The original inhabitants along the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula—members of the S’Klallam, Hoh, Quinault, Quileute, and Makah tribes—lived off the bounty of the land and waters, establishing fishing camps along the sandy beaches. Although the area was mapped by Spain in the late 18th century, whites did not permanently settle here until 1857. The town did not truly blossom until 1862, when a customs inspector named Victor Smith decided that Port Angeles should take over customs duties from already-established Port Townsend.
This did not sit well with the residents of Port Townsend, but the dispatch of a warship to their harbor helped bring them around to the idea. That same year, President Abraham Lincoln named large sections of Port Angeles and Ediz Hook military reservations. The township of Port Angeles was thusly laid out by the federal government. The Board of Trade was moved to call it the “second National City”— second, that is, to Washington DC.
Like many seaside locations, Port Angeles once struggled with being so close to the tideline. In 1914, a massive engineering project sought to raise the level of local streets using walls and pilings, leaving many former first-stories beneath the level of the new sidewalk. The resulting “underground” is still visible in places around town.
Summer anchorage of parts of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet through the 1920s and ’30s helped sustain the local economy in those tough times. Long a major lumber and fishing town, Port Angeles became more reliant on tourism after the 1997 closing of the big Rayonier pulp mill and the declining salmon runs. Port Angelinos hope that feeding, sheltering, and entertaining many of the three million visitors that visit the Olympic National Park each year will help to pick up the slack.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition