper assured citizens that "after the word has fallen from your lips the music of its syllables will appeal to you..." (City of Dreams, 46).
Today, Chetzemoka Park, which has a commanding view of the Cascade Mountains from its hillside location, boasts flower gardens, a tropical water garden, picnic areas, play equipment, and a bandstand modeled after the Victorian original, as well as access to the beach and tidelands. (Sources: Kit Oldham, Washington HistoryLink, 02/25/2003; City of Dreams ed by Peter Simpson (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1986), 44-46, 65, 76, 97; James G. Swan, Almost Out of the World (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1971), 13, 15; "Port Townsend City Parks - PTguide").
By the late 1800's Port Townsend was a well-known seaport, very active and banking on the future. Many homes and buildings were built during that time, with most of the architecture ornate Victorian. With the other Puget Sound ports growing in size, Port Townsend saw a rapid decline in population when the Northern Pacific Railroad failed to connect the city to the eastern Puget Sound city of Tacoma. By the late 1890's the boom was over. See this great 1878 Map of Port Townsend from the Library of Congress collection.
Railroads were built to reach more areas in the 1870-1890's and Port Townsend was the northwest extension of the rail lines. Its port was large and frequented by overseas vessels, so shipping of goods and timber from the area was a major part of the economy. Much of the buildings were built on the speculation that Port Townsend would become a booming shipping port and major city. When the depression hit, those plans lost the capital to continue and rail lines ended on the east side of Puget Sound, mainly in Tumwater, Tacoma and Seattle. Without the railroad to spur economic growth, the town shrank and investors looked elsewhere to make a good return. From 1893-1897 or so over a quarter of national railroads went bankrupt.
Many people left the area in the 1890's and the economy was primarily fishing, the port (shipping and shanghaiing), canning, the military (Fort Worden) and subsistence living until 1920's when the paper mill was built. Port Townsend benefited from the public works and conservation corps efforts during the Depression - check the sidewalks in the uptown residential areas for markings in the corners of the concrete near intersections (marked WPA or CWA). The library was built with a Carnegie grant.
After WWII and the Korean conflict in the 50s, PT also saw growth and the building of tract-housing (the cookie-cutter houses up near Fort Worden on T Street, S Street, and Cherry Street). And Fort Worden became the State Juvenile Detention Center, contributing teaching, medical/mental health, security, and administrative jobs to the economy. But even with that, PT was primarily a paper mill town.
During the 60s, PT dredged to extend the marina, bringing in more boats and a small boat building industry - but filled in about half of the lagoon. And somehow PT was always a hippy magnet. Fort Worden closed as a Detention Facility, and became a State Park ideal for artistic pursuits, and a lot of our “hippies” opened small shops downtown.
The 70's saw an influx of people who “discovered” Port Townsend, finding inexpensive homes, a low economy, and a laid-back attitude. They often came to drop out, retire, or open a small business. We’d always had affection for our Victorian buildings, and many were either maintained or restored, but many more were restored by newcomers who had the money to do so.
Noted for a vast collection of Victorian homes, the city also many larger buildings that are well preserved, the Carnegie Library, the US Post Office (Customs House), and the Jefferson County Courthouse to name just a few. There's a good bibliography and lesson plans for teachers here from the NPS: "Teaching with Historic Places". This area truly lends itself to the living history experience and should be explored!
Guided Historical Sidewalk Tours - Bring Port Townsend's History to life. Walks start in June for both Uptown and Downwtown Historic Districts.
Historic tours in open air taxi
Port Townsend Then and Now (historic and current photographs of Port Townsend)
Cemeteries in Jefferson County
Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe history
Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe history
Port Townsend Homes Tour
Jefferson County Genealogical Society (JCGS)
Jefferson County WAGenWeb (The USGenWeb Project)
Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society
Maritime Museum of British Columbia
WA State Historical Society
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Thanks to PT resident Susan (Tolle) Stephens for her contributions to this page.