Port Townsend celebrates 150th anniversary of its founding this year

The sesquicentennial year of Port Townsend will probably be best remembered by the recent visit of actress Jennifer Lopez than any other event, but the town will be here long after J-Lo is gone.

As the “City of Dreams” turns 150 years old, it struggles against what Lopez represents — the crush of media, entertainment, fast food and strip malls that are common throughout America.

The charm of Port Townsend and other communities in East Jefferson County is exactly what could ruin it. But even the newcomers who arrive by the SUV-load quickly adopt a protective attitude toward the Victorian seaport town.

The irony is that Port Townsend was founded and populated by industrialists whose vision saw the city becoming the hub of commerce for the Pacific Northwest. When speculation that the railroad terminus would be at the tip of the Quimper Peninsula, its leading citizens quickly built the multistory brick-faced buildings that loom on its waterfront to this day.

But the commerce failed to materialize in the 1890s because the railroad chose to wind up in Tacoma. And that decision might be the one thing that saved Port Townsend from becoming Anywhere, USA.

Now residents, politicians, community leaders and activists face a daunting future. They are struggling to find a way to balance history with progress in a manner that both nurtures its charm yet provides economic opportunity.

This commentary by Philip L. Watness, chief Port Townsend-Jefferson County correspondent for the Peninsula Daily News, appears in full in today’s Sunday Peninsula Daily News, on sale throughout Jefferson and Clallam counties.

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