PORT TOWNSEND — One of the town’s main attractions is a dead whale named Hope, and no one seems to find this ironic.
Day in and out, people trade tips on green living while sipping cocktails on decks overlooking one of Puget Sound’s last surviving waterfront pulp mills. Much of what’s produced in these parts is still made by hand — some of this (wood boats) is traditional; some of it (handblown glass “pleasure products”) decidedly not.
Welcome ashore to Port Townsend, the mischievously cocked eyebrow of Northwest Washington.
It’s a regionally famous, historic seaport where an unofficial civic motto, emblazoned across T-shirts downtown, boasts: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” The locals laugh, but they own it, embrace it and even roll it down Main Street once a year in the Great Kinetic Sculpture Race.
Contradictions are part of the very sandstone foundation. The history-dripping, Victorian-themed waterfront jewel — which surely will be featured in some upcoming flick about Steampunk culture — literally rests on a platform of the past: Its exoskeleton includes military bases and heavy industry from eras largely extinct.
Yet people here still look with great hope — the concept, not the skeletal whale — to a progressive future powered by the prevailing local passions: the arts, the natural world and education — all lashed together by the spirit of exploration that comes with the town’s seafaring heritage.
“It attracts creative people,” Jake Beattie, executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center, says of his adopted hometown. “You don’t accidentally find yourself living in Port Townsend. There’s a certain drive to exist there that comes from a passion of some sort.
“It’s a community that doesn’t just leave people alone. If what you value is engagement, Port Townsend is your spot.”
This, he thinks, is what has set the town apart from Day One, and especially since it underwent its own revival/cultural revolution in the Age of Aquarius, when the same flower-powered energy that sent youth “back to the land” sent some people to Port Townsend to get back to the sea.
“Within all that,” says Beattie, 43, who was not alive but has heard tales told, “is that groovy idea of equality … of giving a damn about a place that is more about sweat equity than equity partnerships.”
The town, also ahead of its time, locals say, in embracing the local gay community and nurturing a generation of powerful current female civic and business leaders, has always exuded its own charisma, and hopes to keep nourishing it. But modern forces, largely economic, chip, chip away at the town’s salty countenance and, some say, threaten its very soul.
“The question is, how do we grow respectfully and responsibly?” asks Robert d’Arcy, captain of the foundation for the statuesque Schooner Martha, a 1907 wooden sailing vessel that is now a local icon. “It’s an age-old problem.”
THE CITY, LIKE most everything else around here, was named by George Vancouver after a wig-wearing friend. It literally was born as the place white settlers would stop and check in on the way into Puget Sound, and today is one of the last working-waterfront towns in the Northwest. Most tourists won’t notice, but the diversity of maritime skills on display here daily is remarkable, especially for a village of its size.
At the local Boat Haven, the ongoing rebuild of the Western Flyer, a 77-foot wood sardine-fishing boat that served as the scene-setter for John Steinbeck’s 1951 “The Log From the Sea of Cortez,” is a good example. It’s being dismantled and remade, chunk of rot at a time, by a mix of people and materials that might not exist in any other single port in the country.
Workers at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op do all the work by hand — with the assistance of some not-so-modern power tools, such as a massive, century-plus-old band saw salvaged from the yard that built the twice-sunk Flyer in Tacoma in 1937.
New timber for the ship comes from nearby Edensaw Woods, one of the only places in the country where you can order up some purple heart, a remarkably dense structural wood from South America, to lay a keel strip for a large wooden ship — a mostly lost art.
“We have a very symbiotic relationship” with the wood company and other local specialty firms, says woodworker Pete Rust, employing a word often used to describe PT business and crafts relationships.
Nearby, other workers are building aluminum boats of all sizes at a pair of do-it-all shipyards: ACI Boats, finishing up two large tourist haulers for delivery in Hawaii, alongside a long line of other vessels awaiting repairs and reshapings, and Craftsmen United, which recently repurposed a large oil-rig supply boat bought on the cheap in Louisiana into an Alaska salmon tender.
The little port once known largely as a haunt of woodworkers has evolved, big time, notes Craftsmen United owner Dan Wiggins.
“We do everything here,” he says. No matter the job, “I never have to look any farther than my own backyard. We all know each other.”
As a maritime center, “Port Townsend is a resilient place,” Wiggins says. “We’re tough to kill.”
This is a point of pride that at times can feel like a cry for help.
The local maritime industry, according to a 2018 economic study commissioned by the 13-year-old Port Townsend Marine Trades Association, provides 1,154 direct jobs and another 1,000 related to that work, pumping $336 million in revenue and another $135 million in wages into the economy.
That’s not huge coin on a Port of Seattle scale, but it buys a lot of chowder in a town of 10,000, in a county with fewer than 30,000 residents. Still, even amid their successes, local maritime principals say they feel like they’re constantly swimming upstream against tides of gentrification.
For now, the town is still that rare place where the offspring of a local sailmaker, shipwright or whale biologist might grow up in mostly fresh air, get schooled in place-based arts and sciences, and find careers that will make them stick.
But all of it is at risk, d’Arcy laments, “If you have this concept where you build a lot of condos, hotels and latte stands” on lands vital to the town’s heritage, and what many hope will be its future.
Paradox alert: The “authentic grit” character that comes with PT’s successful maritime industry — and oh, don’t even mention the stunning physical location, with half the rain of Seattle and sweeping saltwater/mountain views — today fuels a tourism and rich-relocator economy that threatens the very heritage that spawned it.
Which is not to say PT has become too cute for its own good — yet. Some semblance of balance has been achieved between the forces, but local folks with aluminum-stained hands who know their sheer strakes from a hole in the ground seem to spend a lot of time down at Sunrise Coffee fretting over tipping points.
THIS ANGST HAS grown more acute the past five years, with the PT populace rapidly becoming, in the blunt words of one of the town’s best-known residents, legendary 90-year-old mountaineer Jim Whittaker: “older, with a lot more money.”
Aside from a lamentable demographic graying (a new local T-shirt zings: “Port Townsend: Where old people come to visit their parents”), housing prices have soared with an influx of 1-percenters.
Even local home sellers, such as former mayor, current local real estate agent and city council member Michelle Sandoval, are sounding a general-quarters alarm about PT’s housing prices, and their erosive effect on a traditionally tight community.
Sandoval came to PT 27 years ago from California and still describes it as “one of the most magical places in the world.” Which, of course, is part of its problem. Asked to sum up the shortage of homes available to younger, blue-collar workers, she sighs audibly.
“It’s pretty extreme,” she says. “The vacancy rate for rentals is zero. Instead of 80 to 100 homes on the market in a balanced market, we have 15. It’s supply-and-demand mode, and the prizes are crazy.”
Homes listed at $400,000 only five years ago now hit the market at twice that, while household incomes hover around $50,000. Most of the infrequently available homes have been snapped up by retirees or trust-funders; telecommuters priced out of Seattle; or well-off relocators looking for a first or second home less subject to wildfires, drought or other warming-planet maladies, local real estate agents say.
Even the older folks here find it troubling to see the town and surrounding county get statistically even older, and drift from an avowed blue-collar ethic.
“What I see every day is the extremes of America,” Sandoval says. “People who have multiple homes, and the people who have no home and can’t afford one.”
The impact is huge on any small community, especially in tourist towns: The local hospital, school district, city government, and fire and police departments struggle to attract qualified workers, many of whom now live an hour or more away.
Even in a region still overwhelmingly rural, the owners of local maritime firms say many of their workers go home every night to Port Angeles, Kitsap County or even farther afield. The lack of affordable housing left three dozen jobs unfilled this summer at Fort Worden conference center, Executive Director Dave Robison says.
The city is working to ease the crunch by encouraging more units, but progress has been slow, Sandoval admits. Retooling long-occupied building spaces is even tougher in a physically small town where the list of historic sites on a brochure is 56 places deep.
The city also has restricted the renting of homes through online short-term rental services such as Airbnb, but like most small municipalities, it can’t bird-dog all that activity.
Wearing her hat as a civic leader, Sandoval strives to remind potential newcomers of social responsibilities.
“Many say they’re (politically) liberal when they move here,” Sandoval explains. “But the fact that they can afford the houses — the privilege of that — affects the community. I would hope they would be wise enough to know they’ll have to participate, and make sure that the values they moved here for are kept safe.”
Some do, effectively merging into a local culture long steeped in civic engagement. But the trends are ominous.
“It’s a wonderful town, so I’m glad people love it and are passionate about it,” Sandoval says. “It’s a community that still has its soul. We don’t want to lose that. This town needs to be whole. And to be whole, we need young people.”
It will cost money, and — perhaps even more challenging in a “change-averse” community — likely will require all-new thinking about public spaces and places long considered inviolate.
“I think it will be hard,” Sandoval says. “I think it’s going to be a fight.”
NOTHING NEW THERE, says Fort Worden’s Robison, chuckling. He’s the bearer of battle scars over many years in the center ring of Port Townsend civic life/strife.
More than a decade ago, Robison as a city planner was in the midst of the battle, ultimately successful, to save a key Water Street waterfront parcel from large-scale condo or spa development. Today, the land hosts the Northwest Maritime Center, a sprawling, open-beamed, wood-and-glass structure that has become its own civic magnet.
The center is home to a roomy boathouse, which stores a set of vintage Pocock rowing shells — some of them still plying local waters every week under power of community rowing-club members young and more-experienced. It also hosts a working boatbuilding shop, lab and meeting spaces, and educational facilities; every local kid gets steeped in the ways of the water here at some point in his or her public-school career.
Out front, a beachfront plaza offers a rare civic gift in a wharf-oriented town: touch-the-water beach real estate, with tables and chairs and sand for loitering, and a long finger pier reaching into Port Townsend Bay.
But in a town where many like to call synchronized knee-jerking a leading form of exercise, even this unique civic focal point was controversial during its birthing. Some locals groused that it was too big or too touristy; a handful of locals even issued a planning-stage verdict usually fatal: “Not authentic enough!”
Not many say that anymore. (Asked about this, Beattie, the center’s director, deadpans: “Well, I haven’t heard anyone call it the Night-Maritime Center in quite a while.”)
Other civic fights have centered on the same issues: A port proposal to sell working-waterfront land for condo development was nixed. Rules were passed to make it more difficult for chain stores larger than, say, an Ace Hardware to locate here (Sequim, which long ago threw out the big, fat welcome mat for same, takes off some of the pressure.) The fight to save a local pharmacy from death-by-chain spawned a memorable slogan: “Rite Aid, Wrong Town!”
But the looming fight over scraps of remaining space threatens to be a lot messier, because it leaps right over old political trenches. Residents are about to be asked to skooch over a bit more, not for developers or soulless global corporate types, but regular folks — cops, teachers, potters and sailmakers — just trying to get by.
As time marches on and space lessens, dividing lines between right and wrong blur.
EVEN SO, THE little burg at the tip of Quimper Peninsula, where on certain days, whales will swim by, and nobody thinks to dial 911 or summon Chopper 7, has another ace up its sleeve, Robison says.
It’s the local embrace of arts and education, successfully wed, for the most part, to that timeworn maritime theme.
Fort Worden, a unique mélange of historic, war-era barracks, batteries and officers’ quarters, is fueling that passion. Once a sort of awkward, conference-center afterthought of Washington State Parks, the complex is undergoing a local-control metamorphosis under an innovative Public Development Authority.
The central 90 acres has been reshaped into a “Lifelong Learning Center” capable of housing very large groups, retreats or festivals. The neat rows of officers’ quarters, mostly two- to six-bedroom houses rented to the public, are being slowly but faithfully renovated.
Other spaces on the sprawling, blufftop campus have been repurposed to house courses for Peninsula College and the John Dewey-inspired, Vermont-based Goddard College. The campus hosts a community radio station studio, a massage institute, multiple concert stages, a woodworking school and a brew pub in the fort’s old guard house — a unique bar behind bars, of sorts.
It all fits with, and sustains, the area’s unusually robust cadre of local nonprofits, many of which use the campus full-time or on occasion.
Fans of Fort Worden, which this summer broke even more new ground with a cutting-edge music/arts festival called THING (like many other THINGS here, the event, headlined by Violent Femmes, was lukewarmly anticipated by curmudgeons in town, but begrudgingly deemed successful after cleanup and haul-out), believe it can serve as the eye of a PT cultural hurricane, providing the authentic, artisanal oomph needed to keep the town unique.
Projects like the Maritime Center and Fort Worden, living pillars of the town’s distinct culture, can serve not only to keep that vibe alive, but enshrine it, Robison believes. They are, he says, testament to how much Port Townsend didn’t — and still doesn’t — want to “become just another Carmel.”
He gets it. Port Townsend has always been as much a mindset as a place, and everyone’s notion of the ideal is frozen in mental amber when they experience their own case of topographic love at first sight.
“I’ve been here for 30 years,” Robison says. “My wife has been here for 45. It’s my observation that when people drive down into town on the S curve (via State Route 20), they see the bay below, they see Mount Baker in the background, they see the (1892) County Courthouse — and everything is shining and glittering. And they fall in love with Port Townsend.”
Or, at least, their idea of it.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 1973, 1990 or 2019,” he says. “That first impression … that’s the way they want to save and protect the town forever.”
Splendor, you see, is relative; your grandfather’s paradise lost is a younger person’s splendor found. But Port Townsend’s essential community thread, the old and young seem to agree, is important: It’s maintaining a town with a special character of place that still makes a place for characters.
Mission possible? Perhaps here, if anywhere. The Californians keep coming, but when the first rains roll around each September, the Wooden Boat Festival still floats.
“I think we’ve been lucky,” Sandoval says, “to hold on to as much as we have.”