Port Gamble -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 8/07/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5505
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Port Gamble represents one of the few remaining examples of company towns, thousands of which were built in the nineteenth century by industrialists to house employees. Founders Josiah Keller, William Talbot, and Andrew Pope planned the town to reflect the character of their hometown, East Machias, Maine, where many of the early employees originated. For 142 years, the community existed to support sawmills that produced lumber for the world market. The mill closed in 1995, but as a National Historic Site, the townsite has been preserved to reflect an authentic company mill town.

The first known residents of Port Gamble were members of the Nooksclime, Clallam, or S'Klallam tribe who fished and gathered food along Hood Canal. The S'Klallams belonged to the linguistic group, South Coast Salish, which populated Puget Sound. Tribes traded and intermarried and generally experienced little conflict except for raids from outside the region. In 1841, a U.S. Navy expedition led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) named the two-mile-long bay at the mouth of Hood Canal after Navy Lieutenant Robert Gamble, who was wounded in the War of 1812.

In the summer of 1853, San Francisco lumber merchant and sea captain William Talbot (1816-1881) spotted the sand spit at the mouth of the bay as a likely place for a lumber mill. Talbot was a partner of Josiah Keller (d. 1862), Andrew Pope (1820-1878), and Charles Foster in the Puget Mill Company. They planned to cut the abundant trees of Oregon Territory into lumber for sale in California and across the Pacific. The sand spit sheltered ships and was close to stands of timber.

S'Klallams already lived on the spit and on the bluff above. Keller induced the natives to move across the bay to Point Julia in exchange for free lumber, firewood, and Christmas gifts. The S'Klallams called the site Teekalet, "brightness of the noonday sun," for the way the water and sand reflected light on sunny days. Talbot borrowed that name for the mill.

Puget Mill Co.

Talbot's partner Keller soon arrived in another ship with the boiler, engine, and muley saw. By September 1853, the mill at Teekalet was cutting logs into lumber. The muley saw was a single blade that moved up and down in a mechanical version of a sawpit. The initial output was modest, 2,000 board feet a day -- about a tenth of the lumber needed to build a five-room house of the time. The first lumber went to enclose the mill and to build cabins, a bunkhouse, and a cookhouse. In January, Keller and his assistant superintendent Cyrus Walker (1827-1913) installed a sash saw that was lighter and 10 times more productive.

On January 26, 1854, the Treaty of Point No Point ceded the land around Port Gamble to the United States and relegated the S'Klallams to a reservation with the Skokomish at the bend of Hood Canal. The S'Klallams were not interested in sharing a small reservation with another tribe and they continued to reside at Point Julia, which came to be called Little Boston.

The small community of two-dozen whites on the sand spit included Joshua Keller, his wife and two children, and men from the partners' hometown of East Machias, Maine. The store offered goods for sale to settlers and natives, but other amenities were sparse. Single workers lived in the bunkhouse and families had small cabins. During the Indian War of 1855-1856, Keller ordered construction of a wood blockhouse against an attack. A raid by the Haidas of Canada came in November 1856. The settlers held their own until the arrival of the steam sloop U.S.S. Massachusetts. One sailor, Gustavus Englebrecht, was killed in that encounter. He became the first burial in a cemetery on the bluff.

Men for the Mill

Staffing the mill proved to be a challenge. The newly organized Washington Territory was wilderness and there were few men available for work. Keller hired settlers, most of whom worked only long enough to earn cash and file claims on land of their own, and S'Klallams from Point Julia. One early worker was Dexter Horton (1825-1904), who ran the cookhouse. He saved his wages and moved to Seattle where he opened a store and later a bank.

With the help of their Maine-based partner, Charles Foster, Pope, Talbot, and Keller recruited experienced mill workers from East Machias to come West. A common device was a six-month contract with the employers paying the cost of passage. The employee was obligated to work off the expense over a period of six months. Workers wrote home of the opportunities and steady employment. (Water-powered Maine sawmills closed in the winter; the steam-powered mill at Teekalet ran year round). By necessity, Puget Mill Co. established a company town to provide housing and food for workers who had no other place to live.

In 1858, the partners added a second mill farther out on the spit. That operation used newly developed circular saws, and as a result both production and the payroll increased. Keller also built a mill to grind grain into flour for the cookhouse. The flour sold for many years under the Kitsap brand. That same year, Keller filed a plat with the territorial government for a town called Teekalet. The town plan followed the grid pattern common to new cities of the West.

The company built houses for managers and married workers up on the bluff with the bunkhouse and cookhouse down on the spit close to the mill. A dance hall provided entertainment. Andrew Pope wrote, "We have really got some very valuable men here, and if we can make them contented by laying out a few hundred doll[ar]s I think it is a good investment." In 1859, Puget Mill Co. built the first school in Kitsap County. In 1860, a community hall went up for "those who desire public worship, social enjoyment or fraternal communion and to educate the children" (Eakins, 25). That year the Census counted 15 married couples and 15 children in the town, with a total population of 202.


Every morning at 6:20 a.m., the workers woke to the mill whistle. At 6:40 a.m., the whistle signaled a breakfast often consisting of "boiled corn beef, potatoes, baked beans, hash, hot griddle cakes, biscuits, and coffee" (Coman, 70). The men had 20 minutes to eat and report for a 11½-hour day. A good worker earned $30 a month and he was paid in fifty-cent pieces, daily if he chose. Many other Puget Sound mill workers received warrants that they had to take to Seattle to cash. According to Pope and Talbot historian Edwin Coman Jr., "four-bit" pieces became a symbol of employment at Puget Mill.

The employees worked hard and were paid well, but sawmills of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were dangerous places. Saws and other machinery lacked protective shielding and men often worked inches from sharp blades that could in an instant snatch a finger, an arm, or even a life. Company records show that 10 to 20 men quit every day, but were immediately replaced by new workers.

The oscillating sash saws, spinning circular saws, and planing mills generated sawdust, which fueled the steam boilers. Wood waste, called slabs, could be used in the boilers of steamships and the rest was burned in open fires that blazed continuously from 1855 to 1925. Unless the wind blew it away, a pall of woodsmoke constantly hung over the mill and the community. The mill at Teekalet was a cargo mill and cut lumber to load on ships, some owned by the partners. The ships carried Puget Mill cargoes to San Francisco, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Australia, and Asia.

Keller was superintendent of the Teekalet mill, but he was often gone. Fellow "Mainer" Cyrus Walker, a member of the founding crew of 1853, filled in during those absences. When Keller died in 1862, Walker became superintendent. Under Walker's management, the town of Port Gamble grew and prospered.

The Town of Port Gamble

In 1868, Walker took down the old mill and replaced it with components from another operation. That year, the Territorial Legislature approved a new name for the town -- Port Gamble. Most of the workers had Maine origins, but Chinese, Hawaiians, and at least one African American worked there as well. Members of the S'Klallam tribe also found employment and were well regarded as workers. The S'Klallams built a village at Point Julia called Boston -- later Little Boston -- just across the bay with lumber provided by Puget Mill. They commuted to work by canoe.

In the 1870s, Port Gamble boasted a Dramatic Club, a baseball team, a reading room, a circulating library, and a 14-piece brass band. The general store supplied food and other goods and posted newspaper clippings for all to read. In 1879, the Union Congregational Church was built in a style reminiscent of New England churches. The pastor doubled as company physician.

Superintendent Walker saw that housing reflected the social and ethnic distinctions of the community. Managers had the best homes on the high ground, the superintendent's home being the largest and best sited of all. Skilled workers and their families got the next best dwellings. In the 1880s, Scandinavian immigrants and their families arrived on the transcontinental railroad along with Germans, Swiss, Slovaks, and Greeks. They moved into homes built on the other side of second-growth forest to the west and south of town in neighborhoods called New England and Murphy Row.

Unmarried men lived in bunkhouses and cabins on the spit. Hotels on the spit accommodated loggers, longshoremen, and sailors who often constituted a third of the population. Chinese employees always lived in separate quarters. Residents enjoyed modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing and clean water. The children could go to school and the company took care of virtually every need, from childbirth to a mortuary and burial services.

Company policy prohibited gambling and women of questionable character. Sailors and loggers rowed to Point Julia for the female companionship lacking in Port Gamble. In spite of Cyrus Walker's opposition to alcohol, the company store offered liquor for sale.

In 1888, the original partners replaced their 68-year-old brother-in-law Cyrus Walker as superintendent with East Machias native Edwin Ames. Ames ran Puget Mill Co. and Port Gamble until 1925 and contributed his name to the superintendent's house built in 1888. Ames instituted some technical innovations that Walker had resisted, particularly electric lighting. Incandescent lights in the mills served an important safety function because the risk of fire was so great in mills. Before long employee homes glowed with electric lighting as well. Walker had also resisted installing band saws that cut faster and wasted less of the log. That innovation did not arrive until just before World War I.


Puget Mill Co. sponsored celebrations every Fourth of July. Employees had the day off and families from other company mills at Port Ludlow and Utsalady rode company tugs and steamers to Port Gamble. Some years, one of the other towns played host. Company cooks and housewives prepared picnic feasts, baseball teams competed, and at dark, fireworks lit the sky -- all paid for by the company. After the children were put to bed, music and dance filled the social halls. Christmas was another important holiday, again with a community feast, caroling, and gifts for every child.

A centerpiece of the town was the general store on Rainier Avenue. Here residents purchased all their supplies and received news of the world from newsclippings on a bulletin board. The largest structure, aside from the mill was the Puget Hotel built in 1907 on the bluff overlooking Hood Canal. The hotel was intended for tourists and to house visiting company officials. An annex had rooms for single workers. The hotel was operated as a concession and fell outside the company restrictions on gambling and alcohol. As a result, the saloon and small games flourished.

In the 1930s, there was a Masonic Order, an Odd-Fellows, an Orthopedic Guild to support the Children's Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle, a Church Guild, Scouts, and a Community Club. Monday was library night at the Community Hall. Tuesdays and Thursdays were men's athletics. Wednesday night, the Scouts met. On Fridays, movies were shown. Saturday nights were for dances, card parties, and other social events.


Labor organizers tried their best to unionize Port Gamble workers in the 1880s, but Cyrus Walker and Edwin Ames resisted fiercely. The Knights of Labor pushed mill operators for a shortened workday but Cyrus Walker beat them to the punch by cutting Puget Mill's hours. The shorter day (which resulted in an increase in production) did not end demands for higher wages. Puget Mill Co. steadfastly blocked all efforts by unions by using detectives who infiltrated logging camps, mills, and meetings seeking intelligence on organizing efforts. Compared to conditions at other mills, Port Gamble residents led the good life.

In July 1917, just after the U.S. entered World War I, the Industrial Workers of the World and a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor struck the Northwest lumber industry. Port Gamble workers did not strike, but they benefited when owners accepted an eight-hour day in exchange for a government crackdown on the unions. Wages also went up at Port Gamble, but so did charges for room and board. Port Gamble workers were nominally unionized through the company-sponsored Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen.

The hard times of the 1930s triggered a resurgence in unionization efforts throughout American industry. In May 1935, McCormick Lumber broke with tradition and recognized the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union (American Federation of Labor). A contract granted workers an eight-hour day and set the base wage at 50 cents an hour. This did not prevent a shutdown by the AFL's rival, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1937. But when the strikers were asked to return to work, Port Gamble reopened on a single shift. Thereafter, unionized workers and management acknowledged each other's rights and roles in the workplace and contracts were negotiated annually.


New homes in Port Gamble were built as needed by contractors hired by the company. Some managers built their own homes. Reflecting the changes that swept America at the time, the company erected a service station and garage in 1920. Some homes from Puget Mill's Port Ludlow were moved to Port Gamble to add to the housing stock in the 1920s. The service station, however, was the last new construction by the company in Port Gamble. The automobile solved the transportation problem for workers who wanted more than a small company house.

The residents of Port Gamble prospered when the mill prospered. During the Panic of 1893, Port Gamble avoided closure by supplying the Hawaiian market. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 got things going again in the Puget Sound region. The Panic of 1907 compelled management to close the mill for six months, however. Many skilled employees moved on and when the mill reopened, some, but not all returned. The good times for the Puget Mill Co. had ended.

By the 1910s, Port Gamble's aging mills (1858 and 1870) could no longer compete with more modern operations and direct connections to transcontinental railroads. Despite a determined sales effort and increased production in the early 1920s, Puget Mill Co. still lost money. Portland lumberman Charles R. McCormick stepped forward and offered to buy Puget Mill Co. and Pope and Talbot accepted.

On October 16, 1925, Charles R. McCormick Lumber Co. took possession of the mill and the town at Port Gamble. McCormick retained the work force and proceeded to invest $2 million to replace the mill with a modern electric operation. In 1927, 1,000 people worked at Port Gamble, up from 100 three years before. But the Great Depression (1929-1939) and McCormick's ambitious plans for renovation and expansion left the company in desperate financial straits. The Port Ludlow mill closed at the end of 1935. Residents at Port Gamble could buy their homes for $35 on condition that they haul the buildings away.

Home for the S'Klallam

The Indian settlement of Little Boston on the sand spit at Point Julia was home to S'Klallam workers and their families. The residents constructed their simple houses with Puget Mill lumber, but the homes lacked fireplaces, electric power, and indoor plumbing. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the U.S. Government bought 1,234 acres from Puget Mill Co. for the tribe.

On June 16, 1938, the land became the reservation for the Port Gamble Band of S'Klallam Indians. The homes at Little Boston were burned as health hazards and the Bureau of Indian Affairs constructed new homes farther upland.

Pope and Talbot Returns

On February 15, 1938, Puget Mill Co. foreclosed on the Charles R. McCormick Lumber Co. and took back control of Port Gamble. In 1940, Puget Mill Co. consolidated and became Pope and Talbot, Inc. World War II provided a boost to production and to employment. As much as 60 percent of the lumber produced during the war years went to build housing for Naval personnel and war workers in Bremerton. Robert Mahaffay of The Seattle Times wrote in 1944:

"The high screech of the band saws in a hundred Pacific Northwest mills is a battle song. The slam and thud of logs on a sawmill's carriage, the groaning of the bull chain, the rattle of lumber on metal rollers, are undertones in the raw-melody singing of pontoon planks across which tanks will rumble, and of dock timbers for invasion beaches scattered around the world... "(Stein, 86).

After World War II, economic growth meant home construction, so the Port Gamble mill continued to produce lumber. In 1962, the massive Columbus Day Storm downed billions of board feet of timber that had to be salvaged quickly. The Forest Service sold its timber overseas to the highest bidder and the price of logs climbed. Timber that fed Northwest mills was loaded onto ships for Japan. The Columbus Day Storm also damaged the Puget Hotel beyond repair and the structure was demolished.

Pope and Talbot, Inc. shifted its business focus by shedding its shipping business, one of the mainstays since the Gold Rush. In 1967, the company invested $1.7 million to convert the Port Gamble mill from processing old-growth timber to processing smaller second-growth logs, a recognition of the looming exhaustion of virgin forests. In 1975, the company added a $3 million hardwood chip facility, the first to make a commercial use of alder which grew on logged off lands. More upgrades to the sawmill increased output in 1979 by 70 percent. Modern equipment required fewer workers however, and the payroll at Port Gamble slumped. The development of Kitsap County allowed workers to own homes and to commute to work, so the significance of company town ebbed.

In December 1985, in its tradition of flexibility, Pope and Talbot, Inc. reorganized. Pope and Talbot, Inc. separated its assets and transferred major properties to Pope Resources. Pope Resources, Inc. took over the Port Gamble townsite and the mill as well as 78,000 acres of timber and the real estate development at Port Ludlow. Port Gamble and the mill were then leased to Pope and Talbot, Inc., which continued to saw logs and make hardboard.

In 1966, the town of Port Gamble was acknowledged for its contribution to the heritage of the region by being included on the National Register of Historic Places. The community continued to function in its traditional role as a home for mill workers, but also addressed its historical significance with a museum.

End of an Epoch

Changes in the timber business dogged profitability at the Port Gamble Mill. The price of logs was up and the price of finished lumber was down. After a month-long shutdown in 1990, the work force was cut from 175 to 71 and from two shifts to one. Thirty-three employee families still lived in Port Gamble.

On November 30, 1995, the 20 remaining employees reported for the last day of work at the Port Gamble mill. The mill could not remain profitable and Pope and Talbot had to cease operations and sell off the equipment. The mill at Port Gamble was the oldest continuously operating sawmill in the U.S., at 142 years.

The Next Chapter

Coincident with the closing of the Port Gamble mill, Pope and Talbot's lease on the town expired. Pope Resources assumed responsibility for maintaining the property including buildings and infrastructure. The managers decided not to sell off the town or to evict residents and to maintain it as a historic resource.

Port Gamble was located in unincorporated Kitsap County and was subject to the state Growth Management Act, which regulated urban development in rural areas. The Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board and the Kitsap County Commissioners both approved the designation Rural Historic Town. This allowed development of the townsite and its buildings while retaining its historic character. Businesses and tourist activities were induced to come to town and take advantage of the picturesque location. The service station became an artists' co-op. The meat and produce market became an antiques store. The general store continued to offer merchandise. The Walker-Ames House, home of mill superintendents since the 1890s, with its sweeping views of water and mountains, will become a venue for weddings and special events.


Edwin T. Coman, Jr. and Helen M. Gibbs, Time, Tide and Timber: A Century of Pope & Talbot (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1949 and 1978); Harry H. Stein, Pope Resource: Rooter in the Past, Growing for the Future (Seattle: Documentary Book Publishers, 2003); Jan M. Eakins, "Port Gamble, Washington," Historic American Engineering Record, August 1997, copy at Pope & Talbot Archives, Port Gamble, WA; Jacilee Wray, > Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula: Who We Are (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), pp. 51-63; Bill Virgin, "Port Gamble Lumber Mill Reopens But Its Work Force Has Been Shaved, And The Future Remains Shaky," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 2, 1990, p. E-1; Keith Ervin, "84 Pope & Talbot Employees To Be Laid Off Immediately," The Seattle Times, November 2, 1990, p. D-12.

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