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What’s the deal with Port Gamble? The mystery behind this little slice of Americana

The iconic church in Port Gamble. (Saleina Marie Photography)
LISTEN: What's the deal with Port Gamble? The history & mystery behind this perfect little slice of Americana

Port Gamble looks like a movie set. More specifically, the movie set of Pleasantville. The teeny tiny town on Highway 104 on the Kitsap Peninsula is frozen in time, with sprawling, perfectly manicured lawns, white picket fences, and flawless New England architecture, most of it built between the 1880s and 1919. There are no garbage cans at the curbs and no mailboxes. It takes less than a minute to drive through town and if you have, one might ask: Does anyone actually live here?

A few weeks ago I asked my Facebook followers for story ideas, anything located between Seattle and Port Townsend. One listener asked: “What’s the scoop on Port Gamble?” At first I thought the question was too vague. What specifically do you want to know about Port Gamble? But now I get it and I also wanted to know what the scoop is with this beautiful little speck of a waterfront town.

Port Gamble resident Pete Orbea is the Wedding and Events Supervisor at Olympic Property Group, the company that owns Port Gamble. It’s one of the rare, company towns still in existence in this country, along with Hershey, Pennsylvania.

“Olympic Property Group owns and maintains all the buildings and grounds [and homes] in Port Gamble,” said Orbea. “Port Gamble is a National Historical Landmark. So there are certain things you can’t do. You can’t have a mailbox, you can’t have a satellite dish. But the cool thing is the town takes care of the maintenance of the buildings. Say your stove breaks, they’ll come in and fix it. They mow your lawn, you just have to take care of your flower beds.”

But before there was Olympic Property Group, there was Pope and Talbot.

“The town was established in 1853 by Mainers Pope and Talbot. They were lumbermen and they wanted to open a mill on the west coast. So they originally sailed from East Machias, Maine to San Francisco and set up their business. That was in 1849. A couple years later they sailed up and found this spot here in Port Gamble and said, hey, this is where we’re going to open our first mill. It’s called the Puget Mill.”

The mill stayed open until 1995.

“The mill ran for 142 years, it’s the longest running mill in US history by a long shot.”

In 1997 Port Gamble became a tourist destination and a place where anyone could live, not just mill workers. In the 1880s and 90s there were about 900 people and 400 buildings in Port Gamble. Now there are 85 residents, mostly families, and about 40 buildings.

“The Port Gamble General store [was built in] 1916, so a newer building in town. We do have one house here in town, called the Thompson House, built in 1859, which is the oldest continuously lived in home in the state of Washington.”

The town does have a post office, where residents pick up their mail, and the shopping and schooling is done in either Paulsbo or Kingston, both seven miles away.

Orbea says Port Gamble is one of the most haunted towns in Washington. In true small town fashion, not only does he do weddings and events and acts as spokesperson for the town’s history, he also leads paranormal tours.

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