ON A WARM evening in mid-August, smoke from hundreds of British Columbian fires had crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca, turning the sun an unsettling red over Port Angeles, where I’d paused for a photo and a bite to eat. Offering solace, the Clallam County Courthouse bell tolled the hour as it had for over a century.
For Port Angeles, 1914 was a banner year, pregnant with promise. A gleaming hydroelectric dam had just been erected on the Elwha River, supplying the county seat’s electrical needs. The city’s first large sawmill was built on the waterfront and connected by rail to stands of virgin timber to the west. A vast regrade was well underway, raising the waterfront, filling gullies and lowering the steeper hills. And work on the new courthouse, featured in our “Then” photo, was largely complete.
Evidence of the area’s human habitation reaches back almost three millennia, with two Klallam villages sharing the harbor for at least 400 years. They called it I’e’nis (reportedly meaning “good beach”), which morphed into two names now in use: Ediz Hook (the city’s long and protective signature sand spit jutting east into the Strait) and snow-fed Ennis Creek, which empties into the bay.
Port Angeles’ natural, deep-water harbor was noted by Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza in 1791 and dubbed Puerto de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Port of Our Lady of the Angels). One year later, British Royal Navy Capt. George Vancouver, a staunch Anglican, shortened the name to its current two words.
In the mid-1850s, the first permanent white settlers arrived, staking Donation Land Act claims near Native villages. Over succeeding decades, land speculators, shady political operators, a utopian colony, and pulp and paper mill operations flourished while ejecting the Klallam from their ancestral homes.
Designed by early 20th-century Seattle architect Francis W. Grant, the two-story neoclassical brick and terra-cotta-trimmed courthouse was nothing if not aspirational. Built to replace a wooden structure destabilized by the regrade, its graceful, sturdy lines reflected bright boomtown hopes. Locals also appreciated its rock-bottom price of $64,000.
The four-faced clock/bell tower — today proudly featured on the Clallam County seal — was installed after a serendipitous discovery. Francis Grant unearthed an unclaimed, Boston-based E. Howard and Co. clock, manufactured in 1880 and shipped around Cape Horn to Seattle. It languished in storage for decades until the architect encouraged Clallam County to pick it up for a $5,115 song.
It continues to sing to this day, faithfully striking every half-hour.