It’s easy to drive Highway 104 right through Port Gamble, especially if you can’t wait to be on an ocean beach or you’re in a hurry to catch the Kingston ferry back to Edmonds.
Finally, I stopped. And I’m glad I did.
When I was a child and when my kids were young, Port Gamble did not appeal, even with its white picket fences and quaint Victorian-era homes. Maybe it looked slightly boring or like it might be too much trouble.
The older I get, however, the more I love local history. The Port Gamble Historic District is a National Historic Landmark, and a visit there — with its scenery, restaurants and shops (especially the yarn store) — makes for an entertaining day trip from Snohomish County.
Go on a Friday morning when it’s less crowded and all the shops are open. Get off the ferry in Kingston and drive about 7 miles. If you can, park on Rainier Avenue near the General Store.
Across the street from the store is the lovely old sawmill company hall building, which is home to the Post Office, with its dahlia garden out front, and the Port Gamble Theater group, which produces plays from April through December.
To understand what this little mill town is all about, make your first stop the Port Gamble Historic Museum, open May through October. It’s located on the bottom floor of the back side of the General Store.
Before you go in, check out the camperdown elm near the museum entrance. Only a few dozen of these trees exist in the world, primarily because they are cultivars that cannot reproduce from seed. The tree was planted in 1875 from a cutting taken from a tree on the East Coast. Step inside its leafy shelter to see the contorted trunk and limbs reaching up to its 26-foot crown.
Down the hill from the museum is the site of the former bayside sawmill. An ongoing three-year cleanup project includes excavation of woodwaste and contaminated sediment and the removal of creosote pilings, generally making the site more ecologically friendly.
The story of Port Gamble is told in little vignettes throughout the museum. Don’t miss the Puget Hotel guest book, the 38-star U.S. flag, saws from the mill and the photos of loggers next to giant old-growth trees.
In 1853 two businessmen named Pope and Talbot traveled west from East Machias, Maine, to get into the lumber trade. After a stop in San Francisco, they landed near Hood Canal at what the S’Klallam people called “Teekalet,” roughly translated as “sunny spot.”
Soon the men and their partners were running a sawmill, a business that outlived them all. When it closed in 1995, it was the longest continuously operating sawmill in North America.
Modeled after their New England hometown, Pope and Talbot’s Port Gamble village was a strict-looking company town. Employees and their families, many also from Maine, lived in the houses built for them. Even today they are uniformly painted brown, blue, green, grey or yellow with white trim and black edging. Signs outside of some of the buildings tell visitors who lived there and what they did for the mill.
And, of course, the guy running the mill lived in the largest home overlooking the bay, the Walker-Ames House, which is next door to the store.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Rainier Avenue was based on the Congregational Church back home in East Machias. Lots of people still get married here.
The nearby cemetery, named Buena Vista, indeed has the best view in town. From there you can see the bay and the Hood Canal bridge. Wander among the old gravestones, which date back to 1856. Some people say the cemetery and the buildings in Port Gamble are haunted. In fact, on Friday and Saturday evenings in October and on Halloween, there are “ghost walks” planned.
Upstairs in the Port Gamble General Store, which is another beautiful building, see former resident Tim Rice’s private shell collection from around the world. In the restaurant part of the store, sit outside to enjoy lunch and a view of the water.
Butcher &Baker Provisions is the new cafe in Port Gamble, and it’s housed in the old gas station along the highway. A visit here by itself is worth the trip. The food is amazing.
Opened in April, the business has its own charcuterie and bakery, along with a small deli that offers a variety of regional cheeses and beers, the restaurant’s own sauerkraut, ketchup and barbecue sauce, and peanut butter from CB’s Nuts near Kingston.
Butcher &Baker is primarily a lunch place, but they also serve a late breakfast and an early supper. My colleague, photographer Ian Terry, and I had a difficult time deciding what to eat. Sandwiches such as lamb and caramelized onions, and turkey muffaletta, are joined on the menu by Greek and Vietnamese salads, steak, clams and house-made sausage, and a grilled flatbread with figs and goat cheese.
I chose the delicious Korean pork belly tacos with house-made kimchi for $12 and Ian got the hearty chili Colorado with corn tortillas for $14, both made from pork butchered in house.
We shared a peach muffin, which was perfect we agreed, because it wasn’t too sweet. We ogled the fruit and cream-filled cakes in the display case, but couldn’t eat any more.
The finale of our visit was a stop to see the old hippie Jim Henshaw at the Teekalet Trading Post, where he sells soaps and honey and other stuff made by local people.
If you catch him, spend some time talking as you’re sure to get your belly laugh for the day. Henshaw will tell you about some of the art work inside and outside the shop and share stories you won’t hear anyplace else in tidy Port Gamble.
If you go
Most of the information one needs before a visit to Port Gamble is on the community’s website at www.portgamble.com.
And, yes, Machias in Snohomish County was named for East Machias, Maine, by some other folks who moved here to log the old-growth trees.