Please note: The information contained here is true to the best of my knowledge, but I was born and raised in Port Townsend, so take it all with a grain of salt. If you want some serious, well-researched history with lots of names, dates, and photo opportunities, get in touch with one of the many ex-Californians that moved there within the last five years for the expressed purpose of becoming historical tour guides.
Quaint Victorian seaport, tourist trap, last refuge of aging hippies and disgruntled Californians, gateway to the Olympic Peninsula, cursed and dying land; home to countless artists, musicians, festivals, and random bizarre traditions; the perfect place to grow up or retire, but you wouldn't want to live there.
Founded in 1851, Port Townsend sits on the northeast tip of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, conveniently and picturesquely located between the majestic waters of Puget Sound and the no-less-majestic Olympic Mountains. Not too warm in the Summer, not too cold in the Winter. The beaches are calm and sure, the trees are forever green, and if you stay a week you'll see just about every color of sunset imaginable. For natural eye candy, it can't be beat.
Back in the 80s (the bit where I started paying attention), the town was composed roughly 50/50 of paper mill employees and poor but happy flower children who had somehow managed to avoid growing up and selling out. It wasn't uncommon to live in a large Victorian mansion, yet purchase most of your groceries with food stamps. Everyone ate at the town tavern, where $3.50 bought a family dinner, cats wandered freely about the tables, and drifters washed your dishes in exchange for a hot meal and a bed for the night. My parents bartered firewood for baroque instruments and music lessons for dental work. A precocious child could chat up strangers in a cafe all morning, and be taken as seriously as it pleased.
Nowadays, Port Townsend's economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism, and most of the remaining old-timers have a bitter story about passing up a house with a water view for mere pennies just decades ago, only to watch it sell for close to a million in the last few years. Bartering and listening to children are out, historically accurate color schemes and property values are in. As is often the case when a small beautiful place is discovered, each new person who falls in love with the town ruins it a little more for all who came before. Still, the awe-inspiring natural surroundings and unusually high number of artists, writers, and poets remain, and some of Olde Port Townsend survives. Perhaps it will still be there when I'm old and tired, and ready to come home.
In short, Port Townsend (especially Fort Worden) can claim some of the most poetry-inducing scenery to be found, and when you visit, there will almost certainly be at least one quirky celebration and one rich cultural event underway. Simply understand that, along with the warm welcomes you will receive from downtown merchants and fellow merry makers, you are likely to garner the occasional scowl from a bitter fourth-generation Port Townsendite who is no longer instantly recognized by all the people at his favorite restaurant. This will persist until you've been in the town for a few generations yourself, but it's nothing personal. If you want to minimize the wrath incurred, be sure to use the park and ride at the outskirts of town (rather than taking up valuable parking space in downtown proper), avoid stopping in the middle of the street to take pictures and point at the quaint architecture, and generally try to get into the spirit of things, rather than just gawking at all the crazy locals.
Fun "Facts" About Port Townsend:
Local legend has it that Port Townsend was once a dumping ground for the indigenous people's infirm and insane. Many people (especially those involved in city politics) say this is rather fitting.
Local legend goes on to say that when settlers drove the native peoples out of the area, a curse was placed upon the land, ensuring that no one would ever know peace or happiness there, so long as it remained in the hands of the white man.
In a possibly related matter, I've recently been informed by a friend of a friend of an ancient and powerful entity channeled by some wacky space cult that Port Townsend has the second highest concentration of negative energy to be found on this planet. The Entity (sadly, I never learned its name) warns that Port Townsend draws those with special sensitivities and powers of insight to it, and slowly corrupts them, driving them insane. Personally, I find this rather difficult to believe, despite having seen it in action on numerous occasions.
Near the end of the 1800s, Port Townsend narrowly escaped becoming the next big city, thanks to a bit of political struggling with neighboring Port Angeles, WA and an unfortunate economic downturn, which resulted in the loss of a proposed railroad system. The trains eventually met the harbor in the small logging town of Seattle.
Port Townsendites like to complain about the weather just like any other self-respecting group of Pacific North-westerners, but the secret shameful truth is that Port Townsend is safely within the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, and gets a mere 16 inches of rain per year.
Several movies have been shot in Port Townsend, including (but not limited to) Enough, Snow Falling on Cedars, and An Officer and a Gentleman.
Port Townsenders, like any other self-respecting group of Pacific North-westerners, never complain about the weather. To play spot the tourist, simply look for an umbrella.
In Port Townsend, as with many small waterfront-based towns, directions to anywhere can be given in terms of up and down.
"Where is the high school?"
"Up. Big brick building."
"How do I get to the marina?"
"Down. Big wet thing with lots of boats."
That is not a sewage treatment plant behind the police station, it's art. A tidal clock, to be specific. A half finished tidal clock, to be even more exact. On May 12, 1982, Ruth Seavy Jackson died, leaving a large portion of her $200,000
to the city; her instructions were to "erect a sculptured object or artistic monument," with a caveat that, should a sculpture fail to be realized within a reasonable time-frame, the money would be used to support the training of seeing eye dogs. Not wanting to risk seeing the money fall into the hands of the blind, the town council quickly assembled a jury of five art professionals from other cities -- and, after some protest, one local artist -- to select the most deserving of the proposed objects. Several years and all of Mrs. Jackson's money (plus a few other sources of funding) later, the result of that committee decision is a hideous concrete scar upon the waterfront. Since it has yet to be completed, it cannot act as a proper tidal clock, so its primary functions are collecting floating refuse and confusing tourists. Locals refer to it as the tide-y bowl.
Rumours abound of as-yet-undiscovered shanghai tunnels under the downtown streets.
The intersection of Cherry and F is a four-way stop, and has been for years now. Come on, people, get a clue!
Most people, when attempting to impersonate a Victorian-era Port Townsend citizen, will lapse into a poor English accent. For the record, Port Townsend has never been located in England.
It is sometimes claimed by local historians that, on his way to Alaska, Jack London was privileged to spend a night in the Port Townsend jail.
Node-worthy Things In Port Townsend: