Port Blakely Mill
Trees - not just any trees, but giant Douglas firs as wide as a bus - once covered the Puget Sound region. Spurred by the development of the California gold rush, William Renton and other enterprising entrepreneurs scouted the Puget Sound for suitable spots to site a mill. Renton began and abandoned mill operations at both Alki and Port Orchard before settling on Blakely Harbor. In 1863, at the age of 45, Renton utilized the U.S. government's Donation Land Act to purchase his first 160 acres on Blakely Harbor at a cost of $1.25 an acre.
The harbor was protected and suitably deep for ocean going ships loaded with timber. Furthermore, the watershed that emptied into the harbor provided an ample source of fresh water, and the level area skirting the harbor seemed sufficient for constructing the mill and the town to support it. Renton decided to proceed, and by 1870 some 64 residents, primarily immigrants from Northern Europe, lived and worked in Port Blakely.
During the early 1870s, the Port Blakely mill was just one of many small mills in the area, but output soon began to grow. Swedish and Chinese immigrants met the mill's increasing labor requirements. Financial complications temporarily slowed the expansion of railroad lines in the western United States, and Chinese laborers who had provided a majority of the muscle in laying those lines, found work at Port Blakely. Sadly, the social imbalances of the time meant that Chinese workers did not receive the same pay as their Swedish counterparts and others of European descent. The same was true for the Japanese and Filipino immigrants who followed them. Though the Port Blakely Mill epitomized a period in the history of the Pacific Northwest defined by entrepreneurial spirit and the dream of individual opportunity, it also reflected the prejudice and intolerance of the era.
Increased production brought attention to the mill. In 1872, steamer ferry service began between Seattle and Blakely Harbor, and in 1879, Renton persuaded Isaac, Winslow, and Henry Hall to move their ship building operations to Port Blakely. Lumber from the area built some of Hawaii's first inter-island steamers as well as lumber schooners that plied the waters along the west coast.
Fire consumed the mill in February of 1888. It was rebuilt, but was destroyed by fire again in 1907. A third mill was built, however its economic viability soon ended, hastened by the ever-widening reach of railroad lines and the vast tracts of timber those railroad lines made accessible. The Hall Brothers had already moved their shipbuilding operations to neighboring Eagle Harbor in 1903. Port Blakely entered a new phase of its life cycle, blending its varied cultures into the emerging agricultural community of Bainbridge Island.
Evidence of the Port Blakely Mill still abounds on IslandWood site. A 92-foot beam, which was milled at the site at the turn of the 20th Century, now serves as a structural center support for the Center's Great Hall. Other vestiges of the mill include Mac's Dam and the pond that it holds. Mill workers at Port Blakely in the late 1880s built the dam to provide a more consistent source of fresh water.
The pond and the dam, as well as the ravine and stream that directs its overflow down to Blakely Harbor, provide a mix of natural and cultural history for students and visitors to the Center. They link today's learners with the history of the land, providing real-life lessons with which to prepare tomorrow's community leaders and environmental stewards.
City of Bainbridge Island Web site.http://www.bainbridgeisland.com/heritage
Center of the Study of the Pacific Northwest
University of Washingtonhttp://www.washington.edu/uwired/outreach/cspn/Website/index.html
Price, Jr., Andrew. Port Blakely: The Community Captain Renton Built. Seattle: Port Blakely Books, 1989.