IN LAST WEEK’S episode of heroes and villains of the North Olympic Peninsula, Victor Smith, a city father of Port Angeles, hanged in effigy in Port Townsend, was a federal agent and an indicted felon charged with theft, assault and fraud.
Smith had moved the Custom House at gunpoint from Port Townsend to Port Angeles, a city he called “the Cherbourg of the Pacific.”
In 1862, Smith had somehow gotten President Abraham Lincoln to declare Port Angeles a “Second National City,” in case Washington, D.C. was destroyed. We’d have another capitol 3,000 miles away where, coincidentally, Smith and his cronies held a lot of real estate.
Smith imagined a city built by the federal government with him as the leader.
Washington, D.C., was not destroyed.
But since Port Angeles had been declared a Second National City and could not be homesteaded, there was little incentive to come here for the next quarter century.
Meanwhile, as a treasury agent, Smith was shipwrecked while transferring $3 million to the San Francisco treasury.
The money was never found.
Before Smith could be charged with stealing the money, he died in another shipwreck.
Port Angeles, being a Federal Reserve that could not be homesteaded, became a virtual ghost town until 1887, when another Smith came along.
George Venable Smith was a Seattle city attorney involved with the anti-Chinese riots, during which mobs forcibly expelled the Chinese from Seattle and Tacoma over cheap labor and trade.
This new Smith had his own vision for a model city, a utopia with no Chinese which became the Puget Sound Cooperative colony.
Their motto was: “Let the many combine in cooperation as the few have done in corporations.”
They built a sawmill, shipyard, opera house, church and brought the first flush toilet to the Peninsula.
Despite such progress, the colony went broke by 1889.
Meanwhile, Victor Smith’s 3,000-acre Federal Reserve was still closed to settlement.
That was, until John Murphy came to town in 1890.
Murphy organized “Reserve Jumpers,” who went into the Reserve to stake claims.
Congress conceded ownership to the squatters three years later.
The year 1890 was when railroad fever hit Port Angeles.
Norman Smith, Victor’s son, proved he was an apple that did not fall far from the tree when he built the world’s shortest railroad to “hold the pass” at Lake Crescent — in anticipation of about 14 different transcontinental railroads that were supposedly eager to build their terminus in Port Angeles, a town isolated on three sides by treacherous bodies of water.
The Panic of 1893 cooled the railroad fever.
The only bright spot was the arrival of Admiral Beardslee and the U.S. Navy Pacific Squadron for summer maneuvers.
Beardslee spent so much time fishing in Lake Crescent that they named the Beardslee trout after him.
The seasonal influx of thousands of lonely, thirsty sailors into town provided an economic stimulus to the Peninsula moonshiners.
Meanwhile, Tom Aldwell had come to Port Angeles in 1890, determined to bring electricity with him.
For that, he was considered a modern-day hero even though there was no fish ladder on his dam on the Elwha River.
Only the Native Americans seemed to care about the destruction of the Elwha fisheries, but they had no voice since they did not become U.S. citizens until 1924.
With the building of the Elwha Dam, Michael Earles built the largest sawmill in Washington on the site of the S’Klallam village Tse-whit-sen.
Charles Erickson brought the railroad to town, ending the last frontier.
Were these people heroes or villains? You decide.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected].