PORT TOWNSEND — Tobacco was big. Cigars were a nickel. And, as is now apparent, the paint was tough in downtown Port Townsend, where many a brick building provided a canvas for promotion.
The “ghost murals” on the city’s elder structures are the stars of a new tour to start in July: the “Vanishing Murals” walk, a 1-mile stroll with 10 points of interest. The Jefferson County Historical Society is leading the way each Saturday, July 10 through Aug. 28.
The tours are already filling up as their maximum is 12 participants, said Tara McCauley, the historical society’s education and public programs director.
Tickets can be purchased via JCHSmuseum.org; admission is $10 for historical society members and $16 for non-members.
If not sold out shortly before the 11 a.m. start time on Saturdays, tickets will be released at the Jefferson County Museum of Art & History, 540 Water St.
Patrons also can purchase tickets at the museum, which is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. For information or to purchase by phone, the number is 360-385-1003.
“We had so much fun putting this tour together,” said McCauley, who alternates with education and programs assistant Amy Swanson in guiding the walks.
As soon as they started work on them, more murals seemed to jump out into view — “and the tour doesn’t even hit them all,” she said.
The paintings advertise products — Owl cigars, Bull Durham tobacco — as well as proprietors’ names such as Waterman & Katz and the Lewis Emporium.
The tattoo studio on Tyler and Washington streets bears a weathered ad for a tailor.
During the 90-minute loop, participants will learn a bit about the murals’ ages and provenance.
Many were painted between 1885 and 1900 on Port Townsend’s freshly built edifices, McCauley said. Others, like the Rose Theatre’s compact painting on Taylor Street and Port Townsend Athletic Club’s billboard on Washington Street, are relatively young: from the latter part of the 20th century.
Over the decades, the elements have faded the murals — some more than others, she noted.
The “OWL Cigars Now” on the Bishop Hotel is sharp and clear, for example, while its “5¢” is almost gone. The Bull Durham bull on the 132-year-old Fred Lewis building is looking pretty strong; the Hires root beer image below is nearly imperceptible.
It’s a mystery, McCauley said, why some sections are vibrant and others faint.
“Was there a fire escape or an awning that protected part of the mural, or something built on that damaged it? That’s the fun thing about history; we don’t know all the answers,” she said.
Companies such as Owl Cigars put up their giant ads all over the United States, McCauley added, while other murals are Port Townsend-unique billboards for turn-of-the-century entrepreneurs.
This season, “we really wanted to do outdoor programming with small groups,” she said, so the mural walks were ideal.
The historical society may offer another set of walking tours in the fall, but for now, McCauley hopes residents and visitors begin to notice more of the city’s ghosts, the way she did.
“Walk around downtown,” she said, “and keep your eyes peeled.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]