PORT TOWNSEND — Shelly Leavens has always loved the idea of a museum without walls.
On Thursday afternoon, a new wing of that museum was revealed: the Hidden Histories walking tour, a 14-stop stroll through downtown and Uptown Port Townsend that’s been years in the making. Leavens, executive director of the Jefferson County Historical Society, was among the people gathered for the event.
Nathan Barnett of Olympic Peninsula Steam brought a theatrical air to the unveiling of the first Hidden Histories sign, which stands beside one of the city’s flamboyant works of public art: the Galatea statue at the Haller Fountain.
That bathing beauty watched as Barnett and Mayor Michelle Sandoval lifted a red velvety cloth off the interpretive sign, which shows a map of all the others.
Each of the signs — three in the Uptown historic district and 11 on and around Water Street — bear a QR code connected to information on PThistory.com. The history-curious can visit the site directly to read more about Port Townsend’s past.
Hidden Histories signs peer into true tales behind Union Wharf, the early struggle to obtain clean drinking water, the separateness of Uptown and downtown, pioneer women’s contributions and the catastrophic fires of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Chinese American experience here, smuggling, the quarantining of travelers and crimping — forcing a sailor into service by underhanded means — are also explored.
So are the stories of railroad plans, building cabins on a sand spit and early preservation efforts — endeavors that helped give Port Townsend its “city of dreams” moniker.
The Port Townsend Main Street Program, co-organizer of the sign project, is planning guided Hidden Histories walking tours this summer, said Main Street Executive Director Mari Mullen.
“We’re hoping to roll those out July 17,” she said, adding that Key City Public Theatre actors will bring history alive during the walks.
The tours will be free, entertaining outings, she added. They will start at 1 p.m. at the Haller Fountain, Washington and Taylor streets, on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
Information will be posted at ptmainstreet.org and on the Port Townsend Main Street Program’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
The Hidden Histories seed was planted about four years ago, Barnett said, after the 2012-vintage “merchant information signs” around town lost their luster.
After an initial and enthusiastic discussion, he began working with his neighbors on a sign series — but they kept getting distracted, he said, hence the long development period.
At Thursday’s unveiling, Barnett called for rounds of applause for those who ultimately made it happen: the Main Street Program, the city of Port Townsend, the Jefferson County Historical Society and the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee.
The organizations repurposed the old merchant information sign project, Barnett said, calling that series “a great idea” that turned out to be “not a happening thing.”
City Manager John Mauro called for praise of Barnett and Olympic Peninsula Steam, too, quipping that Barnett had given this new look at Port Townsend history some added steam.
Barnett, for his part, noted the Hidden Histories signs were designed by Eryn Smith, program coordinator for the Port Townsend Main Street Program, while research and content development were provided by Leavens and Ellie DiPietro from the historical society with assistance from Elizabeth Young and himself.
The signs themselves aren’t all up yet, Barnett added. The last four are still being installed, even as the PThistory.com site continues to develop.
“The [Jefferson County Art & History] museum hopes to contribute and post oral history recordings,” he said. “The signs provide a starting point for exploring the complicated past of our home.”
The Hidden Histories stand near another series of interpretive signs: those of the Chetzemoka, or čičməhán trail.
Placed all over Port Townsend, these tell the story of the Jamestown S’Klallam leader known as Chetzemoka, or čičməhán. Information about the 18 trail sites can be found at www.tribalmuseum.jamestowntribe.org.
The Chetzemoka Trail is “amazing,” Barnett said; “my hat is totally off” to its builders.
Like Leavens, Barnett believes in the power of history to enliven the present.
Port Townsend, he said, “is a city of dreams, still.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]