At 164 years old, Port Gamble, on Washington State’s Kitsap Peninsula, is the oldest company-owned lumber town in the western United States. The town was built by merchants and seamen from East Machias, Maine who originally came west as part of the ten thousand New Englanders joining the California Gold Rush. Even today, the village exudes nineteenth century New England charm. Port Gamble, Washington is now a National Historic Landmark.
History of Port Gamble
The stately homes and businesses built for the employees of the Pope and Talbot Lumber Mill now house modern day conveniences for tourists and locals—an outdoor recreation shop, tearoom, restaurants, community theatre, destination wedding venues, museums and gift stores. Though it caters to 21st century visitors, the village has not forgotten its nineteenth century timber/seafaring company town roots.
In the mid 1800s, news of the vast timber resources in Washington reached the East Machias, Maine men and families who had come west for the California gold fields. Businessman Andrew J. Pope and seaman Captain William Talbot decided to join forces to build a sawmill and dock on Gamble Bay. Their plan was to export lumber to San Francisco to feed the construction demand as the city expanded during the Gold Rush.
As the gold supply diminished, Pope and Talbot recruited men to come north to work in the mills. They platted out a town on the bluff above the Gamble Bay mill and docks. They built a church, school, company general store, rental houses and dormitories in the gabled, steep roof style of their hometown Maine villages and called it Port Gamble.
In the mid 1960s, the Pope and Talbot Company, recognizing the decline in locally sourced timber and the historical and tourism potential of their company town, began restoring and refurbishing buildings. On November 30, 1995, they closed the mill. Today an environmental effort is underway to clean up the mill and dock site and restore Gamble Bay to its original state.
But up on the bluff of the platted townsite, eighty-five structures line the quaint, tree-lined streets, many of them catering to tourists and locals who come for the town’s waterfront scenery, its history, its restaurants and its outdoor activities. Most of the attractions can be found in the commercial buildings along its main street. Homes that formerly housed mill workers can be leased long term or rented as short-term vacation homes. For culture, fine food and recreation, here are some of Port Gamble’s highlights:
Port Gamble General Store
In its days as a company town, the general store handed out employee paychecks and sold supplies such as coffee, brooms, toys, tools and other goods to employees, nearby settlers and S’Klallam tribal members. Today the building still houses a retail store stocked with gifts, local foodstuff and seasonal decor.
On the second floor, visitors can walk through the Sea and Shore Museum’s collection of over 25,000 seashells while the basement of the building houses the Port Gamble Historic Museum. This little gem is the definitive archive of Port Gamble history, designed and curated with help from the Smithsonian. The Port Gamble Store includes a cafe, Scratch Kitchen, on the building’s north side. It is an newly re-opened restaurant with an outdoor deck for summer months and cozy inside tables.
Mrs. Muir’s House in Port Gamble
Located in one of the main street houses originally designed for married couples, Mrs. Muir’s House is a full-service tearoom and gift shop. Mrs. Muir’s serves a pot of tea with scones, marmalade and Devonshire cream, sandwiches and crepes all in a pretty, sunlit tearoom. The shop sells tea and tea accessories and, in a small alcove room, all manner of Harry Potter themed gifts.
Butcher and Baker Provisions in Port Gamble
The town’s newest culinary destination is located in its former 1920’s auto repair and service station. Butcher and Baker serves up wholesome sandwiches, charcuterie boards, pastas and soups as well as custom ordered meats and baked goods as its name suggests. Seating is available in its airy, industrial motif restaurant or outside on the sunny patio.
Olympic Outdoor Center in Port Gamble
Distinctively located in the bright red building that was the town’s former fire station, Olympic Outdoor Center rents kayaks, paddle boards and mountain bikes to explore the waters and forests around Port Gamble. Additionally, they offer private and group classes, guided wildlife tours and a full-service retail store selling everything from kayak PFDs to bike accessories.
Port Gamble Trails
Property around Port Gamble has been purchased and developed by a local community organization called the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project. The project has created 60 miles of biking and hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult. The group’s ultimate goal is to buy 7000 acres of forest and 1.8 miles of Port Gamble shoreline to preserve habitat and provide recreation. For avid mountain bikers, there are bike trails built by local bike clubs and for runners, the trails are often the location for local cross-country runs. And if you just want a stroll through the woods, Port Gamble Trails has you covered there as well.
Port Gamble Theater
The large two-story building across from the general store is the 1906 Port Office and Community Center. The fully operating old style post office still serves the Port Gamble community, but the barber, doctor and dentist offices that served company employees closed long ago. Upstairs the company hosted dances, movies, basketball games and Christmas parties for its employees. Today it’s the home of Port Gamble Theater, a community theater with a full season of productions, Dinner Theater Saturdays and opening night galas.
Festivals and Events in Port Gamble
The combination of buildings available for rent and the expansive community areas of this New England look-alike town provide plenty of space for events and festivals. Port Gamble has hosted medieval festivals, art shows, dog agility events, runs and mountain biking competitions. Annually it hosts a Maritime Music Festival in August and goes all out with a New England themed holiday/Christmas event with lights, fireworks and wagon rides with Santa. But the town may be most famous for its embrace of the paranormal. Sightings of the buildings’ ghostly former inhabitants happen regularly drawing visitors and locals to the monthly fall and winter ghost walks and an October Ghost Conference.
Accommodations in Port Gamble
Port Gamble has three short-term waterfront vacation rentals located in the village. Two guest houses sleeping from 8-10 people are in renovated homes designed for mill employees. One of the guest houses has a smaller one bedroom/one bath suite that can be rented separately.
For further information and accommodation reservations, check out the comprehensive Port Gamble website.