A Little Local History – or Why “All Things Victorian” are Big Around Here

James and Hastings Building . . . the Captain Tibbals Building . . . the Mount Baker Block. cropped

I live in Port Townsend, Washington, a Historic Victorian Seaport town that was founded on April 24, 1851. That’s a few months before Seattle, our glamorous neighbor across the Puget Sound, which is generally accepted as having been founded on November 13, 1851. Our Downtown (waterfront) Historic District is a U.S. National Historic Landmark District. Portions of Uptown (residences of the sea captains and wealthy merchants) are also a designated Registered Historic District.

By the late 19th century, Port Townsend was a well-known seaport, very active and banking on the future. Many homes and buildings were built, with most of the architecture done in the ornate Victorian style of the time. And there are a lot of them. We ooze Victorian from every pore. We were once known as “the City of Dreams” because of the early speculation that we’d become the largest harbor on the west coast of the United States. But things didn’t go as planned. Wikipedia offers an excellent summary of what almost was; I’ve distilled the following from the info on their pages.

Fair warning – If history and tales of greed-driven economic disasters bore you, now is the time to bail. The picture albums are at the end.

Throughout the U.S., railroads were built and expanded in the 1870-1890s and Port Townsend was to be the northwest extension terminal of the rail lines. Our port was large and frequented by overseas vessels, so shipping of goods and timber from the area was a major part of the economy. Many of the buildings were built on the speculation that Port Townsend would become a booming shipping port and major city.

But the Panic of 1873 changed all that. It signaled the beginning of the Long Depression, a worldwide economic recession, beginning in 1873 and running through the spring of 1879.

The first symptoms of the crisis in 1873 were financial failures in Vienna, then capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which spread to most of Europe and North America by 1873. Rampant speculative investments (overwhelmingly in railroads), a large trade deficit, ripples from economic dislocation and inflation in Europe resulting from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), property losses in the Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) fires, and other factors put a massive strain on bank reserves. During September and October 1873 the New York City bank reserves plummeted from $50 million (well over $980 million in today’s dollars) to $17 million (about $333 million today).

Does the story sound a bit familiar? It got worse.

On its heels came the Panic of 1893, which was a serious economic depression in the United States. Similar to the Panic of 1873, it’s hallmark was overbuilding and shaky financing of railroads, resulting in a series of bank failures. Compounding market overbuilding and the railroad bubble was a run on the gold supply. The Panic of ’93 was the worst economic depression the United States had ever experienced at the time. Argentinian local speculation and over-investment in what would be a failure in the wheat crop and a political coup in Buenos Aires created a local financial shock which eventually led to a run on gold in the United States Treasury, as investors were cashing in their investments. This occurred during “The Gilded Age,” when the United States was experiencing massive economic growth and expansion. This expansion eventually became driven by railroad speculation. Railroads were over-built, incurring expenses that outstripped revenues. Also, new mines flooded the market with silver, causing its price to fall. In addition, farmers, particularly in wheat and cotton regions, struggled under a decline in prices for agricultural commodities.

When the depression hit, the so-called railroad barons lost the capital to continue building and rail lines ended on the east side of Puget Sound, mainly in Tacoma and Seattle. With the other Puget Sound ports growing in size, Port Townsend saw a rapid decline in population. The death blow came when the Northern Pacific Railroad failed to connect the city to Tacoma. By the late 1890s, without the railroad to spur economic growth, Port Townsend’s boom and hey-days were over. The town shrank and investors looked elsewhere to make a good return.

And so those beautiful Victorian buildings and homes were left to sit – untouched by “urban sprawl” or the financial strength to tear down and build new. Many of them are still here today, renovated and used. They are what make our tourist town a place of interest and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

It’s also what makes the annual Victorian Heritage Festival what it is – a place to come and enjoy the  atmosphere of a genuine, Victorian town; and, for a day or two, listen to the bustle dresses swish.

Port Townsend, Then (all images courtesy of the University of Washington archives)

Port Townsend, Now

The Annual Victorian Heritage Festival, photos from past years (taken by a number of folks – copyright credit given when known)

2011-Vic-Fashionable-ladies (my sister and I)Caught on Film! 2011: A surprise find from the internet – my sister (in the striped dress) and I (in the red dress and about 30 pounds heavier) arrived early for the fashion show. She made her ensemble and my hat. That was my first attempt at a Victorian-era dress. Now you know why I’m making a new one. That and the fact that everything is waaay too big now. *happy dance* (Heavens, that hairpiece did not match my hair at all.)

If you’re in the area, this year’s Heritage Festival is March 21st through the 23rd (Friday through Sunday). Come swish your bustle (or hoop or pad or corded petticoat) with the rest of us!


5 thoughts on “A Little Local History – or Why “All Things Victorian” are Big Around Here

  1. Loved reading a little bit of history about Pt Townsend, especially since I’ll be up there for the festival and fashion show, and I’ll get to meet you face to face. 🙂 I see you got my photo from the fashion show in my pink floral 1905 gown. I love this little town and always dream of living in one of those adorable Victorian houses. Sadly my decision after retiring of moving up that way changed after I became so involved in my costuming and tea party catering here. But at least I can visit.

    • Sometimes our homes manage to find us, instead of the other way around, huh? I’m looking forward to meeting you and seeing the rest of the ladies. Are you taking the ferry over from Seattle?

      • My Mom lives in Sequim, where I’ll be visiting. We’ll be driving in to Pt Townsend on Sat, and go home that evening. Then I come back the next day myself to go on a tour and the tea they’re giving for the fashion show models.

  2. I would love to visit there. I am originally from a little town in Massachusetts called Newburyport. Lots of victorians and much of the town is preserved as landmarks also. I love California, but I miss the architecture terribly. I’m sure I would love Port Townsend

    • It is so nice to have these places where history is not completely obliterated and forgotten. I visited Massachusetts a few years ago and loved it. I went completely gaga in Deerfield, having gone mostly gaga in Old Sturbridge Village a couple of days before that. Out here on the west coast, Victorian is considered “really old,” Civil War is “really, really old,” Spanish Colonial is almost at the dawn of time and historic Native American settlements (which I love to explore and learn about) are the dawn of time. 😉

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