You find them all across the United States. Small towns, about an hour outside of a major city, that have transformed themselves. They started as industrial or farm communities. Today, they have become havens for artists, antique shops and good food.
Sometimes, playing to tourists, they have grown around a specific theme, like Solvang, CA or Woodstock, NY. Sometimes they have grown organically, over time, into well-integrated communities, making visitors welcome to a town that is more than just a bunch of stores. Port Townsend is this type of town.
The settlement of Port Townsend by European-Americans began in 1851. By the 1870’s it was a major seaport, and home to the U.S. Customs House for the Pacific Northwest. It location, at the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the entrance to Admiralty Inlet gives Port Townsend a protected harbor. During this time period many people believed (or were promised) that the trans-continental railroads would be built to end at Port Townsend, since the harbor was already there.
Many people invested in the development of the town. The Downtown area, at the bottom of a promontory along the water, was developed with warehouses, stores, bars and bordellos. Uptown, at the top of the cliff, the businessmen built large houses, many in the Victorian style of the day, for their families.
By the mid-1880’s, it became clear that the railroads were not going to make it to Port Townsend. The companies blamed an economic depression. Some people in town still say that the railroads were paid off by political interests to stop in Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle. This change forced ships to by-pass Port Townsend, allowing other cities to grow while its economy fell apart. The town survived due to two factors. First, a paper mill was built just to the south of town. Second, in 1898, the government opened Fort Worden at the north end of town. It served, along with Fort Casey and Fort Flagler, to protect the entrance to Admiralty Inlet and access to Puget Sound.
While these two entities allowed Port Townsend to survive, it was a tough period. Most of Downtown and many of the grand homes Uptown fell into disrepair. Jobs were hard to come by, and there was little money in the town. One upside was that no one was looking to develop the area. The buildings and homes remained, if a little worse for wear.
By the 1970s, things started to change. Retirees and artists began to move into town, drawn by low rents and real estate prices. They could buy a lot of space at bargain prices. In 1976 residents applied and received recognition by the National Register of Historic Buildings, and in 1977, the Historic Downtown was listed as a National Historic Landmark. This has meant that these building have survived to today.
During my visit to Port Townsend I had the chance to enjoy much of what the town has to offer. I stayed at the Belmont Hotel. This is a small (4 room) hotel above a saloon that dates back to the 1885. My room was large and completely renovated with a spacious bathroom. It is a great base for a visit to Port Townsend, sitting right in the middle of the Historic Downtown District. Water Street is the main drag, and it is lined with stores and restaurants.
The buildings in this area date back to the late 1800’s. Some have been renovated into apartments others are offices. There are several really good places to eat here, and I have listed them below. My favorite was a coffee shop: Better Living Through Coffee. It sits overlooking the bay. Every cup of coffee is prepared by a drip filter when you order. The pastries and quiches are made fresh every day. I spent every day's breakfast there, sitting by a window, looking out at the water and writing in my journal.
When I get to a town, one of the first things that I do is stop at the visitor information center. It is always a good source of restaurants and museums that might not show up in guide books. In addition, they often have walking or driving tours that point me to lesser known or visited sights. In Port Townsend’s Visitor Information Center, I found a great walking tour that covered both the Historic Downtown area and many of the restored Victorian mansions Uptown. The tour is about a two-mile walk, and there are some hills involved, but the Victorian homes offer a snapshot into the history of Port Townsend. Make sure that you stop at the Rothschild House Museum to get a look at how the rich lived a hundred years ago.
I took a short drive across town to Fort Worden. Built in 1898, Ft. Worden served as an artillery guard to the entrance of Puget Sound. It worked in conjunction with Fort Casey on Whidbey Island and Fort Flagler on Marrowbone Island. Together they formed a “triangle of fire” that could effectively stop invading ships from entering Puget Sound to attack the industrial centers at Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia.
Fort Worden was one of the economic anchors that help Port Townsend survive. As a military base until 1954 it provided jobs to the community. Then it was transformed into a juvenile detention facility. Today it serves as a center for the arts, a home to historical museums, and an RV camping facility. It is also home to the Point Wilson Lighthouse, which was first built in 1879, and then refurbished in 1914.
Port Townsend started as a shipping town. Today it still has a bustling boat based economy. The Point Hudson Marina sits at the east end of the Historic Downtown area. It has docks for several dozen boats, storage facilities, restaurants and suppliers of food and parts for leisure boats. There is also the Northwest Maritime Center, home to a sailing school and a school for making wooden boats. At the west end of Downtown is the Port Townsend Boat Haven. With moorings for 475 boats, both commercial and pleasure, it also offers repair facilities, especially for wooden boats.
Places to Eat in Port Townsend:
Owl Spirit Café
The Owl Spirit Café is a hole in the wall space with seats for 15-20 people. The food is fresh, locally sourced soups, sandwiches and salads. This is a good place for an inexpensive dinner, or to pick up food picnic.
The Tin Brick
The Tin Brick is a sports bar with an excellent selection of beer and wonderful pizza. Definitely a place to take in a football game.
If you are looking a fancier place for dinner come to the Silverwater Café. The menu is full of local produce, meat and fish selections. The pasta is fresh and all of it is delicious.
Blue Moose Café
Located in the Port Townsend Haven Boatyard, the Blue Moose Café make wonderful soups and sandwiches at reasonable prices.