Literary Tourism in the Pacific Northwest by Mike Phillips [Guest Wreckers]

During a recent trip to my hometown of Port Townsend I had a great conversation with a friend who’s lived in PT for close to 40 years.  We were discussing the crumbling historical brick buildings and he noted they had been built with a mortar mixture consisting of seawater, leading to the crumbling decay of many of these feats of architectural achievement that remain imposing reminders of the majesty that once embraced this beautiful city.  We began poking fun at the town we both loved, and he called upon a man named James Gilcrest Swan, who’d lived in Port Townsend during the late 1800’s and was perhaps the city’s strongest advocate of any era.

Port Townsend has many nicknames – the “Key City” the “City of Dreams” – and it’s no wonder.  Port Townsend is strategically situated on a peninsula where the Salish Sea meets the Puget Sound.  On a clear day you can see two mountain ranges, and a bay stuffed with sailboats, many passing within a stones throw of a ferry carting passengers to and from Whidbey Island.  It’s known among the locals that Port Townsend was once considered for the capital of Washington State.  If you walk among the Victorian homes and historic buildings you’ll see an old customs house, a former German consulate and a clock tower and post office that remain as regal standard-bearers from a distant era.  It is also known that the city went through both a dramatic boom and perhaps a more dramatic bust due to its strategic port location.  In the 1800’s it was the first stop for many ocean-going vessels entering the Puget Sound, but it became irrelevant when larger ships were redirected to the deeper port in Seattle, and the railroad never made it past Tacoma.

My interest was piqued when my friend said that Swan had written several books of this era – semi-antropological narratives that shed a light into the dark lives of men from an area which was once called the Washington Territory

Swan grew up in Boston, and in the mid 1800’s he left his wife and young children behind to travel across the continent and over to San Francisco where he worked in the shipyards.  He made his way north, parking himself in Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay just north of Astoria, Oregon.  It’s there he spent several seasons working on oyster farms as one of the first white settlers in the region.  This is where his memoir “The Northwest Coast”, published by the University of Washington Press (Go Cougs!) focuses almost exclusively.

Swan’s “The Northwest Coast” is a nearly anthropological study of life in the Oregon and Washington territories during the 1850’s and 1860’s.  I’ve long been in love with my lifelong home in the Pacific Northwest, but Swan’s narrative gave me a fresh opportunity to explore an era of history that I know precious little about.  During his time in Willapa Bay he befriends natives, becomes an oyster farmer, explores the Washington/Oregon coast, is a passive observer to tensions caused by a war between the U.S. and Great Britain, witnesses the creation of the first roads to Olympia and Salem, spends some time in what will become Astoria (home of the Goonies) and travels the majority of the region by canoe.  Of the natives, he describes their customs and habits it in a manner that you might expect of a white man from the 1850’s … slightly racist at times, and definitely ethnocentric … but at the same time you can tell he has a greater respect for the natives than most white men of that era.  He is discouraged by the manner in which other white men treat the natives, and he goes out of his way to be fair in all dealings and adventures.  It’s apparent that he has many native friends.  In fact, it was my friend who had recounted that Swan wrote about native methods for boiling water that were far superior to European methods at the time, and thus began my interest in Swan.

In “The Northwest Coast” Swan spends a lot of time in the wilderness in and around Willapa bay.  He describes the natural abundance as something I’ve never seen in my lifetime.  The rivers stuffed full of large salmon, ducks and other fowl abundant – in fact, Swan paddles around the rivers and bays of the region shooting just about anything he can – including beaver, bear, lynx – any number of animals I have rarely if ever seen in the Pacific Northwest today.  At times I was disturbed with the manner in which he went around shooting anything that moved, just for sport.  It’s an interesting insight into the greedy and shortsighted mindset of the European settlers – a topic I can recall most vividly from a Kevin Costner’s soliloquy inDances with Wolves.  Swan pays no mention of the rampant genocide that occurs in the region, yet mentions several massacres between warring native tribes.

In one of the more interesting stories from the book he attends a treaty ceremony somewhere inland on what I think was the Chehalis River.  It was a negotiation between General Stevens, representing the U.S. government, and many regional tribes.  The U.S. government was negotiating to give the natives a large swath of land on the coast with the caveat that they must all move there and share the same land.  He seemed to have good intentions because from his perspective, he thought this would give the natives the ability to form one cohesive unit, granting them greater power and influence.  What he didn’t take into account was that some of the tribes were reluctant to give up their native homes, but also had long standing rivalries that often resulted in war between neighboring tribes.  After several days the negotiations fell flat and each party went their own separate ways leading to what is now a patchwork of reservations across the region.

This historical account so interested me, that I took the opportunity to visit the region this past weekend.  I picked one of the foggiest days of the year (out of circumstance) and heading out to Astoria where I met with two friends from a favorite restaurant called Clemente’s.  The co-owner then took me out on a hike across the Columbia River at a place called Fort Columbia that had it not been foggy, would have allowed a great vantage to see many of the lands James Gilcrest Swan spent the early years of his tenure in the Pacific Northwest.  The forest was beautiful and majestic and crammed full of magnificent and large trees – I felt a pulse of life that has been denied from the past six years of city living – and I recalled an earlier era in which my step-dad would take me to the West End of the Olympic Peninsula nearly every weekend to hunt for that elusive steelhead.

After finishing the hike we drove up the coast to several towns – areas that Swan most certainly hiked or paddled through – including Chinook, Ilwaco and Long Beach.  We drove past a salmon hatchery that was established in 1893, another reminder of the way in which the Europeans thoroughly abused the land.  Just 30 years earlier they were pulling 100 lb salmon from the river by the tens of thousands (a brand of fish that my guide referred to as “summer hogs”).  Now it’s more common to see a couple of 50 pounders each year.

Swan has another book – this one describing his life in and around the Port Townsend area, or so I am told, and this is next on my list.  Then there’s a NW man named Ivan Doig who has a book titled “Winters Brothers” about his experience going through Swan’s memoirs – I have already purchased this book and might put Swan’s next memoir on hold as a result.

After leaving Willapa Bay, Swan made his way to Port Townsend, where he spent a greater part of the end of his life advocating for the town and for native rights, and eventually drifting into severe alcoholism.  Swan’s dream of making Port Townsend a grand city on par with San Francisco was never actualized.  He lobbied hard to have the railroad link up to the bustling port city but it never made it past Tacoma which ruined the town, from an economic standpoint.  Yet, I think this is what makes Port Townsend so great today.  It’s a remarkable yet isolated city with unmatched natural beauty.  It has Victorian-era buildings to suggest a city that time forgot.  You can live there and thrive eating locally produced foods, biking or walking anywhere you want to go and are exposed to a great art and music scene too.

And while I miss and love that town, I cannot live there because I can’t imagine living there, and making a living too.  At least not right now.  Still, no matter where I live or where I travel, my compass will always be oriented with Port Townsend as my magnetic north – sorta like a modern day James Swan.

Mike Phillips is a mad genius and entrepeneur living in Portland, Oregon.  Once the bass player for the pop-punk phenomenon of a band known as The Young Immortals, he has evolved into the lead singer of the Portland Music Award nominated band The Fenbi International Superstars.  He is also the CEO of The Neo Com Group, a literary and performance arts marketing firm that represents the likes of Bill Carter, Todd Grimson, and more.  In 2011, Mike contributed an essay to the charity based book Children of Mercy: Tales and Teachings From The World of Independent Music.  This blog original appeared on the website for The Neo Com Group.

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

One Response to Literary Tourism in the Pacific Northwest by Mike Phillips [Guest Wreckers]

  1. Pingback: Northwest wreckers | Pmakit

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