PORT GAMBLE — The small mill town known for its New England architecture and international lumber business has been quiet for the past few years.
That is until about six months ago, when the doors to Port Gamble’s historic buildings started to open up with businesses and the grounds were filled with festivals, shedding some light on the town that had been slumbering on Gamble Bay.
Because of the resurgence of the town’s economy in recent months, the North Kitsap Herald is publishing a three-part series on Port Gamble’s past, present and future as it literally rebuilds on what is left of the historic mill town. Today’s article will touch on the town’s beginning and way of life.
PERFECT SITE, PERFECT TIMING
The small bay on the western coast of the Kitsap Peninsula was named in 1841 by Charles Wilkes. Wilkes bestowed the name to honor Lieutenant Robert Gamble, who was wounded in a sea battle during the war of 1812. But it wasn’t until 1853 that the spit became a bustling center of activity, serving the world with lumber and opportunities for jobs.
After scouring the Hood Canal in search of a perfect spot for a mill, Captain William Talbot anchored the schooner Julius Pringle in Port Gamble in September of 1853. The captain was part of a San Francisco-based lumber firm named Pope & Talbot. That company was started by Talbot, Andrew J. Pope and Captain J. P. Keller two years prior.
At the time, Native Americans called the site Teekalet, a word meaning “brightness of the noon day sun.” Captain Talbot and his crew also showed their radiance and did not waste time in constructing the mill. It was fully operational by the end of September.
From that point on, the north end of Gamble Bay was never the same. It immediately had the feel of small town America while shipping lumber to countries all over the world. It became the longest continuously running sawmill in North America until November 1995.
As the town grew, it replicated the New England way of life and style of architecture of East Machias, Maine, where Pope, Talbot and Keller originated.
But the name Port Gamble was associated with sawdust, not a lifestyle.
“In the fine print, it was a town,” said Jon Rose, the president of Olympic
Property Group, which manages the town today. “In the headlines, it was a mill.”
In 1859, mill employees and sailors petitioned for a Masonic lodge, creating the Franklin No. 5, now Washington’s oldest Masonic lodge. The community hall housed the Post Office and a theatre.
By mid-1860s, there were two mills, a store and machine shops in addition to houses built for people who worked in town, according to the book, “Time, Tide and Timber, A Century of Pope and Talbot,” by Edwin T. Coman Jr. and Helen M. Gibbs.
By 1870, Port Gamble had a population of 326 with 40 students attending the school that was built in the mid-1860s, Harriet U. Fish states in “Fish Tales of Port Gamble and Port Ludlow.”
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was completed in 1870 as well — “New England Style — as trim as ship’s spar!” according to Fish’s book.
The church was similar to the Congregational Church in East Machias and served the community until 1922 when it discontinued services. St. Paul’s reopened in 1932 because of increased interest and by 1950, the church and its Sunday school were growing.
Other efforts reflected the New England flavor as well, from the maple trees that were brought from Maine to line Port Gamble’s streets to the architecture of every home and commercial building.
The community was extremely self-sufficient. If there was a problem with anything, there was someone in town who could fix it. Problem with an electrical wire in the house? Folks could call up the mill electrician. In need of milk? They could to Babcock’s eight-sided barn, where that family kept an average of 30 to 40 cows and employed anywhere from 3 to 400 men. The Babcock farm also supplied the town with beef, pork, eggs and produce, according to “Kitsap County, A History,” published by the Kitsap County Historical Society.
A hospital was operated out of House #7 and a mortuary was located in the basement one of the homes along Rainier Avenue.
The center of activity for the town was at the Puget Hotel from 1903 to 1963, when it was severely damaged during the infamous Columbus Day storm.
The residents took great care in planning celebrations, such as Christmas and July Fourth.
“The women festooned the social hall with greenery, red balls and streamers.
A huge Christmas tree was decorated with strings of popcorn, silver colored
trinkets, and dozens of candles. This was the center for the general
festivities, and in them, all took part,” wrote Coman and Gibbs.
A dance instructor from Seattle came over to teach old and new dance steps during several holidays. Every child received a gift and all the holiday stock that had not been sold was sent from the company store to the social hall to be distributed. Every woman wore a new dress and the men wore their best suits and gloves.
For the Fourth of July holiday, the mills closed and the cookhouse prepared ham, suckling pigs and baked bread while the women brought their own specialties. Events included foot races, a concert by the Port Gamble band and a baseball game. Fireworks sent from the San Francisco headquarters of Pope and Talbot took to the sky before the children were sent to bed and the adults went dancing at the social hall.
The baseball game on July 4 was just one of many that took place every
Sunday during the summer. Teams from all the local mills and camps, including Port Ludlow, Blakely, Hadlock and Seabeck made up the Sawdust League.
The town’s population peaked in the early 1900s, right around the time cars took to the roads. But the construction of the service station in 1916 is thought to be the beginning of the decline of the town, Rose said. The car symbolized mobility and people realized they didn’t have to live in the mill town to work. They could live elsewhere and commute.
In 1968, the town was registered as a National Historic Landmark District. The town rebuilt and restored 30 houses and business buildings, located underground utilities and replaced duplicates of the gas street lamps.
By 1976, the Port Gamble Historic Museum was established, giving visitors and residents a glimpse into the past 100 years of life in Port Gamble.
It was estimated that 200 homes existed with 500 residents at the town’s peak. But by 1995, 85 people remained employed at Pope & Talbot.
On Nov. 30 of that year, the mill closed, due to an economic recession, environmental issues, decreasing timber resources and fierce competition, according to Pope and Talbot’s web site, www.poptal.com.
After more than 140 years of churning out timber for the rest of the world, Port Gamble fell into a deep slumber — until it was awoken seven years later by one man and his staff.
Wednesday: The Rehabilitation Period