Port Townsend, Washington, is not the bawdy community it was in 1897, when author Jack London passed through (and spent a night in jail) enroute to Alaska’s Klondike. But it remains the most authentic Victorian seaport in the Pacific Northwest.
Situated at the end of a peninsula where Puget Sound meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Townsend — a town of 9,000 — is no more than 50 miles (as the gull flies) from either metropolitan Seattle or Canada’s Vancouver Island. Yet it’s never been an easy place to get to, whether by road or ferry.
Captain George Vancouver named the port in 1792 for a benefactor in England. The town was formally settled in 1851 by dreamers who believed the seaport would become the largest harbor on the west coast of North America. That never happened, but it did become a bustling if boisterous port town. Ships from all over the world — from China, from India — paused for days to unload their goods and take on Northwest lumber and mineral resources.
The dream of greatness was shattered in the mid-1890s. A national depression bankrupted many railway companies and diverted a rail line away from Port Townsend to Tacoma and Seattle. When the economy went south, hopeful investors left like rats from a sinking ship. In the decades to come, fishing, canning and shipping kept the town afloat. Finally, in 1920, a major paper mill provided new economic stimulus until tourism took over.
The military also contributed. From the turn of the 20th century through the Second World War, Fort Worden was one of three bastions built to guard the nautical entrance to Puget Sound. Decommissioned in the 1950s and made a 434-acre state park in 1973, the fort has something for everyone. It offers lodging and dining and is widely famed for its arts programs, a school of woodworking and one of the nation’s largest publishers of poetry, the Copper Canyon Press
We had the pleasure of overnighting at Fort Worden during a recent visit. We lodged in the former Bachelor Officers Quarters,
“The Bricks,” facing the historic Parade Grounds and next to the lovely rhododendron garden. Our four-bedroom Victorian apartment ($189), one of a quartet in the 1904 building, had spacious living and dining rooms, a kitchen and a large covered porch.
And we were mere steps from Fort Worden’s fine new restaurant, Reveille at the Commons. Dinner was especially good — bleu cheese-and-fig ravioli, pan-seared duck breast and cornmeal-crusted ling cod, with nothing priced over $22. Taps at the Guardhouse, as the brig was known when it was built in 1904, was a fine place for an evening toddy.
Two historic museums, the Commanding Officer’s Quarters and the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum, are requisite stops. Many other facilities have been converted to new purposes, including campgrounds, a theater and concert pavilion, and a yoga studio. The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is a popular attraction for youth.
The park is perhaps best known for its acclaimed Centrum program, now in its 45th year. Participants from all over the world immerse themselves in a June-through-October season of literary, dance and musical programs, highlighted by blues, jazz, fiddle and ukulele festivals.
Some of the most remarkable attractions are outside of the main campus
area, on and around Artillery Hill. The old gun emplacements are long since abandoned, but 12 miles of foot and bicycle paths wind past and even through them, affording glimpses of dank tunnels and dark chambers now frequented only by the swallows that nest within.
The hub of visitor activity in Port Townsend, however, is not Fort Worden but Water Street. It seems every building is of 19th-century vintage. Many of the original buildings retain old advertising (“Genuine Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco”) or murals of sailing ships on their red brick walls. Especially colorful is the 1889 James and Hasting Building, with yellow and silver trim. The 1885 C.F. Clapp Building has a cast-iron façade.
More than a dozen galleries sell everything from Native American art to hand-crafted jewelry and fabric art. Vintage-clothing and antique shops stand side-by-side with home-and-garden stores. One shop sells both Asian artifacts and nautical memorabilia. At least four separate bookshops are in close proximity to one another.
Many of the most popular places to stay in Port Townsend are in the Uptown district, in historic homes like the 1868 Blue Gull Inn. But there are well-weathered downtown lodging options as well. The 1889 Captain Tibbals Building, once a “rooming house” for single business women, has been converted into the Palace Hotel. The 1891 Bishop Victorian Hotel and restored 1911 Swan Hotel are sister properties that still seem as though they might have housed well-to-do sailors during this city’s heyday.
The highlight of the waterfront is the $16 million Northwest Maritime Center and Wooden Boat Foundation on Port Hudson harbor, which opened in 2009 with a conference center, an art gallery and a marine library. More significantly, perhaps, it includes a demonstration boat shop, where craftsmen can be engaged in conversation as they design and construct wooden boats.
On the second weekend of September each year, an estimated 30,000 boat lovers attend the Wooden Boat Festival and view 200 hand-crafted boats at Point Hudson, the small harbor at the east end of Water Street. In fact, craftspeople come to Port Townsend from all over the world to learn the art of boat building, both here and at the NorthWest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, 8 miles south.