Prostitution in our city’s hey-day

Posted 10/31/16

The above illustrates the most representative single block of the downtown red-light district as recorded on the city’s 1891 fire department map (designating building occupancy and contents …

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Prostitution in our city’s hey-day


The above illustrates the most representative single block of the downtown red-light district as recorded on the city’s 1891 fire department map (designating building occupancy and contents throughout the town). “I. F.” was used to designate “ill fame”—and some 20 such premises can be identified here (Click arrow upper left to enlarge). Prostitution was in no way confined to this waterfront block across from city hall (then under replacement construction), however. Other such premises were spotted throughout a few other blocks nearer city center. Four brothels, for instance, were located on the pathway extension (“Baby Buggy Lane”)  of Adams Sfreet between Washington and Jefferson. 

Saloons also were about every other door along toward city center. You will notice that one large house of ill fame (the Green Light) is located smack up against the rear of city hall—and a saloon is immediately next door in the Olympic Hotel. Monroe Street is to the right of this illustration, running parallel to Madison.

Greater detail of considerable length about early prostitution Is found in the first of my two books of Port Townsend history, which remain in print and are readily available. Prostitution continued on openly for quite a few years. First it catered largely to sailors when Port Townsend was the original customs port of entry for Puget Sound. As time passed, it served in large part soldiers from Forts Worden, Flagler, etc.—although accommodations were available to all down through the years. Here’s a little story from a 1907 issue of the Leader 16 years after this map was put together:

“The lack of harmony prevailing among the various officials of the city yesterday reached a climax when Chief of Police Barclay and City Magistrate Snyder met on the street and after a short discussion came to blows . . . The matter which directly led up to the misunderstanding was a recent order given by Magistrate Snyder to Barclay to notify residents of the lower part of the city that hereafter they must report on the 15th of each month to the city physician for medical examination, for which the sum of $2.50 was to be charged. It seems that the chief consulted with the city attorney, who informed him that there was no ordinance demanding this requirement. Barclay then informed the women of this announcement from the legal adviser of the city. In a discussion following this act of the chief arose the difficulty which terminated in the punching match. 

“It is declared that lately a great deal of complaint has been made to officials of this city concerning a lack of supervision over the public health. Officers of the forts have declared that the health of their men is being endangered, while in the city itself the conditions are said to be deplorable. Numerous requests have been received from several of these sources, asking that something be done to remedy the evil . . .” 

I had some first-hand reports of that particular period of downtown history from native son John H. Siebenbaum (1892-1970). John’s father arrived here in the 1880s and became one of the city’s leading business entrepreneurs and public officials. His business enterprises included the Delmonico, still operating as a tavern several doors east of the main downtown intersection, on the north side of Water St., through the 1970s. John was on the city council through the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was reporting on city government for the Leader (then served on the council myself through the ‘70s). I found a lot to talk to John about.

I and printer Claude Mitton worked half a day on Saturdays, then joined a regular little group at the Del—including also John, George Wenzler, sometimes Del Thompson of Port Ludlow and occasionally 90-year-old Sam Taylor.  We rolled dice for a few rounds of beer in John’s dad’s old place—while we settled affairs of the world. 

John recalled the thriving red-light concentration at the end of downtown as it existed during the time of the little story above.

As a high school teenager, he worked the graveyard shift at the steam plant of the electric light company, on the lower end of Water Street near Hudson Point. A sash and door factory was located at the southeast corner of Monroe & Water Sts. The block across from City Hall shown above featured “dollar houses” and a winding alley went through to the Bayview Saloon, located over the water at the foot of Monroe Street.

These small premises of ill fame (many one-room “cribs”) all faced a courtyard area to the side away from the street an area also convenient to the saloon. Knockdown-drag out fights were pretty common to that rough area, Siebenbaum recalled. Planks from a narrow sidewalk often were ripped up and used as weapons, necessitating frequent repair. The Green Light behind city hall was a $2.50 house, as was the Star at Washington & Monroe Sts. The Star also had a large stage and dance floor. John’s duties at the steam plant included occasionally going out to get a bucket of beer for the crew.

I didn’t move on sufficiently into later years with my own historical research to determine just when the city more or less cleaned up its act.