Big dreams don’t always happen – and sometimes that’s a good thing. That’s what residents of the historic seaport town of Port Townsend, Washington, found out more than 200 years ago.
Port Townsend is a historic seaport town on the misty Olympic Peninsula. In the 1800’s, the area’s protected harbor made the town a bustling seaport. With an eye to the future, city leaders and entrepreneurs built ornate Victorian homes and buildings, confident that the Northern Pacific Railroad would connect the city to the rest of the Puget Sound and seal the town’s prosperity.
The rail line never came and the city barely survived. Fortunately, for visitors today, Port Townsend is a jewel box of Victorian architecture and rich history that makes a great place for a getaway.
Yesterday and Today
When I disembark from the ferry, I’m immediately impressed by the downtown’s beautiful two- and three-story Victorian-era wood and brick buildings. Port Townsend is one of only three Victorian seaport towns in the nation and the city powers have done a great job of keeping their treasure intact. In fact, most of Port Townsend is a designated National Historic Landmark.
I walk a couple of blocks to City Hall, one of the town’s architectural gems. The 1892 brick building, which also houses the Jefferson County Historical Museum, is the oldest continuously used city hall in Washington. In fact, all the civic buildings in the town are still used for their original purposes. The three story brick structure also aptly captures Port Townsend’s spirit today –forward looking without forgetting its past. www.jchsmuseum.org/
A few years ago, the city undertook a project to expand city hall by adding a new structure that would complement the old building and help bring the original building up to current earthquake standards. The results are masterful.
In the old museum side of building, original signs for offices of officials like the mayor, harbor master, and the delinquent tax office greet visitors. I’m met by the museum’s Executive Director, William Tennent, who invites me to watch a 10-minute video that aptly captures Port Townsend’s past and present.
Then I meander into the display area with old artifacts like ship wheels, mortuary wagons, and antique bank safes. One of the most fascinating parts of the museum is the basement that still has the city’s old jail cells, complete with iron shackles.
After seeing the original side of city hall, I’m curious about the new side. Constructed of brick with architectural details that mimic the old building, the new structure houses the city council and features all the modern technological bells and whistles, including computers and live TV broadcast capability.
Across the street, the town has just completed a new public plaza with a sculpture called Salish Circle created by one of the area’s Native Indian artists. Next door is the new, sleek Northwest Maritime Center, which houses a large gift shop with nautical-themed gifts, a small coffee shop, a marine library, meeting spaces, and workshops where craftsmen build wooden boats and pass their craft onto kids and adults. www.nwmaritime.org/
Last night, a large group of grade school children camped overnight in one of the center’s meeting rooms and now they’re working alongside boat builders in a large workshop. This $12 million facility reflects the town’s commitment to its maritime roots. Each year in the fall, Port Townsend hosts the Wooden Boat Festival, a three day celebration that draws as many as 35,000 visitors that includes wooden boat demonstrations, classes, speakers, and visits from classic wooden tall ships.
To get a better feel for the town’s connection to the sea, I wander down to Boat Haven, the city’s boatyard where dozens of boats are dry docked for repair. Most boat yards are closed to the public, but in Port Townsend, you’re welcome to wander at will and watch craftsmen and artisans work. The boat yard is home to 400 marine-related businesses and it also marks the start of the Larry Scott Memorial Trail that skirts the water’s edge. If you’re hungry, you can stop in for a bite with locals at the fun and funky Blue Moose Café, just inside the boatyard’s gates.
I’m feeling hungry myself and it’s almost dinnertime, so I head over to the wharf. In the 1930s, the US Coast Guard built Port Hudson, a series of buildings and wharves. Today, the area houses a pleasure boat and fishing boat marina and the wharf’s buildings are home to a number of businesses, including T’s Restaurant where I’m meeting a friend for dinner. The restaurant’s kitchen is run by Tim Tocatlian, a young chef who trained with Wolfgang Puck.
We start with the chef’s smoked salmon chowder, deliciously thick and rich and studded with crunchy celery and loaded with shreds of Cape Cleare salmon. The salmon comes from a local fisherman who fishes Alaskan waters and flash freezes it and it’s delicious. (Chef Tocatlian’s smoked salmon chowder recipe.)
I order the halibut and am not disappointed. Too often, halibut is dry and meaty. Chef Tocatlian lightly sears the fish, giving a slightly crunchy outside and juicy, succulent inside. It’s served with creamy pesto risotto and fresh, al dente broccoli and green beans. My friend orders the clam pasta and it’s packed with clams in a briny broth served over toothsome angel hair pasta.
For dessert, I order the chocolate cherry torte served with housemade vanilla ice cream. The chocolate is intensely flavored with just a lilt of cherry flavor and the ice cream has a lovely clean vanilla taste. [Ed note: Unfortunately, T’s closed unexpectedly in November due to the difficult economy. Hopefully, Chef Tocatlian and his family will turn up soon in Port Townsend in another culinary offering. However, you can still enjoy their wonderful Smoked Salmon Chowder recipe.]
After a solid night’s sleep at the Bishop Victorian Hotel downtown, I set out to explore more of historic Port Townsend, but not before meeting my pal at The UnderTown, a unique underground coffee house. Like many old towns, Port Townsend is honeycombed with old brick basements and the folks at UnderTown used a number of the old spaces to create a cozy, art-filled coffeehouse and wine bar. We enjoy some Stumptown coffee and one of the best marionberry cream cheese stuffed scones I’ve ever eaten. www.bishopvictorian.com/ www.theundertown.com/
Needing to work off my breakfast, we head for the set of stairs that leads to the upper level of town. In Victorian times, the downtown area was filled with rough-and-tumble sailors, prostitutes, and bawdy saloons. Uptown, sea captains built ornate Victorian homes for their wives. The Terrace Steps, originally a narrow wooden stairway, connected uptown with downtown. Today, the original steps have been replaced with wide cement ones and Haller Fountain with its sculpture of half naked woman and cherubs at the foot of the stairs would surely have offended Victorian ladies.
Near the top of the Terrace Stairs is the old bell tower from 1890 that used to alert residents to fires. The majority of houses in the uptown area were built in the 1800s or early 1900s. Many are private residences. Some have been turned into inns or bed and breakfasts. One of the most impressive is the ornate Ann Starrett Mansion (744 Clay Street) with its spiral staircase, eight-sided tower, and ceiling that’s a solar calendar. Eisenbeis Castle, now Manresa Hall Hotel, at 7th and Sheridan Streets, was built by a prominent businessman in 1892 and looks like a European castle. www.starrettmansion.com/ www.manresacastle.com/
We stop at the Rothschild House (built 1868) on Franklin at Taylor Street. This farmhouse style home overlooking the harbor is now a state park and museum and gives a fascinating look at how early Port Townsend residents lived. The docent tells us that a Rothschild family member deeded the house and its possessions to the state so the home is filled with the family’s original furnishings, household goods, and period clothing. One of the most interesting artifacts is an beautifully crafted oak hideaway porta-potty in the master bedroom. www.jchsmuseum.org/Rothschild/house.html
Historic churches abound uptown too, including the 1873 Presbyterian church on Franklin Street that features one of the oldest pipe organs on the west coast and, near the bell tower on the corner of Jefferson and Tyler Streets, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (built 1863) whose steeple bell used to guide ships into the harbor during foggy weather.
Uptown’s civic buildings are equally impressive too. The Port Townsend Federal building, which formerly housed both the Customs House and the US Post Office, is the oldest federally constructed post office in Washington state, and the only example of Richardson Romanesque design in a federal building in Washington. Even more ostentatious is the Romanesque-style Jefferson County Courthouse built in 1891 with turrets and a massive clock tower.
We stop in the uptown’s quaint commercial district for lunch at Sweet Laurette Cafe and Bistro. Chef/owner Laurette Feit started a small patisserie in 2001 and the business has grown into a 70-seat cafe serving breakfast, lunch, brunch, and dinner and she does a brisk wedding and special occasion cake business. The cafe is known not only for its excellent pastries and bread, but also for using fresh, seasonal, local ingredients grown sustainably. I order the BBQ pork sandwich that comes with shreds of sweet, spicy pork piled high on a Panini roll and a mound of crispy, sweet/savory coleslaw that adds a coolness and wonderful crunch. The fries on the side are fresh, thin, and nicely crispy. www.sweetlaurette.com/
After lunch, we head out to Fort Worden State Park, another great place to check out Port Townsend’s past. A US Army base from 1902 to 1953, Fort Worden was one of three forts (Ft. Flagler and Ft. Casey were the other two) in the “Triangle of Fire” that guarded Admiralty Inlet. The fort defended the entrance to the Inlet with big disappearing guns, large caliber canons that rise up as they’re fired and hunker back down where the enemy won’t see them between shots. After closing as an active military base, Fort Worden served as a treatment facility for juvenile delinquents and today, it’s a multi-purpose, 434-acre park and conference center with more than two miles of saltwater shoreline. In fact, during summer months, the fort sees a variety of music venues, including the Seattle Symphony and the Jazz and Blues Festival. www.fortworden.net/
Many of the fort’s Federal style buildings have been turned into rental housing, including Alexander’s Castle, a Scottish-style brick mini-castle built by an early resident before the fort was established. Other buildings house local artists and craftsmen. The massive blimp hanger has been repurposed into a 1200-seat performing arts center. There are also two RV parks.
We snap photos of the picturesque Point Wilson Light (this working lighthouse is closed to the public). We also stop at the Marine Science Center, a small building built over a wharf, where they monitor water quality and marine life with a plethora of pumps, pipes, and tanks. They also teach visitors about the area’s marine life and environmental threats to it. We ogle tanks, including a touch tank filled with orange and purple sea stars, one of the largest collections of sea stars in the world.
A new project for the Marine Science Center is reassembling and displaying an orca (killer) whale skeleton, one of only five complete orca skeletons in existence. Staff and volunteers are busily putting the whale they’ve named Hope back together and are building a new building to house the skeleton. www.ptmsc.org/
All too soon, it’s time for me to leave Port Townsend and I head for the ferry. As we churn away from the terminal, I can’t help but think there’s so much more to learn about Port Townsend. Like a famous actor says, I’ll be back.
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