Browse the general store. See the local-history museum. Mountain-bike. Or just watch the boats sail past and ponder the town’s timberland past and uncertain future.

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Port Gamble is easy to miss. As you head north on Highway 104 from the Kingston ferry terminal, neat rows of steep-roofed houses suddenly appear after miles of forest. Then the road takes a sharp left, and before you can wonder, “What was that?” the Kitsap Peninsula town is in your rearview mirror.

I’d always meant to stop, and if I had the first few times I passed by, I would have been just like the couple that, a few weeks ago, wandered into the town’s museum and asked, “Just where are we, anyway?”

The woman behind the reception desk said she gets that question all the time. People on their way to somewhere else — Sequim or Neah Bay or, in the couple’s case, Port Townsend — turn off the highway full of questions about how a New England village ended up in the middle of a Western Washington forest.

Nostalgia for New England

If you go

Port Gamble


Take the Seattle-Bainbridge or Edmonds-Kingston ferry (888-808-7977 or Go north onto Highway 104, which passes through Port Gamble. When the highway turns left, go straight onto Rainier Avenue, the town’s main street.


Port Gamble Guesthouses, are the only lodging in town: 360-447-8473 or

A number of vacation rentals are nearby. Camping is available nearby at Kitsap Memorial State Park.


Open everyday from May through September, 10 a.m. to 5 p. m.; $4 adults/$3 students, seniors and military/kids under 6 free. 360-297-8078

Biking or kayaking

Rent bikes or kayaks at Olympic Outdoor Center, 32379 N.E. Rainier Ave., across from the General Store. 800-592-5983 or (click on Port Gamble)

More information

360-297-8074 or

The short answer: marketing, plus a little homesickness. The men who built the town’s lumber mill in the mid-1800s grew up in the small town of East Machias, Maine, and set out to re-create it in what was then wilderness.

They thought a familiar-looking streetscape would attract steady workers from the East who had to travel 3,000 miles by ship or tough overland routes to get to Port Gamble. They even grew elm and maple trees from East Machias cuttings.

The longer answer is the 143-year history of the mill built by the then-San Francisco-based firm of Pope & Talbot, first to supply lumber for the California gold rush and, later, to clear wide swaths of land in Seattle and sell that timber throughout the world. If you live in Lake City or Broadmoor, or even as far north as Everett, your neighborhoods likely were first built by Pope & Talbot. (Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum also is on land donated by the company.)

Port Gamble is no Leavenworth, another former timber town that, down on its luck, transformed itself into a very successful, but faux, Bavarian village. Port Gamble, in contrast, stuck to its roots — not so much restored as continually maintained from the days when mill workers lived in the picturesque houses with white-picket fences, initially paying $1-a-month rent.

The town nearly died after the mill closed in 1995, but the company decided to keep it alive with businesses catering to tourists.

Signs outside some of the bigger buildings convey pieces of the earlier story — telling visitors where the doctor lived, and the postmaster, and the worker who sharpened the saws.

The mill manager lived in the town’s grandest home, the Walker-Ames House, now painted in creamy yellow and green, set so that its back door faces the street and its front entrance overlooks Gamble Bay, because that was the direction from which most important visitors arrived when it was built in 1888-89.

Pope & Talbot went bankrupt in 1995, but a spinoff, Pope Resources, still owns the land in town and all the buildings — the roughly three dozen houses on the south side of Highway 104 and the commercial buildings to the north, which include a general store, theater, bike/kayak shop, bookstore and a tea room, to name most of them.

Canal-view Breakfast

My companion and I started our visit in the old General Store, now a combination restaurant and gift/soft drink/ice cream shop. Our breakfast table overlooked Hood Canal, where a smattering of boats moved slowly under a cloudless blue sky as a fresh breeze cooled us through the open windows.

Afterward, we walked across the street to rent mountain bikes, and pedaled a few blocks to a trailhead to try out some of the 60 miles of trails that wind through company-owned forests, which Pope Resources allows the public to use. A sign said trails were closed — and most were, due to fire danger — but the bike-shop staff had assured us we could do a short loop that included the easy Beaver Trail.

We set off on a wide logging road, thankful for the forest shade on the scorching hot day. The only sounds were bird songs and the crunch of our tires on gravel. But we hadn’t gone far when we wished we had asked for a better map or more complete directions.

The signs on the road didn’t match the landmarks on our sketchy map. We felt our way in the right general direction and, after a few wrong turns, finally found the Beaver Trail — a narrow path that, to us, looked more for hiking than biking. As novice mountain bikers, we hadn’t quite realized what we were in for: bouncing over roots and dips, dodging rocks, quick turns to the right, then left. On future trips, I would stick with the logging roads, if only to be able to concentrate on the scenery.

We briefly thought about going around again, but we still had more questions than answers about the town, so pedaled back. One of our questions was about the future, which was partially answered by a sign near the end of our loop that read:


We learned that a local coalition of 30 groups, including the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, has bought those acres, another 565 nearby and is working to acquire thousands more.

They want to preserve the land for habitat conservation and/or recreation, mostly under public ownership. At the same time, the company has submitted plans to redevelop the town, which is a National Historic Landmark, with the goal of adding 200 more homes, a farm, hotel and dock. It also has been cleaning up the old mill site. This month, the last phase of that $20 million project will begin.

Before it pulls out of Port Gamble, Pope Resources wants to revitalize the company’s birthplace and leave a legacy of which it can be proud, said Jon Rose, president of the firm’s real-estate subsidiary.

“We have kept going because the public keeps putting in the energy,” he said.

Enjoying the Town

Once back across Highway 104, we stopped at Buena Vista cemetery, at the top of a hill with the best view in town. From there, we could see all the way from the Hood Canal Bridge to the west, to the former mill site on Gamble Bay to the east.

Back down on Rainier Avenue, the town’s main drag, we turned in our bikes and, after a rich, warm scone at the Tea Room, headed to the museum, which is tucked behind and beneath the General Store.

It displays much of what you would expect — long hand saws and other logging tools, and photos of tall men dwarfed by much taller trees. But it holds some gems, too, such as inch-wide blocks of wood commemorating the last cut from one saw or another plus a color photo from 1995 of the mill’s last crew and a piece of wood with all their names carved in it. And there’s a document signed for Abraham Lincoln by his secretary in 1861, granting Pope & Talbot 15,260 acres of land, a piece of the 350,000 acres it eventually owned in Washington state.

Quaint little town? That’s Port Gamble now. But in the quiet of the morning, when few people are around, you can almost hear the mill whistle calling its crew to work and the saws ripping through the logs, and be struck by the scale of what happened here.