Kitsap County -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 7/29/2006
  • Essay 7864
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Kitsap County, named after a military leader of the Suquamish Tribe, occupies the northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula between Hood Canal and Admiralty Strait. Loggers cleared the dense forests and fed sprawling mills and thriving company towns. Even before the mills went out of business, the U.S. Navy founded the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, which became the centerpiece of the county’s economy and the largest single employer. Water transportation has dominated the county’s culture and economy since before settlement. The Washington State Ferry System carries more than half its 25 million passengers back and forth from the east side of Puget Sound to Kitsap County. In 2005, an estimated 240,000 people lived there.

First Peoples

The first residents of the land and islands between Puget Sound and Hood Canal were called Suquamish after the name of their principal village, Suqua, on Agate Passage opposite the north end of Bainbridge Island. They spoke the South Coast Salish or Salishan language and lived in permanent settlements consisting of large communal longhouses built of cedar and sunk several feet into the ground. During the summer months, when fleas often infested the long houses, families foraged along the beaches, rivers, lakes, and uplands to fish, gather shellfish, roots and berries, and to hunt. They caught salmon, the centerpiece of the native economy and culture from the spring to the fall as the anadromous species swam upstream to spawn and die. Salmon, deer, elk, roots, and berries were dried for consumption during the winter.

On the Kitsap Peninsula, Indian communities fell generally into three groups: the Suquamish along the eastern shores, the Klallam or S’Klallam, of northern Hood Canal and the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and the the Twanos or Skokomish of southern Hood Canal. The communities generally married their daughters into other groups -- exogamy -- thereby constructing networks of family relationships practically guaranteeing harmony among the tribes and a common linguistic heritage. Beginning with the first contact with Europeans in the 1780s, several epidemics for which the Indians had no natural immunity decimated the populations from thousands to hundreds.

The Explorers

When Captain Vancouver arrived on Puget Sound in 1792, Suquamish war chief Kitsap was so impressed with the wealth and technology of the visitors that he resolved to build the largest potlatch house ever. Tribal members constructed Old Man House at Suqua on Agate Passage, which was said to be 900 feet long and 60 feet wide, and which featured 40 apartments. Completed around 1815 (other accounts say 1792 and before), the cedar log structure was ordered destroyed by U.S. Government officials in 1870 for health reasons.

British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) mapped Puget Sound beginning in May 1792 and named several features in Kitsap County including Port Orchard, Port Gamble, Restoration Point, and Hood Canal. In 1841, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) and the U.S. Exploring Expedition performed a more detailed survey and left more names including Bainbridge Island, Port Blakely, Agate Point, Apple Tree Point (misidentifying dogwood blossoms), and Port Madison.

Treaties and Reservations

In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) persuaded the tribes to sign the Point No Point and Point Elliott treaties, in which they ceded their lands to the United States in exchange for reservations and fishing and hunting rights. The Suquamish, Duwamish (from present-day Seattle), and Skekomish (Muckleshoot) were relegated to the 7,811-acre Port Madison Reservation. In 1886, the U.S. government allotted specific plots of land to individual tribal members. As the members sold their allotments to non-Indians, more than half the reservation passed out of Indian hands.

The Klallam were assigned to a reservation at the south end of Hood Canal with the Skokomish, but few located there. Many Klallam resided at Little Boston, across Port Gamble Bay from the mill town at Port Gamble where many were employed. In 1938, the Klallam received their own reserve in north Kitsap County, the Port Gamble Reservation.

Kitsap County settlers got along well with the area’s original inhabitants, but both groups endured raids from "Northern Indians" of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast. Haidas and Cowichans from Vancouver Island enjoyed canoeing south by the hundreds and savaging Salish tribes for slaves. Suquamish Chief Kitsap defeated one incursion at what would become Battle Point on the west side of Bainbridge Island. In another fight in about 1825, Kitsap's forces prevailed at Dungeness Spit. In November 1856, Haida raiders besieged residents at Port Gamble Bay, but were driven off with the help of guns, sailors, and marines from the U.S.S. Massachusetts. The Haidas did not come back to Kitsap, but the following year, they murdered settler Isaac Ebey over on Whidbey Island.

Sawmills, Shipyards, Mill Towns

The big trigger to white settlement on the Kitsap Peninsula came with the California Gold Rush in 1850. San Francisco, the largest city on the West Coast of North America, burned down several times, and the resulting great demand for lumber sent sea captains and entrepreneurs to Puget Sound where great stands of hemlock, spruce, cedar, and Doug-fir grew to the water’s edge. In July 1853, Maine native W. C. Talbot found the mouth of Port Gamble Bay to his liking and after persuading the Native Americans to move, he constructed a mill and a community called Teekaleet, later Port Gamble.

Philadelphia sea captain William Renton (1818-1891) also spotted the potential for logging and milling in early 1853. He tried a mill at Alki Point (present-day West Seattle) where Charles Terry had built the New York Store. But the high winds at the exposed location convinced him to move his operation across the sound to Port Orchard in 1854. The mill employed six white men and five Indians. George Meigs (1816-1897) bought J. J. Felt’s mill at Apple Tree Cove and moved it to Port Madison in 1853.

Renton sold the Port Orchard mill in 1862 and in 1864 completed the Port Blakely Mill Co. on Blakely Harbor. The new location on Bainbridge Island offered deep water access for sailing ships, fresh water, and room to sort logs.

The mills on Puget Sound and Hood Canal sawed logs hauled out of the woods by ox teams and shipped lumber all over the world, but mostly to California. Communities grew up around the mills and a Boston geography stated, "Seattle is a lumber town across the bay from Port Madison" (Bowden, 7). In the 1850s, the Washington mills produced twice as much lumber as four times as many mills in Oregon. The Kitsap Peninsula was the wealthiest community, per capita, on Puget Sound. The self-contained mill towns housed workers who were paid in cash or in scrip, redeemable only at company stores or at banks in Seattle. The mill owners themselves tended to live in San Francisco.

The mill towns often boasted shipyards where Kitsap timber was transformed into ships. In the 1870s, Port Madison alone exceeded the production of sailing ships over the entire San Francisco Bay Area. In 1888, Renton’s Port Blakely Mill Company suffered a serious fire, but reemerged to become the largest lumber producer in the world. In the 1880s, the steam donkey and the geared steam locomotive replaced ox teams and dramatically increased productivity of the mills and profits to the owners.

After another devastating fire in 1907, the Port Blakely Mill rebuilt again, but market forces indicated a smaller operation. Although modernized with fireproof features, the sprawling facility dropped from the list of top producers in the world. In 1923, the mill closed forever and Port Blakely slipped into obscurity.

The mill and the company town at Port Gamble at the northern end of the county continued to cut lumber into the 1990s as the oldest continuously operating sawmill in the United States. In 1994, after 142 years, the saws at the old Puget Mill Company powered down and salvagers dismantled the plant. The mill town of Port Gamble, once home to hundreds of family lived on, however. The National Historic Site became a tourist attraction and a venue for special events.

Kitsap County Politics

The Kitsap Peninsula was originally part of King County (county seat at Seattle) and Jefferson County (county seat at Port Townsend). Peninsula mill owners applied to the Territorial Legislature for their own county. Slaughter County, named for a U.S. Army officer killed the previous year, was officially formed on July 13, 1857, and Port Madison became the county seat. Voters changed the name to Kitsap County to honor the Suquamish war chief. When the Port Madison mill closed in 1892, the town was almost completely depopulated. County commissioners moved the county seat to Sidney (later Port Orchard) in 1893.

Upon President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops at the beginning of the Civil War (1861-1865), Port Madison citizens formed the 70-man Port Madison Union Guards, but the unit never saw service outside the territory.

National Defense

In the 1880s, as the United States government chose Port Orchard as the site of a repair facility to help support naval operations in the Pacific Ocean. This commenced a major component of the county’s permanent economy. The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton (1891) was followed by the torpedo testing station at Keyport (1914), the refueling station at Manchester (1938), the huge nuclear submarine base at Bangor (1977) on Hood Canal, as well as many smaller supporting facilities.

The Army built and manned coastal batteries at Fort Flagler (1897-1954) on Marrowstone Island, and at Fort Ward, Middle Point (which became Manchester), and Bean Point (1903-1938). Bremerton’s first mayor in 1901 was Master Electrician Al Croston at the shipyard. Thousands of civilian and military personnel moved to the county, particularly during the era of World War II. The Navy presence continued through the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the Cold War, in 2005 the shipyard became the county’s largest employer, accounting for 54 percent of the economy.

Bainbridge Island Japanese Americans

In 1942, the U.S. government ordered persons of Japanese descent, including American citizens, to be removed from the U.S. West Coast. This included 278 residents of Bainbridge Island, most of whom quietly raised strawberries. Evacuees could transport themselves to new residences outside the defense zone, but most elected to be moved by the military to internment centers in Idaho and California. The Bainbridge Island farmers were the first to be moved, shepherded by soldiers.

Walter Woodward, 32-year old editor and publisher of the Bainbridge Review, became the only publisher on the West Coast to protest this violation of civil rights. He continued to serve his readers in camps and in military service by publishing news gathered by "camp correspondents." After the war, most of the internees returned to the island.

Until World War II, Kitsap County was largely agricultural except for the shipyard and related military activities. Hotels and summer homes served vacationers who arrived by fast steamers of the Mosquito Fleet from Seattle and Tacoma. Intrepid automobilists could drive through Olympia and Shelton to the south and reach Bremerton, but the trip from Seattle could take hours. The new auto ferries that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s provided faster service.

From Canoe to Washington State Ferry

As had Native Americans, the American settlers depended heavily on water for transportation and this continued into the twenty-first century. Just as the lumber cut in the mills needed ships to reach their markets, people needed canoes, then steamships, then ferries to reach metropolitan centers in Seattle and Tacoma. The many bays and inlets allowed almost any settlement to have ferry service.

The Mosquito Fleet of steamers serviced Puget Sound communities and tied Kitsap County to the rest of the state from the 1850s to the 1930s. These were replaced in the 1930s by automobile-carrying diesel ships surplussed in San Francisco Bay by the new bridges there. Charles E. Peabody’s Puget Sound Navigation Co. -- The Black Ball Line -- dominated the cross-sound auto ferry business in the 1930s and 1940s. After great public dissatisfaction over Peabody’s poor labor relations and his absolute control over schedules and fares, in 1951 the State of Washington purchased the Black Ball Line and took over operation of the ferry system. Kitsap County continues to rely on the ferry system for service to Seattle across four heavily used routes.

State control over the ferries came less than a year after the building of the second bridge over the Tacoma Narrows (the original bridge collapsed in a wind storm a few months after opening in 1940) and completion of a bridge at Agate Pass connecting Bainbridge Island to the mainland.

Highway 16 between Tacoma and Bremerton made possible the development of Kitsap and Mason Counties as suburbs and vacation areas. When the tolls were lifted after paying the costs of construction, new residents flooded into the county. Between 1940 and 2005, Kitsap County population multiplied by more than five times. The Hood Canal Floating Bridge in 1961 freed up another ferry route and tied the Olympic Peninsula closer to the Kitsap Peninsula.

Kitsap County Today

In 2005, the county's estimated population was approximately 240,000. In 1998, 14 to 18 percent of Kitsap County residents commuted elsewhere to work.

As the economy of Western Washington expanded in the second half of the twentieth century, Bainbridge Island became a bedroom community for greater Seattle. Fast and dependable ferry service from Winslow and the Agate Pass bridge made the strawberry farms and second-growth forest prime real estate.

Bainbridge Island enjoyed dramatic growth in the last decades of the twentieth century. Population grew by 8 percent over the prior five years, a 26 percent increase since 1990 to approximately 22,000. Ten percent of the island population works off island and island residents bring home median incomes half again higher than the rest of the county. As a reflection of the close connection between Bainbridge and Seattle, the City of Bainbridge Island found it necessary in 2002 to triple parking fines because commuters to Seattle were using downtown Winslow as a parking lot.

By 1990, some island residents looked to incorporation as a solution to unrestricted development. In 1990, after two failed attempts at becoming a city, islanders applied to the City of Winslow to be annexed. Once the entire island was one city, voters changed the name from Winslow to Bainbridge Island.

Bainbridge Island has an arts council, including a literary magazine, art walks and artist workshops, a writers' organization associated with the library called Field's End, and many shops and restaurants. The 150-acre Bloedel Reserve, consisting of second-growth woodlands and formal gardens, also draws visitors to the island.

At the Port Madison Indian Reservation, the Suquamish Tribe has extracted their own prosperity from a casino that underwrites social programs in the community, and from fishing rights reasserted by a federal court in 1974.

Poulsbo, founded by Norwegians in the 1880s, has a population of some 7,000. The town economy was based on fishing and especially a codfish processing plant. Today Poulsbo draws visitors with its shops and restaurants and Norwegian heritage events.

In the Bremerton area, the construction of a call center by Nextel Communications in 2001 brought 500 private-sector jobs. This was a feather in the cap of the Kitsap Economic Regional Development Council, which sought to diversify the local economy since 28 percent of the jobs were provided by federal, state, and local governments.

Sources: Joan Carson, Tall Timber and The Tide (Poulsbo, WA: Kitsap Weeklies, [1971], 1972); Andrew Price Jr., Port Blakely: The Community Captain Renton Built, (Seattle: Port Blakely Books, 1989); W. B. Bowden, Port Madison 1854 (Bainbridge Island, WA: The Port Madison Press, 1977); Robert E. Ficken, Washington Territory (Pullman: WSU Press, 2002), 14, 180-181; Anthony K. Albert, "Goodbye Winslow, Hello Bainbridge," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 20, 1991, p. C-8; "Annexation Drive Hangs in the Balance," The Seattle Times, November 7, 1990, p. A-7; Joe Heim, "The Wakeup Call," Ibid., December 27, 1998, p. F-1; "Around the Sound," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 2005, p. B-3; Marni Leff, "Nextel Call Center Spells Jobs for Kitsap," Ibid., February 6, 2001, p. C-1; "Klallam," "Suquamish," and "Washington State Tribes" in Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia ed. by Mary B. Davis, (New York : Garland Pub., 1994), 291-292, 620, 685-686; the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History "Haida Raiders Kill Gustave Englebrecht, first U.S. Navy battle death in the Pacific at Port Gamble on November 21, 1856," (by David Wilma), "Triangle of Fire – The Harbor Defenses of Puget Sound," (by Daryl McClary), "Puget Sound Naval Shipyard,"(by Daryl McClary), "Remembering Walter Woodward (1910-2001)" (by Gerald Elfendahl), and "Puget Sound’s Mosquito Fleet" (by Larry E. Johnson), (accessed July 21, 2006); Alan Stein, Safe Passage: The Birth of Washington State Ferries (Seattle: Washington State Ferries, 2001); U.S. Census Bureau website accessed July 21, 2006 (; Katy Warner, A History of Bainbridge Island (The Author: 1968), 63; Kitsap: A Centennial History ed. by Fredi Perry (Bremerton: Kitsap County Centennial History Project, 1989), 7; Kitsap County History: A Story of Kitsap County and Its Pioneers (Silverdale: Kitsap County Historical Society, 1977), 10, 12; Robert H. Ruby, John A. Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Revised Edition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 226-229; "Washington State Ferries, Traffic Statistics Rider Segment Report," Washington Department of Transportation website accessed July 24, 2006(; Theodore O. Williams, "The Indian Chief Kitsap," Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4 (1934), pp. 297-299 digital version at (; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earlierst Settlement to the Present Time (Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1916), 81-82; "Bainbridge Island, Washington," webside accessed July 31, 2006 (; "Kitsap County, Washington" website accessed July 31, 2006 (; "Parking on Bainbridge," Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce website accessed July 31, 2006 (

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