BACK WHEN: The history of the historians of Jefferson County: Part I

May B. Smith, date unknown. (Jefferson County Historical Society)

May B. Smith, date unknown. (Jefferson County Historical Society)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This month’s Jefferson County history column is the first in a series of three about local history resources in the county. This month features histories written by authors who grew up in Port Townsend. February’s column will feature books that were collaboratively written or were collections of newspaper articles. The March column will be a historical look at the Jefferson County Historical Society, which has existed since the 1870s.

THOSE PEOPLE DOING research on the history of Jefferson County owe an enormous debt to the local historians who have preserved and recorded the area’s history.

There is no recent complete chronological history of the area, but there have been some notable efforts made throughout the years to devote the time and energy it takes to make written records of the events and people that have left us the county we live in today.

The earliest attempt at a written summary of Port Townsend history is a typewritten manuscript, dated 1929, composed by May B. Smith, and titled “Picturesque Port Townsend.”

Smith came to Port Townsend with her parents from San Francisco at the age of 14, in 1888.

In her preface, she describes her first morning in Port Townsend and gives her motivation for attempting to delineate its history.

“On a mild breezy morning in April 1888, a slender, gray-eyed girl from San Francisco … stepped out on the balcony of the old Central Hotel.

“Looking up the street, her eyes encountered a novel sight — a man at the town pump replenishing his supply of water. …

“A little later when the girl walked up the street to the Katz store, she met an old red bossy [cow] ambling along Water Street, tossing her horns and switching her tail as she proceeded to her milking shed.

“In striking contrast were these village activities to the busy scene at the dock where she and her family had landed the night before.

“And the girl from San Francisco watched … wondered, loved it all and so became a part of it, that now she lovingly recalls her old-time memories, and with the aid of a collaborator … gathers them together, in the hope that the many new-comers may know Port Townsend not only as it now is — but as it was — and that the ‘old-timers’ may find here a true picture of the old dead days that are gone beyond recall.”

Smith dictated her book to her friend Edith Hewitt, who did the typing and also aided with any research that required mobility.

From around 1916 until the end of her life in 1941, Smith became increasingly disabled with severe arthritis.

After 1917, she was in a wheelchair much of the time and eventually became totally bedridden.

She had served as Port Townsend’s librarian from 1907 until her health required her resignation in 1922.

She was the only librarian who served in all three sites occupied by the library, presiding over the opening of the Carnegie building in 1913.

Her mother, Blanche, substituted for her when she was too ill to work.

One of her successors as librarian wrote: “The friendship of Mrs. May Smith, and her advice, meant a great deal to me.

“Though she was completely helpless with arthritis, her courage, her kindly spirit, her interest in her friends and neighbors, her freedom from self pity can never be forgotten by any who knew her.”

Another colleague described her as attractive with bright eyes, black hair and finely chiseled features.

She had a “fine knowledge of all that went on around her and was an excellent conversationalist.”

Smith’s manuscript contains historical facts as well as many reminiscences gathered from early pioneers, who were still alive in Smith’s lifetime, and some of her own anecdotes about events in her childhood.

Her chronology of school locations is especially detailed; and her memories of celebrations and social occasions are valuable.

It seems that Smith’s history was never published.

The loose-leaf binder with her typescript and copies of photos and maps she intended for inclusion, was donated to the Jefferson County Historical Society by Horace McCurdy, whose father, James G. McCurdy, is the author of the first published history of this area.

William McCurdy

James McCurdy’s father, William, came to the Northwest in 1857 as a ship’s carpenter and then worked as a master builder in Port Townsend.

He was a cousin of Francis W. Pettygrove, one of the founders of the city.

James was born in Port Townsend in 1872, and began a career in banking at age 15, serving in a variety of positions. He was elected president of the First National Bank in 1922.

Portions of his childhood were spent at the Makah Indian Agency in Neah Bay where his father was the government’s superintendent of construction.

James McCurdy had a deep interest in Native American lore and local and maritime history.

He had articles and stories published in various juvenile and adult publications, and he frequently gave lectures to local Boy Scouts and other youth on Native America and pioneer topics.

At the time of his death in 1942, he was “working on a book for boys, a story of his own boyhood life with the Olympic Peninsula Indians.”

McCurdy’s history of Port Townsend, “By Juan de Fuca’s Strait: Pioneering Along the Northwestern Edge of the Continent,” was published in Portland, Ore., by Binfords & Mort in 1937.

In his preface he stated: “The story of this portion of the Pacific Northwest is an interesting one and well worth the telling. …

“At length it occurred to me — a native son of pioneer parents — to undertake the task of preserving the early story of this glamorous region. …”

McCurdy’s style is very readable. He was a master storyteller.

He, like Smith, had the advantage of hearing, first-hand, the stories of local pioneers, many of which are included in this book.

“By Juan de Fuca’s Strait” covers the history of the area through the 1927 construction of the National Paper Products Co. mill and the city’s gravity water system, which was a cooperative venture with the Crown-Zellerbach Corp., and provided the reliable water supply to both the mill and the city of Port Townsend.

Thomas Camfield

The third native son of Port Townsend to chronicle its history, Thomas W. Camfield, grew up in a family that arrived here at about the time James McCurdy’s historical chronicle concluded.

Camfield’s grandfather, Ernest L. Camfield, moved to Port Townsend in 1927.

After helping with the construction of the paper mill, he became one of its first employees when it began operation.

In 1929, Camfield’s father, Warner Bradford Camfield (also known as Tom), and his wife, Gladys, moved to Port Townsend.

Thomas W. Camfield was born that same year.

He graduated from Port Townsend High School in 1947. He began working for the Port Townsend Leader while he was in high school as a printer’s “devil” for 40 cents an hour.

After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Camfield graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1954.

Camfield then spent most of his working years at the Leader, where he was employed until 1988.

He also served on the City Council for 10 years in the 1970s.

Camfield’s two books on Port Townsend history reflect extensive research in local city and county records, and local newspapers, as well as his recollections from personal contacts and stories he heard during his life in Port Townsend.

“Port Townsend: An Illustrated History of Shanghaiing, Shipwrecks, Soiled Doves and Sundry Souls” was published in 2000.

A second volume, titled “Port Townsend: The City That Whiskey Built,” appeared in 2002.

Together, the two books are packed with almost a thousand pages of information, a compendium of essays on nearly every conceivable local topic.

Camfield does not varnish the truth about some of Port Townsend’s more unsavory moments and the behavior of its most colorful characters.

In the introduction to the first volume he states: “Readers will find on the following pages traces of belligerence toward oft-mimicked ‘traditional’ Port Townsend area history and its familiar coterie of gilded ghosts.

“However, I have attempted to maintain at least a tempered irreverence while viewing the earlier ‘civilization’ and continuing ‘development’ of the Quimper Peninsula.

“Money-grubbing certainly is worthy of consideration as a companion sin to shanghaiing and prostitution during the Key City’s formative decades.

“And history also documents many of the parallels that have continued to manifest themselves over subsequent years and into current times — pursuit of the Almighty Dollar ever playing a prominent role.”

He goes on to write: “Many hurried historians miss a lot of these little bits of oft-scandalous but ever-titillating color as they equate history too closely with the successful quest for money and social status …but the community’s true soul encompasses a much wider focus.

“History is more than the whitewashed biographies of a favored few, and I have attempted to broaden the scope a bit.”

The contributions of other historians to our knowledge of the past of Port Townsend and Jefferson County will appear in the Feb. 18 Back When column.


Linnea Patrick is a historian and retired Port Townsend Public Library director.

Her Jefferson County history column, Back When, appears on the third Sunday of each month, alternating with Alice Alexander’s Clallam County history column on the first Sunday of the month.

Patrick can be reached at Her next column will appear Feb. 18.

James G. McCurdy in 1925. (Jefferson County Historical Society)

James G. McCurdy in 1925. (Jefferson County Historical Society)

Tom Camfield at the Jefferson County Historical Society Historic Preservation Awards in 2002. (Jefferson County Historical Society)

Tom Camfield at the Jefferson County Historical Society Historic Preservation Awards in 2002. (Jefferson County Historical Society)

A collection of Port Townsend history books, including the work of May Smith, James McCurdy and Tom Camfield. (Linnea Patrick/for Peninsula Daily News)

A collection of Port Townsend history books, including the work of May Smith, James McCurdy and Tom Camfield. (Linnea Patrick/for Peninsula Daily News)

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