by Rob Lopresti
I’m back from our vacation in Port Townsend, a Victorian seaport on the Olympic Peninsula. (I think there must be an obscure Washington state law requiring the town to be described as a Victorian seaport. . . . Nobody ever calls it a nineteenth-century harbor town, for instance.)
The town’s unofficial motto is “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” That’s an usual example of aclean double entendre. Yes, they are embracing their eccentricity, but they are also saying “we don’t want to live in Seattle.” And this town of 9.000 is spiritually a million miles away from the city on the other side of the Sound.
This being a literary blog, let’s take a literary tour. Here is my favorite description of PT:
Years ago the Town with her rich dot of timber and her beautiful harbor was voted Miss Pacific Northwest of 1892 and became betrothed to a large railroad. Her happy founders immediately got busy and whipped up a trousseau of three- and four-story brick buildings, a huge and elaborate red stone courthouse, and sites and plans for enough industries to start her on a brilliant career.
Meanwhile all her inhabitants were industriously tatting themselves up large, befurbelowed Victorian houses in honor of the approaching wedding. Unfortunately almost on the eve of the ceremony the Town in one of her frequent fits of temper lashed her harbor to a froth, tossed a passing freighter up onto her main thorofare [sic] and planted seeds of doubt in the mind of her fiancé. Further investigation revealed that, in addition to her treacherous temper, she was raked by winds day and night, year in and year out, and had little available water. In the ensuing panic of 1893, her railroad lover dropped her like a hot potato and within a year or so was paying serious court to several more promising coast towns.
That was Betty MacDonald in The Egg and I, her bestselling memoir of life on a chicken farm just outside of town. It became a successful movie which spun off an even more popular series of flicks about Ma and Pa Kettle. A local family sued MacDonald, claiming they were the models for the Kettles and had been libeled. MacDonald took the stand and swore she had made the whole thing up. The jury believed her—or claimed to—and found for the defendant.
Long before the failed railroad romance J. Ross Browne visited Port Townsend. I have a special place in my heart for Mr. Browne because this Irish-born bureaucrat made his living on two kinds of writing: government reports and humor. Can anyone else in history boast of that particular combination?
Browne noted in 1857 that the local Indian chief was a drunk, but observed that he “and his amiable family were not below the average of the white citizens residing at that benighted place. With very few exceptions, it would be difficult to find a worse class of population in any part of the world. No less than six murders have occurred there during the past year. It is notorious for ‘beachcombers’ and outlaws of every description.”
And that was what he said in an official Treasury Department report. In his private publications he cut loose:
The houses, of which there must be at least twenty in the city and suburbs, are built chiefly of pine boards, thatched with shingles, canvas and wooden slabs . . . The streets of Port Townsend are paved with sand, and the public squares are curiously ornamented with dead horses and the bones of many dead cows, upon the beef of which the inhabitants have partially subsisted since the foundation of the city. This, of course, gives a very original appearance to the public pleasure-grounds, and enables strangers to know when they arrive in the city, by reason of the peculiar odor, so that even admitting the absence of lamps, no person can fail to recognize Port Townsend in the darkest night.
Inexplicably, the town fathers were displeased by Browne’s attentions and invited him to return for a full and frank discussion, which would no doubt have featured tar and feathers. Browne declined the honor. A few years later there was a gold rush in that part of the world and would-be miners rushed to what was (thanks to Browne) the only town on the Peninsula they had heard of. Proving again that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
A few years later PT was the scene of the Pacific Northwest’s second most famous bloodless battle (after the Pig War). This involved Customs Officer Victor Smith, of whom novelist Patricia Campbell said that he turned every friend into an enemy using “the alchemy of Smith’s personality.” Smith returned the compliment, calling Port Townsend “a rotten borough whose people fared so sumptuously on the spoils of government that their eyes stuck out with fat.”
During the Civil War Smith went back to D.C. to try to persuade the government to move the Customs office to Port Angeles. When he returned on the revenue cutter Shubrick, he discovered that the people had convinced his assistant to take over and lock him out of the Customs House. Marines on the Shubrick threatened to open fire if the House was not opened. Campbell takes up the story in her novel Cedarhaven:
The file of marines marched smartly away from the Customs House and lined up beside the gangplank of the cutter.
They are going to do it, Genia thought. They are really going to do it! If I stay here I will be blown to bits, like Julie said. Reason told her to fly, but a delicious languor held her captive.
The officer on the Shubrick’s deck had a watch in his hand. When he put it in his pocket and drew out a pistol—he would signal with that, she supposed–the door of the Custom House burst open. . . .
They had surrendered. They had spoiled it all.
Novelist Ivan Doig wrote about the town in Winter Brothers, his excellent non-fiction book about yet another Northwest eccentric, James Swan:
Port Townsend always has lived a style of boom and bust and that record of chanciness is a main reason I cherish the town. In a society of cities interested most in how svelte their skyscrapers are, Port Townsend still knows that life is a dice game in the dirt. I have been in and out of the place as often as I could these past dozen years and I can almost feel in the air as I step from the car whether the town is prospering or drooping. Small shops will bud in the high old downtown buildings. My next visit, they have vanished . . .
[I]n its early years the town was noted for whiskey so strong it was suspected to be a vile compound of alcohol red pepper, tobacco and coal oil. The quality of Port Townsend’s early inhabitants occasionally was questioned in similar tones, as when a transplanted Virginian assessed his period of residence: ‘Suh, when I first came here, this town was inhabited by three classes of people–Indians, sailors, and sons of bitches. Now I find that the Indians have all died, and the sailors have sailed away.
The combination of Victorian buildings, winding hills and ocean fogs make PT a natural location for spooky stories. Jack Cady wrote The Off Season, a comic novel about a town in which buildings and centuries shift their foundations and ghosts go on strike.
Our founders, mostly from Puritan New England, came to this frontier coast and built big houses. Gloom and mist, eternal rain, criminality went into building the town–smuggling, prostitution, Chinese bond slaves–and caused the builders to feel depressed and guilty. Recall, also their frontier isolation. The green forest pressed close, as it does today. The sea crashed down the Strait and battered beaches.
Mysteries seem to be underrepresented here. P.J. Alderman has written two supernatural mystery novels set in the non-existant Port Chatham. Haunting Jordan is the first.
The latest (2011) novel set here is Spam vs. the Vampire, by local fantasy writer Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Spam is a cat. The vampire is a real monster, not one of those beautiful Twilight phonies from the west side of the Olympic Peninsula.
Other writers associated with PT include poet Richard Hugo, science fiction master Frank Herbert, and pioneer Ezra Meeker.
Meanwhile, back at the fort
The music event that brought us here was held at Fort Worden, a few miles north of the main part of town. The fort was built to defend the entrance of Puget Sound. It later turned into a state park, but it still has its cool drill field and army barracks. Remember An Officer and a Gentleman? The “air force base” where Richard Gere trained was Fort Worden.
Tucked away in the white army buildings is Copper Canyon Press, founded by poet Sam Hamill.
You can walk north of the Fort and see the gun emplacements that stood guard over the Sound for fifty years. They never fired a shot in anger. Hoping you the same.