Traveling Northbound on Highway 3 towards the Hood Canal Bridge, a large brown sign stands on the shoulder reading “National Historic Landmark straight ahead.” Passing the bridge exit on my left, Highway 3 becomes Highway 104 East as it quickly narrows and slows to a cautious 25 mph. Entering a large thicket of Evergreens the forest grows dense and dark. Then, as if shooting out of a time portal, you emerge into a scene of early Washington state history. A living, working museum, time stamped and sealed inside a 120-acre plot of Kitsap County known as Port Gamble, Washington.
Port Gamble played a pivotal role in the colonization and growth of the Puget Sound Region, from the first interactions of European expeditions with the S’Klallam people to naval battles against raiding war parties from the far north. From the longest operating timber mill in U.S. history to its National Historic Landmark entitlement, this company town on the shores of Gamble Bay has a story to tell.
Early Days of Port Gamble
Standing at the town flagpole, looking north from Teekalet Bluff, you can see straight up the mouth of the Hood Canal towards Admiralty Inlet, leading towards the Pacific Ocean. It was on this horizon that the mighty ships first appeared, forever shaping the cultures and peoples that inhabited the land and seas.
In 1841, while on expedition to explore the coast and inland waterways of the Pacific Northwest, Commander Charles Wilkes came ashore and camped near a shallow and well protected bay, naming it Gamble Bay. Most sources point towards Lt. Col. John M. Gamble, veteran of the War of 1812, as the namesake, but there was also another Gamble, Lt. Robert Gamble, wounded aboard the USS President in a skirmish with Britain’s Royal Navy. Wilkes himself never names an honoree; with the only mention of the word gamble coming from his journals are entries of indigenous trading parties gambling and trading for goods near the bay.
The easy access to both abundant timber lands and the Pacific trade routes caught the attention of William Talbot and Andrew Pope in 1853. Two New England businessmen hailing from Maine, they quickly recognized the potential and set forth with partners, Josiah Keller and Charles Foster in creating the Puget Mill Company. Originally referred to as Teekalet, the town built to support the mill soon took on the name Port Gamble, after the bay it loomed over.
Building Port Gamble
With more timber than the local workforce could keep up with, the mill reached out to their hometown of East Machias, Maine, for help on the line. Workers came in droves, bringing their families and taking a gamble of their own, moving some 2,500 miles from all they knew to help build a town. So many Mainers came to Port Gamble with homesick hearts and decided to replicate East Machias with many of the structures they were building in the new mill town.
St. Paul’s Church, built in 1878 on the east side of town, was constructed from the same design as the old church in East Machias. Business was good, with the Puget Mill Company supplying lumber to the world, while Port Gamble continued to grow. Then in 1856, a waring party descended from the Northern Pacific coastal forests and islands, paddling into the waters now known as the Puget Sound, looking to engage with local Salish Tribes and settlers alike.
The Battle of Port Gamble
In the fall of 1856, a large raiding party of northern warriors entered the Salish Sea and paddled south until they reached Fort Steilacoom. Having been recently fortified with the outbreak of war in the Washington territory, the fort proved the risk was not worth reward and the Tingit turned away without conflict. By that time the element of surprise quickly turned to a hasty retreat, but not before the U.S. Navy took notice and dispatched the USS Massachusetts to intercept the fleet of fleeing canoes.
The wooden steamer finally caught up to the Tingit as they camped on the shores of Gamble Bay, forcing Port Gamble residents into heavy timber block houses for protection. A brief battle would ensue and by the time the dust and smoke cleared, 28 people had lost their lives. 27 of those were from the roaming Tingit Tribe with just one being a U.S. casualty. Gustave Englebrecht, coxswain aboard the USS Massachusetts, was bestowed the notoriety of becoming the first casualty of war for the U.S. Navy in Pacific Ocean waters when he fell to return fire during the battle.
After the battle scars had subsided, thoughts quickly turned to the export of goods. Around here, that was measured in board footage. With abundant resources at its disposal, the Puget Mill Company, later named Pope & Talbot, thrived for 142 years. The longest operating mill in U.S. history built a fleet of ships that shipped Olympic Peninsula timber from Asia to South Africa and most places in between.
The mill supplied lumber to all parts of the world, but closer to home it supplied a steady income for countless families, not only from the mill, but the many business trades the mill relied on to run smoothly. The mill literally grew itself into a community that spanned a century before finally closing the gate for good in 1995. With the loss of its main employer, the town quickly turned its focus to the preservation of its past. The property was acquired and restored by Pope Resources to the high nostalgic charm you see today.
Traveling to Port Gamble
The simplest way to get to Port Gamble is to drive north on Highway 16 out of Tacoma which turns into Highway 3 in Bremerton and takes you straight into Port Gamble. The most scenic route would be aboard a ferry crossing the Puget Sound. Hop on the Seattle to Bainbridge or the Edmonds to Kingston, both routes take you from the mainland to the Kitsap Peninsula.
I arrived on a cloudy, dreary, Washington kind of day. The sun struggled to break through the cold hanging fog rolling in off the water. After parking the car I walked a few trips around town to orientate myself and warm up the blood.
Easy to explore, on foot Port Gamble offers miles of walking trails in the woods just south of town across the road. Look for the carved monkey standing guard at the trailhead leading the way. Unfortunately today, do not enter signs were posted due to Herron nesting season, so my walk in the woods was detoured back to town. With plenty of parking, Port Gamble makes it easy to park the car once and see everything on foot in an easy carefree afternoon.
Things to Do and See
Port Gamble, admittedly, is not a very big town. You could make a lap of the whole village in 25 minutes if you really wanted to. But you should try and linger, take your time and enjoy the details that Port Gamble offers.
Walk the town and find the red plaques placed street side in front of most structures. Each sign tells a brief story pertaining to the historically significance of that building or family which made that house a home so long ago. You can learn a lot just by taking a stroll around the town center. Check out the massive anchors from past trade ships located outside the historical museum and theater.
For those of you looking for something with a bit more speed, head over to Olympic Outdoor Center (OPC) for all things adventure. Rent a mountain bike to glide the 20 plus miles of wooded single track and dirt road while taking in the sea air. They have the water covered as well, grab a paddle board or a kayak and enjoy the salty shores of Gamble Bay. OPC offer kayak adventures and paddle tours of the local waters with experienced guides that know the area.
Walk up the hill to the Buena Vista Cemetery for the best view in town. With some of Port Gambles earliest arrivals and heroic war veterans, a walk through the green turfed place of rest is a history lesson in itself. With 60 plots of 120 years old or more, Buena Vista has the retired souls of Josiah Keller, original partner in the Puget Mill Company and Gustave Englebrecht.
For a shopping excursion, the Artful Ewe sells locally hand woven tapestry and clothing made on wooden looms. They also host classes and workshops along with other local artists. Also, check out the Teekalet Trading Post for local town info and shop an array of eclectic items. One of the older homes in town, the M.S. Drew House, ca. 1860, belonged to the Puget Mill timber agent and his family. The shiplap sided Victorian home now belongs to Wish, a small boutique store working within the same footprint that the Drew family lived in. The small rooms of the store give it a quiet intimate feel.
Port Gamble Theater
Visit the Port Gamble Theater for a fun weekend night out. Located in the old yellow Post Office building across from the flag pole, this rustic theater runs just a handful of productions a year. Unwind as local thespians take you on a journey to another time and place. With a mix of lighthearted, family friendly theater and classics like Shakespeare and Dickens, there’s a show for everyone. The theater, built in 1906, stays busy playing host to other events throughout the year so check out their online calendar for theater and event details.
The General Store
The General Store is part museum and part gift shop, full of Pacific Northwest gifts and a delicious deli and coffee shop set quietly in the back. Since 1916, the General Store supplied the townsfolk with everyday goods and services needed for the isolated families. Head to the stairs to the second floor loft and museum take a spin around the seven seas. Rare fish, crustaceans, shark heads and other curated creatures of the deep line the shelves of this unique showroom.
As you head back downstairs, again, slow down and take notice of the beautifully stained, original wooden staircase ascending all 3 levels inside the open concept store. Wrap around lofts once used for storage now double as the museum floor and office space. The ground floor of the General Store features some handmade local art pieces, home décor and clothing for sale along with your typical gift shop souvenir items. It’s worth a trip just to soak in the ambiance of the place.
Where to Eat
Though food options may be limited, expectations are met with satisfaction when it comes to grabbing a meal inside the preserved town center. Scratch Kitchen serves fresh local food with an amazing view of the harbor starting at 7 a.m. Adjacent to the General Store, Scratch has a full bar with local beers only on tap and outdoor seating for the days much warmer than today. Heavy vault doors with the Puget Mill Company insignia hide in the shadows and thick timber slats line the floor, showing the buildings age and reverence giving to preserving it.
On the main route through town as you pass through you’ll see the old service station. Its unremarkable likeness to any early American roadside service station built in the 1920’s is apparent. A tall wooden high hat stands over a group dining table where early automobiles once lined up for service. The main service building lost its roll up doors for pull up lunch and has now been converted to serve charcuterie and local cheeses paired with wines and ales from the area. Butcher & Baker Provisions has a full sit down restaurant serving small batch meals with of to-go items for the traveler passing through.
Where to Stay
If you decide to make a weekend of it, stay in town and wake up with the sound of waves crashing at the shoreline and birds chirping from the bramble. Look up the Port Gamble Guest Houses for a comfortable stay in a serene location. Looking north from your private cliff side perch, the houses have the best view in town. Scan out your back porch for Pacific Seals and Bald Eagles while sipping coffee in this one of a kind stay.
Make it a quick stop on the way to somewhere else or spend the weekend. Port Gamble has plenty to share about this small pocket of Kitsap County, which supplied the wood used to build the new world.