Jefferson County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 9/26/2005
  • Essay 7472
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Jefferson County, located on the Olympic Peninsula in northwestern Washington, was created by the Oregon Territorial Legislature on December 22, 1852 from a portion of Lewis County. It was named in honor of President Thomas Jefferson who, by commissioning the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), was instrumental in the exploration of the Pacific Northwest. Jefferson County has a total area of 2,184 square miles; 1,814 square miles of land and 369 square miles of water. Approximately 60 percent of the county comprises the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest; another 20 percent is under the jurisdiction of other federal and state agencies. The boundary lines were determined by the Washington Territorial legislature in 1877. It is bounded on the north by Clallam County and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on the south by Grays Harbor and Mason Counties; on the east by Hood Canal and Admiralty Inlet; and the on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The county seat is Port Townsend.

Exploration and Contact

Although several explorers sailed along the shores of the Olympic Peninsula and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the most thorough work was accomplished in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) of the British Navy who commanded an expedition into Puget Sound. Captain Vancouver charted and named many natural features: bodies of water, capes, headlands, inlets, and mountain peaks. His predecessor, Captain John Mears, a British mariner searching for the Northwest Passage, named the highest peak on the peninsula, Mount Olympus (7965 feet), after the mythical home of the Greek gods, on July 4, 1788. Captain Vancouver followed precedent and wrote the name “Olympic Mountains” on his charts. Eventually, the “Olympic” designation was extended to the peninsula itself.

For thousands of years the only occupants of the Olympic Peninsula were Coast Indians who lived in large communal longhouses, subsisting on fish, shellfish, and wild game as well as roots and berries. With the exception of periodic wars with other Coast Indian tribes, life was relatively quiet for many centuries. In the late 1700s and early 1800s the Indian population was decimated by disease transmitted through contact with white explorers. In some areas diphtheria, smallpox, and measles killed 90 percent of the Indians. By the time white settlers arrived some local tribes had populations of only a few hundred and were so depleted they could not effectively resist the intruders. In the mid-nineteenth century, Indian tribes located in what is now Jefferson County, included the Chem-a-kum (or Chimacum), Hoh (a subset of the Quileute), S’Klallam (or Clallam), Quinault, Snohomish, and Twana (or Quilcene). By signing of the Point No Point Treaty and the Quinault River Treaty in 1855, local Indian tribes ceded their lands and waters to the United States, reserving the right to continue fishing, hunting, and gathering in the ceded territories. After the treaties were signed, settlement proceeded rapidly.

Port Townsend

White settlers came to the north Olympic Peninsula in the mid-1800s but the rugged interior remained unexplored. Like the Indians, the settlers chose town sites along the waterways and were mainly occupied with logging, fishing, and farming. The first permanent American settlement on the peninsula was Port Townsend, founded on April 24, 1851, when Alfred A. Plummer (1822-1883) and Charles Bachelder selected homesteads and registered the claims with the surveyor general’s office in Olympia. They named the new town after the bay on which it was situated, so named by Captain Vancouver on May 8, 1792, in honor of the Marquis of Townshend -- the “h” in the original name was later dropped.

Port Townsend, on the Quimper Peninsula at the extreme northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, was perfectly situated for sailing ships. At a time when commerce and travel in the Pacific Northwest were almost entirely waterborne, it was the first safe harbor encountered on Puget Sound.

In 1854, the Treasury Department moved Washington Territory’s Port of Entry into the United States, from Olympia to Port Townsend. Sailing ships usually stopped for a least a few hours, both entering and leaving Puget Sound, to clear customs and await favorable winds and tides for continuing their voyage. Port Townsend residents believed their city was destined to become the San Francisco of the Pacific Northwest.

On January 16, 1860, the Washington Territorial legislature passed an act declaring Port Townsend a city, entitled to self rule. The city was officially incorporated by the legislature in 1861. But because the transcontinental railroad never reached Port Townsend, it never grew as expected.

The great land boom of 1889-1890 was predicated on the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad, linking Port Townsend with the rest of the nation. Due to financial difficulties, the Union Pacific Railroad abandoned the project, causing the boom to collapse in 1891.

When the Panic of 1893 hit the nation, people in the city left in droves, abandoning their houses, buildings, and properties. Port Townsend’s economy went bankrupt and within months, the population dwindled from more than 7,000 inhabitants to fewer than 2,000. The city may have been perfectly situated for sailing ships, but steamships could proceed into Puget Sound without concern. The loss to Seattle of the U.S. Customs Office in 1913 was a final blow to Port Townsend’s grand ambitions.

The city languished until 1927 when the Crown Zellerbach Corporation built a kraft paper mill there, spending more than $5 million and employing 600 construction workers and later, hundreds of mill workers. Today, the Port Townsend Paper Mill remains the largest private employer in Jefferson County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2000, Port Townsend had a population of 8,334.

Fort Worden

In 1896, the federal government started work on the construction of Fort Worden on the high bluffs north of Port Townsend, which was an economic boost to the city. Activated in May 1902, the imposing fortification was one of three major Coast Artillery forts built around the turn of the century to protect critical naval installations and shipyards in Puget Sound. Along with Fort Casey at Admiralty Head and Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island just south of Port Townsend, the three forts formed a “triangle of fire” that would rain death on any enemy vessel that attempted to enter Admiralty Inlet. The fort was named in honor of Admiral John Lorimer Worden (1818-1897), the captain of the ironclad vessel USS Monitor. From 1939 through 1953, Fort Worden served as the Harbor Defense Command headquarters for Puget Sound.

In June 1953, the Harbor Defense Command was deactivated, the fort was closed and put up for sale. On July 1, 1957, Fort Worden was purchased by the State of Washington for $127,533 for use as a diagnostic and treatment center for troubled youths. When the State closed the juvenile treatment center, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission acquired most of the fort’s grounds on September 30, 1971. The 433.53-acre Fort Worden State Park and Conference Center was opened and dedicated on August 18, 1973.


Marrowstone is situated approximately three miles southeast of Port Townsend. The island, seven miles long and a half-mile average width, was named by Captain Vancouver on May 8, 1792, who noted in his log that the cliff behind the point was composed mostly of a whitish hardened clay called “marrowstone.” Eventually, the name was used for the entire island.

The first settlement on Marrowstone Island was founded in September 1892 by Peter Nordby, a Norwegian immigrant. He purchased 187 acres of land from Thomas Hammond, a Port Townsend realtor, and platted the acreage into 10-acre parcels. Nordby called the new town site “Nordland.” Ironically, Peter Nordby never lived on Marrowstone Island, but moved to Seattle, where he founded the Nordby Supply Company, a ship chandlery business.

Nordland is still the only town on Marrowstone and the general store is the only source of groceries and gasoline. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2000 Marrowstone had a total population of 837.

In 1896, Congress approved construction of a fortification on 640 acres of land that had been reserved for military purposes on Marrowstone Island in 1866 by Executive Order. Construction began on the fortification in 1897 and was completed in 1899. Named Fort Flagler, in honor of Brigadier General Daniel Webster Flagler (1835-1899), it was the first of three major Coast Artillery forts built to protect Puget Sound. After World War I (1917-1919) the Army used Fort Flagler as a training center until 1953, when it was officially deactivated. Between 1957 and 1962, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission purchased the 784-acre fort from the federal government for $36,473, for use a state park.

The Tri-Area

Port Hadlock, located five-and-a-half miles from Port Townsend on U.S. Highway 101, was founded in 1870 by Samuel Hadlock, who owned several hundred acres of land at the head of Port Townsend Bay. In 1884, the Western Mill and Lumber Company built a large saw mill there. In 1886, the operation was sold to the Washington Mill Company of San Francisco, which liked the port because the docks could accommodate seven lumbers ships at one time. The mill employed about 125 sawyers and 30 stevedores to load the ships. It produced most of the lumber used to build Fort Flagler, Fort Worden, and Fort Casey on Whidbey Island.

But in 1907, the bottom dropped out of the lumber market and the company closed the mill. All but the office and commissary was destroyed by fire in 1913. A large distillery was built at Port Hadlock in 1911, using a new method of distilling alcohol from softwood sawdust, but the business was unsuccessful and the plant closed in 1913. Today Port Hadlock is the commercial core of the “Tri-Area,” which includes Irondale and Chimacum. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2000 the Tri-Area had a total population of 3,476.

Irondale, just north of Port Hadlock, was so named because a large iron ore smelter was built there in 1879. Samuel Hadlock, along with other local businessmen, created the Puget Sound Iron Company. The plant employed some 400 men and produced high-quality iron, which was shipped primarily to San Francisco.

The plant closed in 1889, but was reopened several years later as the Western Steel Company. The president of Western Steel was James A. Moore, president of the Moran Brothers Shipbuilding Company in Seattle, which built the battleship USS Nebraska in 1901. Western Steel was supposed to be instrumental in building a railroad from Port Townsend to Portland, Oregon, and there was speculation that Moran Brothers might also establish a shipyard.

In 1909, the City of Irondale, one square mile platted in May, had a population of 1,500 and plans were made to accommodate a population of 20,000 within three years. One year later, the town the had a bank, a newspaper, three hotels, two brick buildings, 30 businesses, a hospital, scores of new houses, graded streets, electricity, telephones, a water and sewer system, and no unemployment. The steel mill, working around the clock, was producing approximately 700 tons of steel per week. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer declared in 1910 that Irondale had the potential “of becoming the largest and most important manufacturing city in Western America.”

But suddenly in 1911, Western Steel declared bankruptcy, causing Irondale’s collapse. After a brief period of operation during World War I (1917-1919) to use up stockpiled raw materials, the plant was dismantled. Today, Irondale is basically a residential area for the Port Hadlock Tri-Area.

Chimacum, just south of Port Hadlock and three miles east of Discovery Bay, is a community that was once the site of an Indian village. It was named for the Chem-a-kum, a now-extinct Indian tribe that once inhabited the valley. The tribe was ravaged by disease and then in 1857, annihilated by the combined forces of the Snohomish Indians and Indians from Barclay Sound on Vancouver Island.

The land was claimed in 1853 by William Bishop and William Eldridge, two sailors from a British naval vessel who jumped ship in Victoria B.C., and rowed across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Peninsula. The fertile Chimacum Valley was once the largest and best agricultural area in Jefferson County. Today, Chimacum boasts a large consolidated school complex which serves east central Jefferson County. All the schools north of Quilcene and south of Port Townsend were consolidated in 1964 into Chimacum School District No. 49, which today services approximately 1,200 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Only Port Townsend School District 50, with approximately 1,750 students, is larger.

Port Ludlow

Port Ludlow is a bay off Admiralty Inlet near the entrance to Hood Canal, approximately six miles south of Marrowstone Island. In 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, named Port Ludlow in honor of Lieutenant Augustus C. Ludlow, who was killed in the War of 1812 during a battle between the HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake. In 1852, San Francisco investors sent Captain William F. Sayward and John R. Thorndyke to the Pacific Northwest to build a sawmill. Thorndyke filed on a timber claim of 318 acres and built a steam sawmill on Port Ludlow Bay, and the ensuing community was named Port Ludlow.

In 1853, Andrew J. Pope and Captain William C. Talbot, two experienced and well-financed Maine lumbermen, formed a partnership and sailed from San Francisco to Puget Sound in the schooner Julius Pringle, seeking a site for a sawmill. Pope and Talbot stopped first at Discovery Bay, west of Port Townsend, then at Port Ludlow. Finding Port Ludlow already equipped with a mill, they set up operations in Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula. During the 1870s, Port Ludlow was known more for its fine ship building than as a mill town. The town of Port Ludlow, population 200, consisted of a general store, a rundown sawmill, a hotel, a cookhouse, a shipyard, and a few houses and cabins.

In 1879, Pope and Talbot purchased the Port Ludlow sawmill at auction for $64,850. After the addition of new equipment, the mill, doing business as the Puget Mill Company, turned out 125,000 board feet of lumber a day and built ships. The town's population swelled to 500, but a depression hit the United States in 1890 and market gluts and poor prices caused the sawmill to close. In 1898, the lumber market rebounded and the sawmill was reopened. The Pope and Talbot mills at Port Ludlow and Port Gamble supplied much of the lumber for the rebuilding of San Francisco following the earthquake and fire of April 1906. Between 1890 and 1935, Port Ludlow was a boom-or-bust economy with a great demand for spruce for military aircraft construction during World War I (1917-1919) followed by the Great Depression (1929-1939). The mill closed permanently in December 1935 and the plant was dismantled.

During World War II (1941-1945), the company houses were barged from Port Ludlow to other locations to help alleviate housing shortages. By 1950, Port Ludlow's commerce was dead. On August 12, 1961, the Hood Canal Bridge opened, linking Jefferson and Kitsap counties. The Olympic Peninsula was now easily accessible and it became readily apparent to Pope and Talbot, Inc. that Port Ludlow had some real estate potential. In 1968, the Pope and Talbot Corporation repurchased their formerly held land and developed the planned community of Port Ludlow. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2000 Port Ludlow had a population of 1,968.


Quilcene is a small community located at the mouth of the Quilcene River approximately 15 miles south of Port Ludlow in east central Jefferson County. It was named for the Indian tribe that once lived there, the Quil-ceed-a-bish, meaning “saltwater people.” In 1841, the Wilkes Expedition charted the place as Kwil-sid. In 1860, Hampden Cottle, a logger from Maine, and several other families settled here and eventually established a town.

Quilcene’s economy was based primarily on farming and logging and by 1880, had a population of 53. The town had great expectations for growth when it was learned that James G. Swan (1818-1900) was promoting a rail line from Portland, Oregon, through Quilcene to Port Townsend. In 1887, the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad was incorporated and began laying tracks south. In 1889, the Oregon Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, purchased the track, promising to continue it to Portland. By August 1890, the track had been extended 20 miles to Leland Lake, but the Union Pacific Railroad had developed financial problems and there was no activity on the Portland end of the line. The Oregon Improvement Company, left to its own devices, declared bankruptcy in 1891, but work continued on the track another five miles to Quilcene and then stopped.

In 1902, the Tubal Cain Mining Company claimed that Quilcene would become the center for the smelting of gold, iron, copper, and manganese they expected to find in the Olympic Mountains. Mining exploration continued until the 1920s, but little ore was ever discovered. Today, Quilcene is primarily a residential community, in relatively close proximity to Bremerton, the U.S. Navy Trident Submarine Base at Bangor, and other population centers. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Quilcene had a population of 591.


Brinnon, another small community, is located at the mouth of the Dosewallips River, 12 miles south of Quilcene. It is named for Elwell P. Brinnon who settled here in 1860 and married O-wota, (nicknamed Kate), the sister of Chetzemoka (1808-1888), called the Duke of York, chief of the S’Klallam Tribe, who lived near Port Townsend. Early settlers named the post office Brinnon, rather than Dosewallips because it was easier to spell. The first settler known to log the Brinnon area was Tom Pierce in 1859, and most early settlers were associated with the logging industry. Like other nearby towns, the prospect of a railroad through Brinnon stimulated settlement and more logging. Brinnon was more isolated than most towns on Hood Canal and the railroad would solve their transportation problems.

When the railroad failed to materialize, the citizens built a wagon road to the rail terminus at Quilcene in 1896, connecting Brinnon, by land, to other towns. Families continued to subsist off the land and the men earned money by working part-time at nearby logging camps and sawmills. During the early 1900s, excursions to the Olympic Peninsula were so popular that it wasn't long before Brinnon developed a tourist industry. The completion of U.S. Highway 101 in the 1920s further stimulated its economy by providing easy access to Olympic wilderness areas. Today, Brinnon, like Quilcene, is primarily a residential community. One third of the residents are age 65 or older; the median age is 58. The U. S. Census Bureau reported in 2000, that Brinnon had a population of 803.

The Hoh

There is only one Indian reservation in Jefferson County, the Hoh, established by Executive Order on September 11, 1893. This reservation occupies only 443 acres, but has approximately one mile of beachfront on the Pacific Ocean, running south from the mouth of the Hoh River to Ruby Beach. Other tribes have disappeared from Jefferson County through a combination of disease, warfare, migration, intermarriage, and assimilation. The Hoh speak the Quileute language and was once one of the many Quileute villages. The Hoh, Quileute, and Quinault all signed the Quinault River Treaty of 1855 and were originally assigned to the Quinault Indian Reservation, but to preserve fishing and hunting rights, each tribe demanded their own reservation.

Most of the economy of the Hoh is derived from fishing and shellfishing, although a few artisans make and sell Indian artifacts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2000 the Hoh Reservation had a total population of 102, an increase of six people from the 1990 census.

Olympic National Park and Destruction Island

With the exception of the Hoh Reservation and a small corner of the Quinalt Reservation near Queets, the entire west coast of Jefferson County, approximately 30 miles, is part of the Olympic National Park, under the protection of the National Park Service. The 60 mile strip along the Pacific Ocean was added to the park in 1953.

Three miles off shore, between the Hoh Reservation and Kalaloch, is Destruction Island, a small, flat island that rises approximately 50 feet above the water. In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra named it Island of Sorrows in honor of six sailors who were killed by Coast Indians, while collecting fresh water. In 1787, Captain Charles W. Barkley, a British fur trader, sent five sailors ashore for fresh water at the mouth of the Hoh River. They too were killed by Indians who wanted their boat. Captain Barkley named the river “Destruction” but eventually the river’s name was changed to “Hoh” and the name “Destruction” was transferred to the island by Captain George Vancouver. A lighthouse was established on Destruction Island in 1892. Today, the island is closed to the public, but the lighthouse can be seen from a viewpoint on U. S. Highway 101, about one mile south of Ruby Beach.

A Place of Rain and No Rain

Jefferson County is a paradox on the Olympic Peninsula. In the rain shadow near Port Townsend, there are semi-arid areas that average only 18 inches of rain per year, and areas of the Hoh Rain Forest that average 140 inches of rain per year. Almost the entire population is concentrated along the east coast waterways of the county, with the majority living in the northeast quadrant.

The major industries are logging, manufacturing wood products, pulp and paper, construction, boat building and other marine related businesses, health, and education. But Jefferson County’s strongest economic growth is in tourism.

In 1871, according to the Washington Territorial Census, Jefferson County had a population of 1,236. In 1900, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Jefferson County had a population of 5,712, and 100 years later, in 2000, a population of 25,953. Between the 1960 and 2000 census, the county grew at a rate of approximately 8 percent, a trend predicted to continue. Many retirees move here, attracted by the mild weather, beautiful scenery, recreational opportunities, rural settings, and a lower cost-of-living.


Indians of Puget Sound: The Notebooks of Myron Eells ed. by George Pierre Castile (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Seattle: Washington State Historical Society, 1985); James Hermanson, Rural Jefferson County: Its Heritage and Maritime History (Port Townsend: James S. Hermanson, 2002); Andrea Jarvela, The Washington Almanac (Portland, OR: West Winds Press, 1999); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); James G. McCurdy, By Juan de Fuca’s Strait (Portland: Binford & Mort, 1937); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan Co., 1950); Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955); Karen Russell and Jeanne Bean, Marrowstone (Port Townsend: Port Townsend Publishing Co., Inc., 1978); William D. Welsh, A Brief Historical Sketch of Port Townsend, Washington (Port Townsend: Chamber of Commerce, 1941); With Pride in Heritage: History of Jefferson County ed. by the Jefferson County Historical Society (Port Townsend: Jefferson County Historical Society, 1966); Wayne Suttles, The Handbook of American Indians: NW Coast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990); “First Steel Made On the Pacific Coast to Be Turned Out at Irondale Next Month,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1910, real estate section, p. 1; “U. S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder: Jefferson County, Washington,” U.S. Census Bureau website accessed August 2005, (; “County and City Information: Jefferson County,” State of Washington Office of Financial Management website accessed August 2005 (; “2003 Washington State Data Book: Jefferson County Profile,” State of Washington Office of Financial Management website accessed August 2005 (; “ Jefferson County, Washington,” website accessed August 2005 (

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