Butcher, baker, candlestick maker: A history of Bremerton mayors

This week, the Bremerton Patriot is kicking off a series of articles that peek into Bremerton’s 125 eventful years as a city. This first article looks back at Bremerton’s colorful mayors.

BREMERTON — If it’s true we get the government we deserve, the fledgling city of Bremerton earned a doozy.

From cads and charlatans to butchers, bakers and somewhere, very likely, a candlestick maker, Bremerton’s early mayors were a colorful lot, to say the least. But mostly they did their best in the heavy lifting of creating a living, breathing town out of the chilly frontier wilderness.

Here is a sample of early Bremerton mayors and what made them stand out, both in their own time and viewed through the prism of history:

Alvyn Littler Croxton

Bremerton’s first mayor may have had it the toughest. He set up his office, such as it was, in a half-finished shack on a vacant lot.

At that time, the population stood at about 1,700 with just 300 registered voters among the residents. When it came to legislation, Croxton stayed busy, creating 100 new ordinances in his first year in office. Those ordinances covered everything from a dress code to the licensing of traveling circuses.

Many of the ordinances concerned the licensing of saloons and prohibiting games of chance like roulette. Other new laws outlawed brass knuckles, daggers, dirks (a small but lethal stabbing weapon) and other “persuaders” of drunkenness, lewdness or the breaking up of a church meeting. The issue was so severe that the U.S. Navy threatened to pull out of Bremerton if the saloons weren’t closed. It’s hard to imagine that today.

Croxton faced being deposed as mayor when it was suggested that his job as a chief electrician in the Navy yard might, um, be construed as a conflict of interest. It was ruled that he could serve out his first term only because he no longer had any political influence.

Young J. Acton

This Irish-born immigrant opened the Pioneer Pharmacy in 1898, Bremerton’s first. He sold the pharmacy in 1907 and announced he was leaving to visit his parents in Ireland, But the Bremerton News charged that he had absconded to California with a considerable amount of his friends’ money and another man’s wife.

He took office as mayor on June 10, 1907, and served until Oct. 7, when he disappeared.

Michael Francis McGowan

Another Irish-born immigrant but with a bit less larcenous heart, McGowan served the shortest time of all Bremerton mayors. He was appointed mayor on Oct. 7, 1907, in the wake of Young Acton’s sudden disappearance. Three months later, he left office following of the election of E.A. Tucker.

But McGowan’s legacy is far greater than the brevity of his administration. He was the town’s earliest architect, designing the original Bremerton Catholic Church, the Dietz Building and the Eagles.

John A. McGillivray

One of the earliest settlers on Sinclair Inlet, McGillivray arrived in Port Orchard in 1890, then left for the Klondike in 1896 to seek his fortune. When he returned to the area in 1901, he set up shop as the town’s first blacksmith.

While serving on the city council in 1910, a group of leading citizens begged him to run for mayor to rid the town of vice. McGillivray later said Bremerton was one of the roughest settlements on the West Coast at the time, with the legendary Soapy Smith and his gang running most of the local saloons at the time.

After his term as mayor, McGillivray was elected a county commissioner and remained in that office until he decided to make another effort at mayor in 1930. He won reelection and served until 1936, when he lost his bid to Jesse Knabb. All in all, an upstanding citizen who also performed well as mayor.

Jesse Knabb

He boasted that he managed to garner more publicity for Bremerton than any other man in the city’s already colorful history.

Knabb’s days were fiery, fighting affairs, full of national publicity centering (naturally) on this man who, to his credit, made good on a campaign promise to jump off the city dock if defeated for mayor in 1933. In 1939, he was accused of conspiracy for trying to establish a gambling business.

He was Bremerton’s first Navy tailor, and gained acclaim when he was voted into office and then equally humiliated when he served a year in the county jail while another man served out his term.

Eventually Knabb’s health began to fail. He retired and moved to California to live out his life.

Helmer Oliver Domstad

H.O. “Whitey” Domstad ran away from his family’s North Dakota home and joined the Navy in 1927, serving until 1935, and then again for three years during World War II.

He first arrived in Bremerton while stationed on the destroyer USS Sinclair. He earned some regional fame by winning the heavyweight boxing championship of the entire battle force in 1934. In 1936 he won the all-Navy heavyweight boxing title.

Whitey married a local girl, Elsie Melker, in 1933. They met at the Tramo Ballroom on 4th near Park where Pearl Mauser and Ernie Lent played in the band.

During his eight years in the Navy, he served on destroyers. His last cruise brought him to Bremerton on the destroyer USS Tennessee. He made quite a civic commitment, serving as president of the Bremerton Elks, and was involved with several school bond drives, the March of Dimes and even the PTA.

While serving as mayor, Domstad was elected president of the Association of Washington Cities and the Puget Sound Governmental Conference. He and wife Elsie had one daughter, Karen. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease, possibly a result of his extensive boxing career, and died of complications from the disease.

There are others, and it’s worth poking around archives in your local library or online to find out more about Bremerton’s colorful, remarkable mayors.


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