Lies on Port Townsend Bay at the extreme northeastern point of Quimper Peninsula. The business section spreads along the water front, the main streets being lined with substantial old buildings dating back to the boom days, when the town was measuring its future in terms of a major city. The residential section is centered on the level top of a bluff that rises above the water front.
Eastward across Admiralty Inlet rises the dark bulk of Whidbey Island, and dominating the horizon on the southwest are the Olympic Mountains, some 30 miles distant.
Port Townsend is one of the most interesting historical points in the Northwest. In May 1792, Captain George Vancouver and a party of his men, while anchored in Discovery Bay, started out in small boats to explore the coast line. The fog was heavy when he pushed around a sandy promontory, which he named Point Wilson, and hence he was not aware of the nature of the body of water he had entered until the sun broke through the fog, just as he reached what is Point Hudson. Vancouver was much impressed with the beauty of the setting and the extent and character of the bay, which he called Port Townsend for the English marquis of that name.
Pioneer settlers were Alfred A. Plummer, a young harness maker from Maine, and Charles Bacheller. While in San Francisco they heard of Puget Sound— its forests, its fish, and its fertile soil—from Captain Lafayette Balch; as a consequence, they took passage with Balch on the brig George Emery to Steilacoom. From there they went by canoe to Port Discovery Bay, which the captain had described to them as they sailed around the point into Puget Sound. On April 24, 1851, they landed on the beach below the high bluffs and were met by a number of Native Americans who lived on the bay. Soon the two men were joined by Loren B. Hastings and Francis W. Pettygrove (who had recently founded Portland, Oregon) and their families. By May 1852, the settlement consisted of 3 families and 15 bachelors.
Among the early settlers in the area was one Albert Briggs. In 1852 he decided to leave Portland; sending his family by boat, he started overland with a herd of 30 head of cattle. At Tumwater, near Olympia, he loaded his cattle on a scow and, floating with the tide by day and beaching it at night, he reached a shallow harbor opposite Port Townsend. The trip took 15 days. To commemorate his voyage, Briggs named the harbor where he landed Scow Bay.
In the summer of 1852, it was decided to call the settlement Port Townsend, dropping the letter “h”, as Commander Wilkes had done for the bay in 1841. Thus the name appeared when the first post office was established, and thus it was spelled in the official record of the plat of the town. Land was cleared, stores opened, and homes were built. Trees were felled and rolled down to the beach, by hand power or with the help of oxen, and then rafted out to ships and loaded for California. During the gold rush to the Fraser River country, Port Townsend received its share of the outfitting business, for most vessels dropped anchor in the bay to clear at the customs house. After the collapse of the boom many of the miners returned to make their homes in the town.
During the days of sailing vessels and of the early stern- and side-wheelers, Port Townsend was the “Key City,” with boat lines radiating to many ports. The coming of the railroad to Tacoma alarmed the citizens of the town, at the same time that it raised visions of a “western New York” in the minds of the more optimistic. Early plans for a Northern Pacific connection with the Columbia River failed to materialize. Port Townsend citizens, convinced that they must take the initiative, incorporated their own company, the Port Townsend and Southern, in 1887, and began to acquire property for a right of way along Hood Canal and to solicit funds to finance construction. Stimulated by the speculative fever, property values soared, population increased to 7,000, six banks did a rushing business, large office buildings were erected, and scores of homes went up almost overnight. The transfer of the franchise to the Oregon Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, merely served to accelerate the boom.
By September 1, 1890, trains were running from Port Townsend to Lake Hooker, but work on the line was beginning to drag; officials seemed more interested in speculating in real estate than in building a rail line. Disquieting whispers of impending failure of the company were confirmed in November, when it was learned that the company had gone into receivership. Real-estate values fell, thousands of people deserted the town, and everyone knew that the dream was over.
A city with the facilities for a population of 20,000 soon had fewer than 2,000. Attempts in the 1890s to establish industries also met with indifferent success. A huge drydock was constructed but was towed elsewhere when it was nearly completed; a nail works opened in 1892 and failed soon thereafter; and several other enterprises opened only to close after a short time. The panic of 1893 filled Port Townsend Bay with ships of all kinds and tonnage; there they lay idly at anchor, until the improvement of business conditions in 1897 called them again into the channels of trade.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, Port Townsend achieved a degree of stability, in spite of serious setbacks from time to time. Strategically situated, it has been the headquarters for various Government operations for more than 50 years.
Today, Port Townsend is a popular tourist destination featuring one of Washington’s best known National Historic Landmark Districts. The late nineteenth century masonry and cast-iron buildings lining downtown and the elaborate Queen Anne residences on the bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet are reminders of the prosperity and vision Port Townsend residents shared over a century ago.