Towns with ghosts

Port Townsend, Washington
Photo and Waterlogue by Shelley Adina

One of my favorite places in the world (okay, that list is pretty long, but still in the top five) is Port Townsend, WA, home of the Brass Screw Confederacy, Sirens pub, Pygmy Boats, Fort Worden State Park, and the Old Consulate Inn, among many other delights. It’s also the home of a startling number of ghosts.

This isn’t surprising, when you consider the scandalous reputation the town possessed in the nineteenth century. Between its founding in 1851 and its heyday in the 1880s, Port Townsend had the worst reputation on the west coast for brawling, crime, and murder. Worse even than the Barbary Coast (San Francisco). Divided into two parts—Downtown on the waterfront and Uptown on the cliff—the well-heeled residents in their Victorian mansions Uptown could ignore or at the very least pray for what was going on down there, literally under their noses.

A room at the Palace Hotel, photo by Shelley Adina
A room at the Palace Hotel, photo by Shelley Adina

By the 1890s, it was clear that the railroad was not going to come to this busy port, and it faded into obscurity just as rapidly as it had risen. But the one advantage to being out of the way was that the Victorian buildings were left alone. So were the ghosts. Two of the most famous are the Manresa Castle Hotel Uptown, which has two spirits (don’t stay in room 306), and the Palace Hotel Downtown, which used to be a brothel and has ten.

Ten ghosts! I went for a walk through the Palace Hotel and didn’t see a single one, but it was broad daylight, so that may have had something to do with it. I did see a lot of lovely quilts and Victorian architecture, however. Nowadays Port Townsend is a destination that for me, still holds its old moniker, City of Dreams. I can walk on the waterfront, squint just a certain way, and see Corsair’s Cove, hovering out there just beyond reality.

A little like a ghost.


The Age of Sail

“At River’s Edge,” sketch by James Fuller Queen ca. 1850-60.

There is something thrilling and romantic about the sight of a vessel under full sail—or even tied up in harbor. One of the defining moments in the history of Corsair’s Cove is when Captain Daniel Blackthorne, the Wolf of the West, sails his ship the Belle Swift into harbor, and disaster ensues that has repercussions for the next century and a half.

Clipper ship “Challenge,” Currier & Ives, ca. 1835-56

I love to imagine what his ship might have looked like. The Age of Sail is roughly defined as that period between the end of oars and the beginning of steam, or 1571 through about 1870. That’s three hundred years of sails, culminating in the development of the tea clippers, the fastest ships ever built. Their purpose was to bring tea (and, sadly, opium) across the ocean, so time was of the essence. In 1854, the Sovereign of the Seas recorded a speed of 22 knots, or 41 km/h (about 35 miles an hour). American clipper ships held most of the speed records. The most famous one—and loveliest of all, in my opinion—was Cutty Sark, which you can visit today in Greenwich, Connecticut. That’s on my bucket list!

A sailing ship could make the China run the fastest, but when steamships came into use, they didn’t need to rely on the vagaries of the trade winds. They might be slower, and need more in the way of supplies, but they could run on a schedule. Eventually they eclipsed sailing ships and by the early 20th century, sail had begun to decline.

“Until some new motive power replaces steam, or steam is replaced by the use of petroleum or other concentrated fuel, the clipper still has an occupation, and the hearts of all old-time skippers will be gladdened by the sight of her white wings upon the seas.” — Chadwick, F.E., Ocean steamships … (1891) New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, p. 225-226

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, it seemed every house had a picture of a sailing ship under full cover, braving a stormy sea. I wonder what happened to the one my parents had …?

Images from the US Library of Congress: