Renton, Captain William (1818-1891)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 12/02/1998
  • Essay 1053

Captain William Renton was a lumber and shipping merchant, at first based in San Francisco, who established a sawmill on Puget Sound in 1852. In 1863, he relocated to Blakely Harbor, Bainbridge Island, and started what became the very successful Port Blakely Mill Company. An important investor in the coal trade, Renton had the honor of having the coal town Renton, Washington, named after him.

At Home on the Sea

Captain William Renton was born on November 2, 1818 in Pictou, Nova Scotia. His father was a ship's captain. As a young man Renton spent some years in Philadelphia, and in 1841 became a U.S. citizen at age 23. That same year he married a widow named Sarah Sylva. Sarah had three children. Within a year after his marriage Renton acquired a half interest in the brig E. D. Wolfe. He sailed that ship as captain with a crew of seven for Genoa, Italy. Over the years he purchased an interest in other ships, which carried a variety of cargoes, including lumber, to far-flung ports-of-call.

In 1850, Captain Renton and his family sailed to San Francisco. But instead of joining the gold-seekers, he became a lumber broker, using the beached hulk of an abandoned sailing ship as his office and warehouse. In 1852, he captained the bark Alabama on a trip to Steilacoom, Washington, returning with a load of pilings. That trip whetted Renton's appetite for business opportunities on Puget Sound.

Deadheads and High Winds

Seattle pioneer Charles C. Terry persuaded Renton to build a sawmill at New York-Alki. In early 1853, Renton found other backers and purchased equipment for a small sawmill at Alki. Within a year Renton learned that the north winds, difficult ship's moorage, and bobbing deadheads (floating logs) added up to trouble for his mill. In 1854, he formed a partnership with Daniel S. Howard and moved the mill machinery from Alki to Port Orchard across Puget Sound. Although that site was an improvement over the exposed Alki location, it was not perfect. The mill employed five Native Americans and six white employees. Profits were small, and the Port Orchard site was lonely (Renton's family remained in San Francisco, except for occasional visits), so Renton sold out in 1862 and returned to the Bay Area.

On June 30, 1863, using the Donation Land Act to purchase 164.5 acres for $1.25 an acre with $10.00 down, Captain William Renton purchased land at Bainbridge Island's Blakely Harbor. The picturesque harbor had been named by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes for Johnston Blakely, an American hero of the War of 1812.

The Port Blakely Solution

The Blakely Harbor mill site was the best Renton had found. It had an adequate water supply and plenty of flat ground. The inner harbor provided good storage and sorting areas, the outer harbor could accommodate sea-going vessels, and surrounding hills provided protection from winds. Construction of the new mill was finished in April 1864.

San Francisco grew rapidly during the 1860s, and the Port Blakely mill prospered sending shipments to the Bay Area. By 1870, Blakely had a population of 59 Caucasians. It was an immigrant town, with Canadians, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, French, Prussians, a Russian, a Belgian, and a Greek. During this period Captain Renton built houses for workers' families, dormitories for the bachelors, and a house for himself near the mill pond.

In 1873, a national recession occurred. Although business fell off, the mill had sales of $1.5 million in 1874. Also, as San Francisco grew to 200,000 people in 1874, the need for lumber was unabated. During the 1870s, Renton re-organized his company, brought in new partners, built a new 75 room hostelry -- the Bainbridge Hotel -- established a daily stage between Port Blakely and Port Madison, and experimented with ways to improve heating and lighting at the mill (dogfish oil lamps had been the traditional source of light; electric lights were installed in 1882).

The thriving town had a post office, company store, livery stable, the Bainbridge Hotel, and a jail. A board sidewalk led to the nearby resort of Pleasant Beach. Boxing matches, dancing, tent meetings, a May Day fest, and an annual operetta drew boatloads of Seattleites to Port Blakely in its heyday.

Captain Renton's success and reputation allowed him to act as consultant and entrepreneur for other businesses. As the major investor in coal at Mox LaPush near the south end of Lake Washington, the town that grew up in that area was named Renton in his honor. He also backed a scheme to build a railroad around the south end of the lake. Renton became a board member of that railroad, the famous Seattle & Walla Walla.

Add One Shipyard

In 1879, Isaac Winslow and Henry Hall, well established ship builders at Port Ludlow, about 25 miles north of Port Blakely, needed a new site for their shipyard. Captain Renton offered them land near his mill.

The shipyard promised increased employment. After the move, the shipyard purchased steam saws, planers, and other new equipment. Schooners constructed at the site were described as "fast, handsome and popular, and have long, sharp bows, with slightly hollow lines, the top sides having a faint curve home, and at the stern round in sharply over the arch-board in strikingly graceful fashion." A barkentine called Makah, the first ship launched in 1882, was 180 feet long, 162 1/2 feet at the keel, with five-inch-thick planking. At 700 tons, it was the largest ship built at Port Blakely up to this time.

Logs by Rail

In 1882, the Port Blakely mill had a capacity of 200,000 board feet a day, the largest of any sawmill on the Pacific Coast. Keeping the sawmill supplied with logs was a challenge. A search was undertaken for new sources of timber. The huge trees in Mason County appeared to offer a longterm solution. The company built a railroad in the county, known as the Blakely Line, to haul logs from the forest to salt water at Kamilche Point on southern Puget Sound. There the logs were assembled into rafts and towed to Port Blakely by the mill company's steam tugs.

In the midst of this activity, on February 4, 1888, a devastating fire burned the Port Blakely mill to the ground. Because the winds were blowing inshore, rescuers were able to save shipping in the harbor by hauling the vessels out into the Sound.

Captain Renton built a new mill on the ruins of the old. He used less combustible material -- heavy timbers and corrugated iron roofing. Fire extinguishers, a system of water pipes and 850 sprinkler heads were installed. Despite the fact that his eyesight was almost gone, Captain Renton directed every step of the resurrection.

(This new sawmill outlasted Captain Renton, but in April 1907, it, too, burned to the ground. The Port Blakely mill was rebuilt once more, but changing circumstances brought about its closure and demolition in 1922. Port Blakely clung to life because of its ferry terminal, which in 1937 was moved farther north to Eagle Harbor.)

Real Estate, Banking, Coal, Railroads

Never idle, Captain Renton invested in Seattle real estate. Renton Hill, sometimes called Second Hill, at 16th Avenue and E Madison Street, was one of his tracts, as was the area at 23rd Avenue E and Union Street E. Other Renton investments included the Boston National Bank of Seattle, coal mines, and railways.

Sarah Renton died at Port Blakely on May 12, 1890, age 74. The Captain died of peritonitis at his sister's home on July 18, 1891. On the day Captain Renton was buried, the Port Blakely mill became quiet, ships in harbor draped in black crepe. The Seattle Press-Times said that "the strong man was gone, but the stern philosophy of his life had put life into the commerce of Puget Sound."


Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago-Seattle: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929). Also see: Andrew Price, Jr., Port Blakely: The Community Captain Renton Built (Seattle: Port Blakely Books, Publishers, 1989); Jim Faber, Steamer's Wake (Seattle: Enetai Press, 1985).
Note: This biography was revised by the author on May 2, 2000.

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