Port Orchard -- Thumbnail History

  • By Catherine Hinchliff
  • Posted 10/12/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9550
Port Orchard, located in south Kitsap County, was platted as Sidney in 1886 by Frederick Stevens, who wanted to name the future town after his father, Sidney Merrill Stevens. He chose a site on the southern shore of the Sinclair Inlet, part of Port Orchard Bay. Sidney quickly became became known for its lumber industry, pottery works, small businesses, and agricultural opportunities. In 1890 it became the first town to incorporate in Kitsap County. Sidney residents took an active role in bringing the Puget Sound Naval Station (later Puget Sound Naval Shipyard) to Kitsap County. The navy employed many residents of Port Orchard and greater Kitsap County from the turn of the century onwards, and became the most important employer in the county. In 1893, after building a courthouse and donating it to the county, Sidney was chosen as county seat. From 1892 to 1903, Sidney entered into stiff competition with Charleston over which city could be named Port Orchard (Sidney won). After 1903, Port Orchard continued to grow due to the expansion of the naval yard during the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the 1960s, and due to Port Orchard’s reputation as a quiet waterfront community located in a beautiful environment and close to Seattle. 

Early History

Though Kitsap County had long been the home of the Suquamish, Skokomish, and, to some extent, Klallam peoples, Port Orchard Bay was “discovered” and named during British Royal Naval Captain George Vancouver’s (1758-1798) exploration of the Puget Sound in April and May 1792. While investigating Kitsap County, Vancouver had judged an entrance to the vast Port Orchard Bay to be a small cove with an island. After returning from a brief shore leave, Harry Masterman Orchard, a ship’s clerk on the Discovery and a surveyor, notified Vancouver that the area was actually an entrance to a large natural harbor.  Vancouver corrected the error and named the harbor Port Orchard Bay.

In the 1850s, Captain William Renton (1818-1891) and other lumber and shipping merchants began developing Western Washington’s lumber industry in response to demand for lumber in San Francisco. Kitsap County proved an excellent site for timber due to its spruce, cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir forests that grew right up to the extensive coastline. In 1854 Renton, who had built a sawmill at Seattle's Alki Point the year before, moved it across Puget Sound to a more protected location on Port Orchard Bay, where it became the area's first mill. Although generally referred to as the Port Orchard mill, Renton's operation was located across Sinclair Inlet from where the city of Port Orchard would be developed, in what later became the Enetai area of East Bremerton. Renton sold the "Port Orchard" mill in 1862, but the area remained an attractive spot for lumber merchants and loggers.

Despite a healthy lumber industry, Sinclair Inlet, the site of Sidney (Port Orchard), did not have a permanent resident until 1885, when Henry Cline and family members moved from Long Lake (to where they had moved from Kansas in 1883) to Mitchell Point on the Sinclair Inlet. The family comprised Cline, his sister Sadie, her husband Adrian H. Sroufe, and their infant son. (Settler Robert Campbell had taken up a homestead in Sidney in 1873, but his residence is not counted among the first permanent residences of the town.) In 1886, Frederick Stevens, a relative of the Cline family, platted Sidney after his father, Sidney Merrill Stevens, purchased 88.5 acres for the creation of a town. That year the Clines moved to the Sidney town site.

"A People with Pluck and Determination"

Henry Cline opened the town’s first store to serve the growing community. In 1887 he joined Sroufe in a fishing venture and constructed a smokehouse. In 1888, Cline secured a post office for Sidney and served as its first postmaster. In August 1886, Thomas Cline, a relative of Henry’s who had followed the family to Sidney, founded Kitsap County’s first newspaper, The Kitsap County Pioneer. Shortly after starting the paper, he sold it to his typesetter and “man of the shop,” Adrian Sroufe.

In 1889, Thomas Cline built the town’s first wharf, which further increased the growth of the town’s population. The wharf gave boats a place to dock, making the transportation of goods and people into Sidney much easier. In earlier years, settlers had had to use rowboats and force their livestock to swim for shore. The wharf coincided with the rise of the “Mosquito Fleet.” These private steam vessels serving Puget Sound were so numerous that they were said to resemble a swarm of mosquitoes.

Mosquito Fleet vessels that traveled among Kitsap County towns and to and from Seattle and Tacoma became the chief form of transportation for Sidney residents. By the 1920s diesel-electric ferries from San Francisco replaced the much smaller steamship ferries. Today those privately owned ferries have been replaced in turn by state-run ferries, which to this day play an important role in the transportation of Port Orchard residents.

The Cline family was not the only family responsible for the town’s early development. A 1901 promotional business review printed by the Port Orchard Independent listed all the early Sidney businesses and commended its business owners for being a “people with pluck and determination.” Not long after the opening of Henry Cline’s store, C. W. Corbett opened the Corbett Drugstore. From 1887 to 1889, Sidney was known for its Port Orchard Brick and Tile Company, as well as a few small lumber and shingle mills. And in early 1890, John Melcher, a pottery craftsman, opened a large pottery works, which made sewer pipes, terra cotta ware, and provided Seattle with brick for its first paved street. It remained a prominent business in Sidney until it and Sidney’s entire business district burned down in 1895. 

Puget Sound Naval Station

Though Sidney attracted residents thanks to its businesses, timber, and land for agriculture, it was perhaps the promise of the Puget Sound Naval Station, to be located one mile across Sinclair Inlet, that created most of the excitement about Sidney.

In 1877 the United States government decided to build a naval shipyard somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Later in the year, Navy Lieutenant Ambrose Barkley Wyckoff (1848-1922) made a hydrographic survey of the Puget Sound and Commencement Bay and reported that the new naval installation should be in the Puget Sound. In 1888, Congress funded a commission of three naval officers to find a site for the shipyard in the Puget Sound.

A group of Sidney residents led by Adrian Sroufe, then the editor of The Kitsap County Pioneer, passionately advocated for Sinclair Inlet as the ideal location for the Puget Sound Naval Station. The commission agreed, but a second commission was appointed to affirm their recommendation in 1889. In December 1890, three months after Sidney’s incorporation the second commission gave a final report to Congress, recommending the site near Sidney. And finally in March 1891, Congress appropriated $10,000 to acquire land for the naval station. Though at the time of their incorporation, Sidney residents did not know for sure if a naval station would be built one mile north of the town, they knew what a tremendous opportunity the shipyard would create. It would provide jobs, boost profits of local businesses, and bring more settlers to Sidney.

Incorporation and First Public Works

In the fall of 1890, after rapid growth during the previous year, Sidney’s population became large enough to petition for incorporation. On September 15, 1890, Sidney was incorporated as a fourth-class city. The first mayor was Ira C. Rockwell, who served until December 1890. E. M. Taylor served as city clerk. And Alfred Larson, D. R. Mackintosh, J. H. Cline, A. W. Robinson, and Thomas R. Kendall served on Sidney’s first council.

The mayor and council sought to address the issue of Sidney’s lack of streets. Since so many people traveled by boat, the roads in and around the town were never adequately developed. For example, Bay Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, was “inundated by saltwater” each high tide (Kitsap County History). The second problem the officials wanted to tackle was to connect each of Sidney’s three parts, since Pottery Creek and Black Jack Creek naturally divided the town. In order to fund Sidney’s first public works projects, Sidney officials instituted an annual license fee for the town’s saloons, as well as a poll tax on each adult male resident.

The first project funded by the newly incorporated town was a grading project on Sidney Hill. The dirt collected from the hill then was then filled in an area 16 feet wide and a few blocks long to level and improve road conditions downtown. Projects taken on by later mayors and councils included more grading, the filling of a salt marsh, the construction of the Black Jack Bridge, and the Toonerville Trolley Railroad. Town officials also bought lots near Black Jack Creek as a site for a water works pumping station as well as a power and light plant. However, early contracts to build water dams and early franchises to electric light companies failed or fell through. 

Sidney Versus Port Madison

In 1893, Sidney became the new county seat of Kitsap County. Port Madison, located on Bainbridge Island, had been the original county seat because of its position as a thriving mill town. By 1892, however, the town had been largely deserted after a slowdown in the lumber industry had virtually eliminated employment opportunities in Port Madison.

In response, petitions were circulated to move the county seat to the towns of Sidney or Chico. To strengthen their position, Sidney residents donated land, built a two-story courthouse complete with courtroom and fireproof vault, and deeded the building to Kitsap County.

In the November 1892 election, Port Madison and Sidney residents accused one another of allowing or asking visitors (non-residents) to vote illegally in favor of their own town. In the end, Sidney won the county seat with 877 votes to Port Madison’s 446 and Chico’s 43. At the time of the election, Sidney had about 650 residents.

When Sidney formally became the county seat in 1893, the town grew from the number of visitors coming for business at the courthouse, such as applying for a marriage license. It was also in 1893, that the Sidney Hotel, now on the National Registry for Historic Sites, was built. 

Sidney Versus Charleston 

In the same year as the campaign to switch the county seat to Sidney, the town petitioned the Washington State Legislature of 1892-1893 to change its name to Port Orchard, after Port Orchard Bay and Vancouver’s clerk, Orchard. However, the town of Charleston (now part of Bremerton), which had been known as Port Orchard, had submitted an earlier petition to the Legislature to make its name Port Orchard. In light of this earlier request, Sidney’s request to change its name to Port Orchard was denied. At around the same time, however, Sidney also submitted a request to the Post Office Department to rename its post office from Sidney Post Office to Port Orchard Post Office.

The Post Office granted this request, not knowing the decision of the Washington State Legislature. The name change may have also been the result of a mistake over where to send the U.S. Navy’s mail in Puget Sound. The Post Office Department received a request to rout any Navy mail through “Port Orchard,” which someone understood to mean Sidney rather than the much-closer Charleston.

When Charleston officials found out about the mix up, they alleged that they asked the people of Sidney to relinquish the name “Port Orchard” and that Sidney leaders agreed. However, shortly after this meeting, Sidney officials denied ever making such a promise. The two towns competed for use of the name “Port Orchard,” but by the turn of the century it became clear that Sidney had become Port Orchard. To end the confusion, Will Thompson, editor of the Sidney Independent, went to the Washington State Legislature of 1902-1903 and convinced legislators to rename the town Port Orchard City. From then on, Sidney was known only as Port Orchard.   

Though Charleston lost the battle for the name, it continued the competition with its rival. In 1924, Charleston campaigned to move the county seat from Port Orchard to Charleston. By August it became clear that Charleston would once again lose to Port Orchard.

Prospering and Dancing  

In 1895 a fire burned down most of the business district. Among the businesses destroyed were the pottery works and a shingle mill. But by 1901 Port Orchard was again booming. The Kitsap County Business Review promised prosperity for those who came to Port Orchard because of its proximity to fine pine, fir, and hemlock for lumber; ample land ideal for dairy, chicken, or Angora goat farms or for orchards; deep sea fishing; and the opportunities with the shipyard. By 1901, Port Orchard was home to a large hotel, two steamboat companies, two churches, a public school, fraternal lodges, two daily mail services. The town was served by five steamboats heading to Seattle every day.

Port Orchard faced an economic downturn from 1903 to 1904. In those years, most of the city’s budget had to come from saloon license fees, rather than poll taxes.

In 1907, Port Orchard community members opened the Port Orchard Athletic Club, which consisted of a public hall for dances and shows as well as a baseball field. The club charged one dollar for an initiation fee and then eventually switched its payment system to a subscription. It hosted many popular dances and concerts to raise money for the club. Both the dances and the baseball games were extremely popular with the residents of Port Orchard.  

Telephones and Cowbells

In January 1908, the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company brought service to Port Orchard after laying a submarine line to Bremerton in 1903. In June 1908, however, William D. Calder, who had recently founded Bremerton Telephone and Electric Lighting System, also received a franchise to conduct telegraph and telephone service as Kitsap County Telephone. This meant that each house with telephone service had to have two phones -- one for each system. The two lines caused a lot of confusion, so in 1911, Sunset took over long distance calls and Kitsap provided local calls. On November 30, 1908, the city also granted a franchise to Peninsula Light and Power Company to provide electricity.

Though Port Orchard was quickly developing into a city of the twentieth century, it still maintained some of its pioneer mentality. In June 1908, the city passed its first “Herd Law,” which stated that cows were permitted to run at large in Port Orchard so long as their cowbells were removed between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m..

Years of the Great War

Although the residents of Port Orchard had power and telephone service, they did not acquire municipal water until 1911. A station was built at the Black Jack Creek site that had been set aside years before. However, 10 years later, this water system was replaced with a new artesian well, which provided more water to Port Orchard.

Port Orchard continued to grow in the lead up to World War I. Harry Ward, a transplant to Port Orchard, opened the first “moving picture” theater in 1914. In the same year, Port Orchard created a volunteer fire department.

During the war, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard became a shipbuilding site, where hundreds of boats were built for the war effort. Many shipyard employees settled in Port Orchard. 

The closest mayoral race in Port Orchard history occurred in 1917, and its outcome was directly affected by the war. In November 1917, M. J. Hill of the “Taxpayers” tied W. F. Lindekugel of the “Citizens” at 81 votes each. Hill had to withdraw from the race for Navy service, making Lindekugel the winner. However, his council refused to recognize him, and it took a court order declaring him the winner before the council allowed him to become mayor.  

World War II and Beyond

The growth and prosperity of Port Orchard had long been tied to the activity in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and the shipyard’s involvement in World War II was no exception. The shipyard led the effort to repair ships fighting on the Pacific front and even repaired five of the six ships damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor. During this period, the government constructed two large housing projects on the outskirts of Port Orchard to house shipyard workers and their families. The new housing resulted in such a population boom that the government also had to construct new schools for the shipyard workers’ children.   

The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard remained a large employer of Port Orchard residents, as it became responsible for deactivation and storage following World War II, converting aircraft carriers to be compatible with newer, more advanced airplanes, activating ships in the Korean War, and building missile frigates in the 1960s.

Port Orchard Today

Many residents still work for the shipyard or Naval Base Kitsap, but they also commute to Seattle and Tacoma. In recent years, Port Orchard has attracted many new residents as a result of its appeal as a pleasant waterfront community that is nonetheless very close to Seattle. In the past 20 years, the population has doubled from 4,900 residents in 1990 to 10,910 in 2010.

Today, Port Orchard also draws a large crowd of tourists. Tourists come for Port Orchard’s beaches, public marina, golf courses, trails, and for the town itself. Every year, Port Orchard hosts several festivals and events, including the Seagull Calling Festival each May, the Murder Mystery Weekend each September, and an Art Walk held on the third Friday evening of each month, May through October. Port Orchard also offers a large Independence Day Celebration, as Port Orchard residents have always been very patriotic as a result of their proximity to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

Sources: “Sidney: Its Business and Industries -- Railroad Possibilities -- Extensive Street Improvements, Etc,” Sidney Independent, August 22, 1891, p. 1; “After the Fire,” Sidney Independent, November 19, 1892, p. 1; “Sidney’s Water System,” Sidney Independent, April 14, 1894, p. 2; “Ten Years Ago: The Fire As Described in Independent of Sept. 15, 1894,” Port Orchard Independent, September 10, 1904, p. 3; “Their Dream is Fading,” Port Orchard Independent, August 7, 1924, p. 1; “Pt. Orchard Victorious in County Seat Campaign,” Port Orchard Independent, November 6, 1924, p. 1; “New Vessel is Purchased for the Ferry Run,” Port Orchard Independent, January 22, 1925, p. 1; “Will Start Cannery: Port Orchard Will Have Canning Plant,” Port Orchard Independent, June 9, 1927, p. 1; “Port Orchard: The First 100 Years,” insert, Port Orchard Independent, September 14, 1990; Kitsap County Business Review, 1901 ed. by the Port Orchard Independent (Seattle: Shorey Book Store, 1970); "Klallam," "Suquamish," and "Washington State Tribes" in Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia ed. by Mary B. Davis (New York: Garland Publisher, 1994), 291-292, 620, 685-686; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,“Kitsap County -- Thumbnail History” (by David Wilma), “Puget Sound’s Mosquito Fleet” (by Larry E. Johnson), “Puget Sound Naval Shipyard” (by Daryl C. McClary), “Renton, Captain William (1818-1891)” (by Junius Rochester), and “Vancouver, George (1758-1798)” (by Junius Rochester), http://historylink.org/ (accessed August 31, 2010); Kitsap: A Centennial History ed. by Fredi Perry (Bremerton: Kitsap County Centennial History Project, 1989); Kitsap County History: A Story of Kitsap County and Its Pioneers (Silverdale: Kitsap County Historical Society, 1977), 1-65; The Year of the Child, 1979 ed. By Fredi Perry (Silverdale: Kitsap County Historical Society, 1979); Robert E. Ficken, The Forested Land: A History of Lumbering in Western Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), 28; Christopher Dunagan, "Millenium 1850-1890: The Early Settlers," Kitsap Sun, December 28, 1999 (http://web.kitsapsun.com/archive/1999/12-28/0047_millennium_1850-1890__the_early_s.html).
Note: This essay was revised on September 25, 2015.

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