Port Blakely’s story retold

Historian Andrew Price Jr, author of “Port Blakely: The Community Captain Renton Built,” answers questions for a group of island fourth-graders known as History Commandos at Island Center Hall. - JULIE BUSCH photo
Historian Andrew Price Jr, author of “Port Blakely: The Community Captain Renton Built,” answers questions for a group of island fourth-graders known as History Commandos at Island Center Hall.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH photo

Author to read from updated tale of timber trade.

It takes a limber mind to imagine Blakely Harbor’s bustling plank roads, its busy rail lines, its dense forest of ship masts and the incessant buzz from the world’s largest lumber mill.

The harbor of today is a serene place, lined by tall firs, low madronas and dotted by quiet waterfront homes. Nothing remains of the shipyard, the movie theater, saloon, church, hotel and Japanese bathhouses that lined the shore. Only a cement building that housed the mill’s machinery and a swath of blackened pilings hint at what once dominated the harbor.

“Today Blakely Harbor is a favorite anchorage for yacht and power boat captains, but there is little to remind them of the great mill, the almost living thing, and the vibrant community that surrounded it,” wrote Andrew Price, Jr. in “Port Blakely: the Community Captain Renton Built,” a detailed town narrative published in 1989 and re-released in December of last year.

“On quiet evenings the captains and their friends may talk of those days, but they listen in vain for the ghostly whine of saws, and search in vain for the tall ships that used to come and go.”

The Bainbridge Island Historical Society reprinted over 2,000 new copies of the book, ensuring that Blakely’s old ghosts never fade from the minds of the harbor’s boaters, residents and park-goers.

“Port Blakely is one of the key stories in our history, being that it was such a major industrial undertaking,” said the BIHS museum’s curator, Lorraine Scott.

Price, who donated the rights of the book to the BIHS, will read from the revised “Port Blakely” Thursday at Eagle Harbor Books, starting at 7:30 p.m.

“The (society) was very helpful, supportive and encouraging to me,” said Price, a retired banking executive now living in Seattle. “Because I’m 83 years old, I wanted to find a good place for the book and I respect what the society’s done.”

Jack Swanson, who wrote “Picture Bainbridge: A Pictoral History of Bainbridge,” is one of many island history buffs who urged Price to reprint “Port Blakely.”

“It’s a fascinating read and I didn’t want to see it die,” said Swanson, who admits he “stole copious amounts of research” from “Port Blakely” for “Picture Bainbridge.”

Price is not a trained historian or writer, but he does possess a driving curiosity. As a child, Price vacationed with his family at the Country Club of Seattle on Blakely’s south shore.

Later, he started poking around an old orchard near the harbor and started asking neighbors about the Swedish pioneer who planted it. The answers to those initial questions found their way into notebooks and sparked new discussions with other Scandinavian and Japanese families descended from the harbor’s settlers.

“The reason all these families were there was because there was a big mill,” Price said. “So I had to find out who started it all.”

Price began to focus his research on William Renton, a Nova Scotia ship’s captain and lumber merchant who put down roots in the Washington Territory after glimpsing the vast potential for profit that grew in dense forests along Puget Sound.

Blakely Harbor proved an ideal place for a mill, which Renton initiated by purchasing over 164.5 acres for just over $200 in 1864.

Renton’s wealth grew as fast as the mill, which ran day and night and out- produced all other lumber mills in the world. Planks were shipped to Hawaii, Australia, Japan and San Francisco. The Hall family shipbuilders found a lucrative neighbor in the Port Blakely Mill, establishing the first Hall Bros. Shipyard on the harbor’s northeast shore.

Swede, Norwegian, Basque, Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese laborers flocked for the steady pay the mill and shipyard provided. Many Scandinavian workers built homes in what later became Eagledale, while Japanese families established two tightly knit communities on the hills south of the harbor, complete with a Buddhist temple, bathhouses and gardens planted with the flora of their native islands.

Renton, whose investments in King County coal fields earned him a town named in his honor, was injured and eventually blinded in a mill accident. Despite the impairment, Renton continued to run the mill until his death in 1891, a year after his newly-upgraded and expanded operation was declared the largest sawmill in the world.

Price characterizes Renton as a “hands-on manager” who lived in a modest house only a stone’s throw from the mill’s smoke-stacks.

“He felt he needed to be in the middle of the action,” Price said. “Even when he lost his sight, he seemed to know everything that was going on at the mill.”

The mill’s edge over its competitors ebbed after the completion of a transcontinental railroad and its tributaries that opened vast new sources of timber. The number of sawmills on par with Port Blakely’s doubled between 1900 and 1905. The Hall Bros. Shipyard’s move to Eagle Harbor also contributed to the mill’s decline. The mill scraped by for a few years but was shut down in 1922. Many of its buildings were hauled off or eventually burned down.

Blakely’s strong water circulation, which continually flushes the harbor, quickly reclaimed the shore and erased much of what remained of the mill town.

“The hills around Blakely Harbor again resemble what they looked like when Captain Renton arrived on the Harbor in 1863 – over 140 years ago,” wrote Price in his book’s new postscript.

Price said he never intended to write a book. But the volumes of notes taken from interviews, old letters, newspapers and mill company documents began to stack up.

“I thought someone needed to write a book about it,” Price said. “The fact that I wrote about it just sort of happened. I was just curious.”

Swanson believes that curiosity paid off.

“The book shows that Port Blakely was a large mill that created thousands of jobs and delivered lumber all over the world, building the Panama Canal, the docks in Honolulu, Tokyo Bay and all over the Pacific,” he said. “It was also a magnet for people that built a very complex society. The mill’s gone but those people are still here and its why our community’s unique.

It was more than a mill cranking out wood. It’s what built the island.”

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