“All of my uncles worked (at the Port Gamble Mill) and I remember the smell of their clothes and seeing their big black lunch boxes and hard hats all the time. I remember after it closed … thinking how quiet it seemed and how dark it was over there at Port Gamble.”
— Kelly Sullivan, Port Gamble S’Klallam member.
In last month’s column, I wrote of early S’Klallam history, which is a natural segue to Port Gamble, its mill and our shared, if sometimes uneasy, history.
Archaeological evidence from Point Julia demonstrates that our ancestors were living around Port Gamble Bay for nearly a thousand years before the mill. These villages were nestled in and relied on the surrounding forest, which was filled with cedar and yew that were used for homes, canoes, paddles, herring rakes, and other necessities of daily life.
It was this natural land that also attracted the first white settlers. An account of the first Pope & Talbot ship to the area “found wilderness. Dense forests of enormous trees stretched unbroken from the horizon to the water’s edge. The whole world seemed covered with a silent, impenetrable blanket of green.” This “impenetrable blanket of green” wasn’t exactly true — S’Klallam and other Tribes lived all along the coastline of Washington state!
In 1853, the Port Gamble Mill was established by the Puget Mill Company, which was owned by Andrew J. Pope and Frederic Talbot. Oral historical and archeological records show that the mill was built on the site of a S’Klallam village. My ancestors were removed from their homes and sent across the bay to live on Point Julia. In return, our oral historical record says the mill’s owners promised my Tribe’s ancestors lumber to build homes and a guarantee of jobs as long as the mill remained operational. Thus began the relationship between the Port Gamble S’Klallam, Pope & Talbot, and its eventual subsidiary, Pope Resources.
Many Port Gamble S’Klallam families include several generations of mill employees. Tribal historians estimate that, conservatively, during the mill’s 142 years of operation, Port Gamble S’Klallam members worked the equivalent of 500 years. The mill offered generally consistent employment, which meant the S’Klallam didn’t scatter in the way other Tribes did during the industrialization of America. This was an even bigger boon for the mill and its owners — the S’Klallam workforce was the most stable and reliable. Unlike non-Native labor — which ebbed and flowed with different resource booms — we weren’t going anywhere.
For the first several decades of mill operations, Tribal members used canoes to “commute” to work while living at Point Julia. While Tribal members continued to rely on traditional ways, such as hunting and fishing, they now had access to the company store and its endless supply of manufactured goods: clothing, furniture, work gear, food. Imagine what experiencing a place like that must have been like for people used to relying exclusively on the land and their own ingenuity!
In its heyday, Port Gamble — fueled by the mill workers — bustled with energy and was a daily companion in the lives of Tribal families. The mill was such a constant that you could literally set your watch to its 5 p.m. end-of-work whistle! The workers and their families — no matter their ethnicity and heritage, living on the Reservation or in company housing at Port Gamble — bonded. Children played together, spouses became friends, and the workers became teammates not only at work, but also on the baseball field.
Another, much more unfortunate, constant during mill times was the smell; it permeated everything! After the mill closed in 1994, it also left behind decades of wood waste and toxins polluting Port Gamble Bay. Just last year, Pope Resources and the state Department of Ecology announced a cleanup plan for the bay.
While the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe shares history with the mill and Port Gamble, we did not begin at their arrival, nor did we end when the mill split its last tree. My Tribe has been here — in a place by Port Gamble Bay — for generations and it is here where we will remain.
— Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.