Experience Port Townsend WashingtonMost Puget Sound marina ports can boast of one or two attraction.But historic Port Townsend, lying along the sheltered south face of the Quimper Peninsula, has a surprising swag of absorbing tourist activities to brag about. Plus, Port Townsend is eminently walkable. So you’ll feel less guilty as you stroll around artisan bakeries and cafés smelling of roasting coffee beans, sampling their freshly baked and brewed wares.

Dating from 1851, when two former California gold miners decided to settle in the marshy shorefront area alongside the Klallum Indians, Port Townsend quickly boomed into a merchant town, providing supplies for the surrounding area, thus becoming the area’s political and administrative center.

Hotels, banks, shops, and shipping agencies sprang up. And for the hardy and lonely loggers, miners, mariners, and smugglers who worked the area, the dire need for entertainment quickly led to a proliferation of saloons, theaters, gambling dens and “female boarding houses”.

Thus, for a couple of decades, Port Townsend had the dubious distinction of being the wildest, roughest waterfront north of San Francisco. Inebriated men were often shanghaied to crew the coastal boats that plied the West Coast waters, leaving their wives and families wondering what had happened to them.

To get a feel for the town’s early history, the Jefferson Country Historical Museum on Water Street provides an ideal place to start your Port Townsend visit.

2museumRSResurrected pioneer, maritime, and native artifacts from the town’s past include a ship’s steering wheel, models of old town buildings, an old fire hose and reel, the occasional artillery piece, antique desks and chairs, housekeeping artifacts like coal-heated irons, and more. The horse-drawn hearse and nicely restored black buggy with red trim remind the visitor of how primitive transport was in the area.

Don’t forget to read about the 2,500 strong Mosquito Fleet, the steam vessels that navigated from port to port around the Puget Sound between 1850 and 1930. These were the days when water transport reigned supreme, and steamboats chugged along with their cargos of settlers, livestock, farm produce, machinery, troops, timber, mail and even tourists. Despite many of these boats succumbing to explosion, collision, or treacherous weather, they were glorious maritime days.

But the museum’s real discovery lies downstairs in the gloomy City Hall basement that was, in its heyday, a jail for holding all sorts of recalcitrants including drunks, prostitutes, and smugglers, to name a few.

A reproduced newspaper article hanging on the wall tells of three arrests on the Sabbath; for assault, drunk and disorderly, and my favorite, “celebrating the Sabbath in an unholy manner”, for which thbugRSimprudent defendant received a fine of $10. My mind boggles at the latent possibilities of this heinous crime!

The seamier side of Port Townsend life is recreated in the basement Bordello Room, where reader boards tell about the miserable daily lives of the “soiled doves”, the women who had no hope of a respectable occupation and thus found themselves selling sex simply to exist. The “bawdy houses” were mainly found in the town’s Tenderloin District, and interestingly included French and Negro women, and “halfbreeds”.

These were tough times for women who, in this occupation, found themselves subject to scorn and much moral indignation. They were periodically rounded up by Police Chief Furlong for such crimes as “cursing in public”, “malicious mischief”, and public fighting”, and fined $7 each. This income was regarded as a major source of revenue for the town’s coffers.

WaterSRSThe “Sailors, Saloons, and Crimpers” Gallery next door shows the rough and tumble life for men of that era. But it’s the dank and grim cells in the basement that evoke the deepest emotions for the visitor, if for no other reason than feeling grateful that you’ve never been imprisoned in such a fearful place. One small cell reveals a pair of ankle shackles and heavy ball that were attached to the more rambunctious inmates.

Now that you’re clued up on the town’s history, it’s time to walk through the Downtown Historic District along Water Street. Traces of Port Townsend’s early boom times are still easily encountered in the downtown two and three story red brick and concrete building facades.

If you know where to look you’ll find buildings embellished with ornate window pediments, stone arches, decorative cornices, art deco sculpting, and the occasional Victorian turret jutting out over the shady tree-lined street.

If you’re staying overnight, take in a movie in the Rose Theatre, opened in 1907, and soak in the ambience where generations of filmgoers have seen old favorites like Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks on the silver screen. And if you’d like to learn everything about the town’s history take a Historic Port Townsend Walking Tour organized by the museum.

As with many tourist towns, you’ll find a plethora of art galleries and studios sprinkled throughout the town, plus a couple of well-stocked bookshops.

Many people come to Port Townsend solely to view its 39 superb Victorian Homes sprinkled throughout its uptown suburbs. This eclectic array of Victorian housing is as good as you’ll find anywhere in the country, and to their credit the residents have restored these gorgeous old homes to their former glory. Port Townsend’s title as a National Historic Landmark District is well deserved.
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Most of the Victorian homes, being private residences, are not open for public viewing, but nevertheless give an outside glimpse into Port Townsend’s halcyon days from 1850 to 1901. There is some driving involved if you want to see many of these homes, spread out as they are in a long rectangular grid between Washington and Lawrence deerRSStreets, and Monroe and Kearney Streets.

This glorious mishmash of elegant Victorian homes ranges from the simple to the lavish and pretentious. You’ll see wrap around porches, upper verandahs, bay windows, turrets, spires, ornate gables, brick chimneys, wooden slat siding, stain glass windows, and even an antebellum mansion entryway, on these homes. They’re decorated in every tasteful color of the rainbow: subtle pinks, yellows, whites, greens, grays, and some with red roofs and maroon trim.

These homes are, in short, magnificent reminders of that era and make a grand promenade for visitors. My favorites: the 1889 Anne Starrett Mansion (744 Clay St), The 1891 Peter Mutty House (640 Taylor St), the 1883 Captain R.W. DeLion House ((712 Clay St), the 1871 Col. H. Landes House (1034 Franklin St), the 1902 Wyndham J. Lewis House (1409 Monroe St), and the 1880 Harry Barthrop House (1306 Franklin St); all offering different Victorian architecture. For the complete experience, dress in your finery, shelter from the sun under a lace parasol, and have high tea afterwards!

Don’t be surprised to see deer loping along Port Townsend’s streets—we saw a couple of graceful deer grazing on suburban hedges, quite unfazed by neighbors washing their cars and passing vehicles.

Port Townsend’s other ace-in-the-hole attraction is undoubtedly the 433-acre Fort Worden, 1.5 miles from downtown, on the northern tip of Quimper Peninsula. You’ll easily spend a half-day exploring this well maintained Artillery and anti-aircraft fort, established in 1897.

Strategically located on the shores of Admiralty Inlet to protect the Puget Sound Naval Base, and Seattle and Tacoma, the fort never saw a shot fired in anger and was handed over to Washington State Parks in 1971.

Today, activities at the fort include visiting the Commanding Officer’s Quarters Museum, the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum, the Point Wilson Lighthouse, and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. It’s a haven for campers, boaters, sunbathers, and beach walkers, and the grassy parade ground is ideal for picnics.

FMRSIn summer, from April through December, Port Townsend hosts one of the best Saturday Farmer’s Markets I’ve seen (9 am-2 pm) at the corner of Lawrence and Tyler. I particularly enjoyed sampling the Eaglemount specialty hard ciders, the Mystery Bay handcrafted goat cheeses, Mt. Townsend Creamery handcrafted cheeses, seafood gumbo, crab cakes, and fresh baked croissants and cookies.

Another of Port Townsend’s unsung gems is the Aero Museum, a couple of miles out of town at the Jefferson County Airport. It’ll take you an hour or two to view the 19 vintage aircraft, from 1920 to marketRSthe 1940’s, in this modern, airy building.

Staying overnight in Port Townsend? For the complete Victorian experience, you must stay (I insist) at Manresa Castle, towering majestically over the east side of town on Castle Hill.

With rooms done in Victorian style, high ceilings, and authentic antique furnishings you will be taken back in time to 1892, when this ambitious castle was completed for Charles Eisenbeis, a Port Townsend businessman and its first mayor.

And do have a meal in the romantic dining room. Next door, the Edwardian Lounge offers full bar service and make sure you relax for a while in the library.

Port Townsend has plenty of other little gems to keep tourists entranced, but I’ll let you discover those for yourself when you visit it yourself. It is, without doubt, one of the premier port destinations in the Pacific Northwest.

For additional information, please see www.jchsmuseum.org and www.manresacastle.com.