On November 30, 1995, Puget Mill Company's Port Gamble sawmill, the oldest continuously operating sawmill in the U.S., closes permanently. The mill sawed its first log in September 1853. The mill machinery will be sold off, but the company town of Port Gamble, once home to 250 mill employees and their families, will continue to operate as a tourist destination.
In July 1853, New England sea captain and lumber merchant William Talbot picked the sand spit at the mouth of a bay called Port Gamble for a sawmill. Talbot was a partner in the Puget Mill Co. and later in Pope & Talbot, which sold lumber and other merchandise in San Francisco. At its zenith in the 1920s, the mill employed more than 250 men and women. Workers' families lived in the company town with a church, a hotel, a medical clinic, schools, social clubs, a theater, store, post office, and even a mortuary and cemetery.
Proprietors Pope and Talbot believed that if the workers were well cared for, the company would profit. The design and architecture of the community reflected the owners' New England roots. Elm trees planted from New England cuttings lined the streets, and the narrow front-gabled houses had lapped or tongue-and-groove siding.
The End of an Era
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service reduced the harvest of timber from 15 billion board feet to 9 billion board feet. The price of logs went up, but lumber prices for the housing market dropped. Mills without their own supply of timber could not buy enough logs and sell the lumber profitably. From 1988 to 1995, more than 226 lumber, plywood, veneer, and pulp mills in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho closed. Pope & Talbot cut the Port Gamble workforce from 202 to 118 in 1990.
In 1995, the company announced that the mill would close permanently. Production was shifted to British Columbia mills. In March 1996, the Port Gamble mill, its modern equipment, and two tugboats were auctioned off. Mill Electrician Don Brett remarked from his second-floor office, "I used to sit right here, looking at piles of lumber, and feel the whole place moving as logs were pushed through. .... Everything is going, me included. After 20 years on the job, I'm taking my coffee pot home and going. End of July, there's no work for me here" (The Seattle Times).
The company town on the bluff overlooking the mill remained. Port Gamble and its 38 remaining houses and buildings were included on the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1966. In 2000, the community was declared a Rural Historic Town, paving the way for its development as a tourist destination by Pope Resources.