Port Blakely: Portrait of a Mill Town

shipalongsidepier205Although Bainbridge Island’s Port Blakely appears as a quiet harbor area today, over a century ago it was home to a bustling town with a growing maritime industry and a mill that was once known as the largest, highest-producing sawmill in the world.
In 1864, Captain William Renton established the Port Blakely Mill Company at Blakely Harbor, hoping to take advantage of the rich lumber resources in the area. The mill’s capacity was relatively small in the beginning, producing 20,000-30,000 board feet per day, but eventually grew to an impressive peak capacity of about 500,000 board feet per day.

Ship Under ConstructionThe success of the mill drew the attention of the Hall Brothers shipbuilding company, which moved its location to Port Blakely in 1880. The lumber from the mill was used to help build ships, some of which would, in turn, be utilized to transport lumber and attract more mill workers from around the world. This led to the development of Port Blakely as a multiethnic town with surrounding Japanese and Swedish immigrant communities.

In its 58 years of existence, the mill was burned to the ground and rebuilt twice, in 1888 and 1907, rendering its history into a sort of three-act play that shows the rise and fall of Captain Renton’s company. Each of the three iterations of the mill is distinctive in terms of architectural design, production capacity, and ownership.

menonboardwalk2012.32.1“Port Blakely: Portrait of a Mill Town” is rife with images from one of the museum’s largest collections of photographic images by notable local photographers, including Charles J. Lincoln (a distant relative of Abraham Lincoln), Wilhelm Hester, Carleton Watkins, Asahel Curtis, and Tamegoro Takayoshi. Other exhibit features include a scale model of the mill site, a floor map of Port Blakely as it appears today, and a “Twinscope Viewer” which allows visitors to view 3-D stereoscopic images of the harbor.