Another historical snapshot

Posted by Tom Camfield

This is Port Townsend’s city hall in its original form, referred to as under construction in 1891 in my recent blog on prostitution. This photograph, obviously was taken immediately after the then-impressive edifice was completed, probably by James M. McMurry (sic), who with his camera recorded much of the town’s history during and around 1890-’91. I have some of his old glass-plate negatives.

To the rear of this grand structure—for the convenience of any city staff or officials who might wander slightly astray—is the Green Light bordello. It was destroyed by fire in 1914. Snug up against City Hall’s west wall is the

wall of the Olympic Hotel’s saloon, another convenience for those involved with business in City Hall.

Water Street, of course, was an insignificant dirt road.

City Hall was built in place of an almost-new frame structure that had been completed on the same restrictive 55x110-foot lot in November 1889—built at a cost of $774 and comprising basically a jail and fire department. The city council previously had been meeting in the county courthouse. The courthouse at that time was the Fowler building on Adams Street, later and currently occupied by the Port Townsend Leader.

When the new city hall was proposed at the beginning of 1891, the Leader led the protest also voiced by numerous of the town’s leading citizens that the proper place for the structure should be “on the hill” in looking to the city’s future growth. Some others found reasonable arguments for a downtown location—including one who said the jail would be more convenient for the police department. Some saw no need at all for the facility.

But a city council generally attuned to the business community affirmed the location and called for bids to be limited at $30,000. On March 3, the lower of only two qualifying bids was the $29,700 of the architectural firm of Bamberg, Groliere & Collins. This meant that Whitney & Campbell, local contractors and builders, would do the carpentry work, supervised by Batwell & Patrick, architects.

Prior to construction, the city had the 1889 facilities moved and used, paying $100 for the relocation to Washington Street (back around to the other side of the Green Light).

The City Hall preceded completion of the present County Courthouse “on the hill.”

My second volume of local history contains six pages on this City Hall project, including a photo of the previous structure but not the photo above, which I’m using here for the first time. That volume is presently “off sale” but a copy possibly is available at the Jefferson County Historical Society’s research center on the Chimacum Cut-Off (or call me at 385-2059). The foundation Volume One is “out of print” but may be browsed at the same JCHS facility. The 1,000-plus pages of both volumes (involving some 45 years of research on my part) were erased from their digital origins by a catastrophic computer disaster in 2007.

History is a serious frustration in that so much of the detail escapes forever. Those who would profit from it freely speculate in coloring outside the lines. Such as a fly-by-night TV producer who called me the other day in search of a cheap sensational version of our city’s early days.

The past was, of course, colorful, but the reality is in the recorded detail.

Personally, I feel an obligation to both the past and the future.

city hall, 1891


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Marge Samuelson

About the Green Light, it was owned by Ida Williams, a notorious madam who had many run-ins with the authorities. But in October of 1891 while the building was under construction, some bricks fell off the back of the building and damaged her house. Ida brought suit against the city and the brick & stone contractors Bamberry, Grolier & Collins for $900 in damages. On February 2, 1892 the damage suit was settled, the contractors paid the fine. Ida was a smart businesswoman.

Thursday, March 7, 2019
Tom Camfield

Love it, Marge! You're on top of the detail that really brings history to life. People such as Ida represent the real history of their time on the local scene.

I sort of compare her to today's woman, struggling for equality with the means at her disposal in a society dominated by men seeking fame though domination, erecting grand monuments to their being and their prosperity. In Port Townsend's early years we had Eisenbeis, Hastings and the like; today we have our Donald Trumps and his wannabes.

My true heroes of history always will be those who supported the multitude—found common cause with and respect for the many pursuing life as best they could. Some things never really change where the human beast is concerned.

Live on in history, Ida. I can only hope that your soul twinges and smiles when your name is invoked.

Thursday, March 7, 2019
Justin Hale

Tom, your first line comixing prostitution and city hall was LOL.

Thursday, March 7, 2019