Port Angeles 101
The Olympic Peninsula Tourism Commission surveyed Victorians last year, and the results were embarrassing. More than half of us said we didn’t know anything about the Olympic peninsula – and 15 percent hadn’t heard of Port Angeles, even though we gaze upon its backdrop of snow-capped mountains practically every day. So in the interests of geographical education, regional fellowship, and par-dollar tourism, here’s a crash course in the history of our American neighbours, 32 kilometres across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Port Angeles is the seat of Clallam County, named for the Klallam natives of the area. Klallam means “strong people” in their language, which is similar to Songhees, and taught for credit at Port Angeles High School. (You can even read the Klallam word of the day on Twitter.)
The Klallam have several traditional villages along both sides of the Strait – including one at Becher Bay, east of Sooke – but the largest stood at I-enn-nus, at the mouth of today’s Ennis Creek, just east of Port Angeles. The great travelling artist Paul Kane created several paintings (sample left) of Klallam life, including one depicting a famous battle at I-enn-nus that the Klallam fought against the Makah, over the corpse of a whale. (The conflict was resolved after the children of the rival chiefs got married.)
A Spanish captain who sailed past in 1791 gave the name of Puerto de Nuestra de Señora de Los Angelos to the deep-water harbour protected by Ediz Hook, the six-kilometre spit that juts out from today’s Port Angeles. (Ediz, like Ennis, is a mispronunciation of I-enn-nus.) The founding of the town itself is credited to Victor Smith, a slippery treasury agent who bought up most of the land in the area, and then lobbied the U.S. government to move its customs house from Port Townsend to Port Angeles, supposedly to capitalize upon the shipping traffic around Fort Victoria. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed an order incorporating the town, relocating the customs house, and establishing Ediz Hook as a military reserve. Smith, who was indicted for embezzlement but never convicted, died in a shipwreck in 1865. The customs office returned to Port Townsend soon afterward.
Port Angeles remained quiet for a while, and then boomed in the 1880s, thanks to the Puget Sound Cooperative Colony – a band of prominent Seattle residents who opposed Chinese immigration, and wanted to create a model (all-white) city with cooperative industries. Boasting more than 500 members, the colony built Port Angeles’s first schoolhouse, lumber mill, opera house, and many churches, but dissolved in legal acrimony in 1889.
The town grew nonetheless, and undertook new challenges. Much of the downtown had been built at sea level, allowing high tides to slop raw sewage onto the streets and wash away planked sidewalks. So in 1914, Port Angeles regraded its entire downtown, pumping seawater up its surrounding hills and then sluicing down the dirt (photo left), expanding the waterfront and raising the streets by four metres. Many building owners had to move their entrances up one floor, creating an “underground” of basements still visible on guided tours.
It was a confident time. Farmers at nearby Sequim worked the rich soil to raise potatoes and pigs that they sold in Victoria. Thanks to an 1895 irrigation project – which Sequim commemorates with a festival every May – they converted their rainshadowed prairie into pastureland, and created a dairy industry. By 1913, the county produced a million pounds of butter annually. (You can check out the current bounty at the Port Angeles Farmers’ Market, held at a covered public square conveniently located next to the downtown transit loop. Our neighbours have a few things to teach Victoria about supporting local agriculture.)
The other big industry was forestry. During World War I, the U.S. government ordered thousands of soldiers to start cutting spruce for airplanes, and built a gigantic mill at the mouth of Ennis Creek. But soon there wasn’t much of the forest left to cut. (As you can tell from the 1927 photo at left, the loggers didn’t leave many trees in town, either.) In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt created Olympic National Park, and expanded it to nearly a million acres in size, despite logging-industry protests. Today only one big mill remains, owned by Nippon Paper Industries. You can see its plumes from Victoria, as it recycles our newsprint into paper for telephone books.
Instead, the Port Angeles economy is increasingly driven by tourism. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire romances draw thousands of visitors from all over the world, especially to the Bella Italia restaurant, where the lovers Bella and Edward had their first date over a plate of mushroom pasta. The reliable Coho, now in its 50th year of service, ferries 200,000 passengers across the Strait annually, and much of Victoria’s food. Kayaking is popular. But the sport with the biggest growth potential is cycling, especially along the developing Olympic Discovery Trail (right), which follows the route of a 1914-built railroad that ran from Port Townsend through Port Angeles to the logging camps at Lake Crescent. (The lake also happens to be the site of the area’s most famous murder.)
Many cyclists roll off the Coho and head east along the waterfront on the gravelly trail to Sequim, but I rode west. I pedalled past Tse-whit-zen, a vast fenced-off yard where Washington State spent $100 million readying a factory to build components for the Hood Canal Bridge, until it discovered the remains of a Klallam village underneath; archeologists have since unearthed 1,000 artifacts from the site, and the Klallam plan to build a museum there. Then I rode up through half-built suburbs stalled by the recession, and on to the Olympic View Cemetery on the edge of town.
Port Angeles has been home to a few celebrities: Lindsay Wagner, TV’s Bionic Woman, lives in the area today, conducting spiritual retreats. But likely its best-known resident was the poet and short-story writer Raymond Carver, who created some of his finest work here before he died of cancer in 1988.
I found Carver’s grave, a slab of black marble. I read the letters that fans had left in a little mailbox beside it. Then I looked across the strait to the Sooke Hills, and wondered if he’d thought much about Canada. Maybe not. It was another country, after all. So far, yet so close.
PS If you’re planning to visit Port Angeles, here are a few recommendations. Breakfast: First Street Haven. Bookstore: Port Book and News. Downtown tourist attraction: Arthur D. Feiro Marine Life Center. Bar: Peaks Pub.