HISTORY of the Jefferson County Historical Society
The first settlers of Port Townsend (est. 1851) and Jefferson County (est. 1852) had a strong sense of community pride and history-in-the-making when they organized the "Jefferson County Historical Society of Washington Territory" on May 3, 1879. The mission of the Society today is virtually unchanged: "...to actively discover, collect, preserve, and promote the heritage of Jefferson County in the State of Washington." In practice, the JCHS has evolved over the ensuing years to meet new challenges; gaining in strength, focus and professionalism with each endeavor.
Like many young communities in the Puget Sound, Port Townsend aspired to greatness. Calling itself the "Key City" and the "New York of the West," Port Townsend quickly became a bustling seaport and customs gateway to the Pacific Northwest. Enthusiastic citizens built an impressive waterfront commercial district of stone and brick buildings and many elegant Victorian homes on the bluff above. Fortunes, however, reversed in the mid-1890s, and the town's population fell from 7,000 to 2,000 almost overnight, leaving its grand buildings empty and, in many cases, unfinished. Only the nearby activity of Fort Worden (est. 1902) and the paper mill (est. 1928) kept Port Townsend from becoming a total ghost town. There was little economic incentive for new construction. Some original buildings were adapted for reuse, others remained vacant; most fell into disrepair.
In 1932, the mission of the Jefferson County Historical Society was reaffirmed, emphasizing the importance of collecting and preserving "papers, documents, photographs, pictures and other objects...and the suitable arrangement and housing of such collections..." Space was secured in the basement of the Carnegie Library to house the collections and conduct Society business.
In the early 1950s, the Society undertook its first effort in historic preservation when it mounted a campaign to raise $1,500 and organize volunteers to repair and repaint the historic Fire Bell Tower on the bluff - proud symbol of Port Townsend's history. This success inspired the community and reinvigorated the Society. In 1951, the year of Port Townsend's centennial, the Jefferson County Historical Society opened a museum in the old Court Room of the historic City Hall. Membership in the Society grew, collections expanded. A research library was established in 1960 as part of the museum and a major publication on the history of Jefferson County, With Pride in Heritage, was published in 1966.
By the 1970s, some of the old Victorian buildings in the town were undergoing restoration. In 1971, the Bell Tower was again in need of repair. This time, JCHS raised more than $9,500 to pay for the effort. In gratitude, the community gave the Jefferson County Historical Society a 99-year lease in part of the old City Hall for a museum and archive. Port Townsend's special historical landscape and efforts at preservation and restoration began to receive outside recognition. In 1975, the National Trust for Historic Preservation undertook an architectural survey and inventory of the central business district and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation was established, with headquarters to operate out of the Jefferson County Historical Society.
Although the Washington Trust moved on to a permanent location in Olympia, Port Townsend and adjacent Fort Worden gained status as National Historic Landmark Districts, and the increased local consciousness of the town's special historical inheritance imbued the Jefferson County Historical Society with a greater sense of responsibility as steward of this heritage. Local historic preservation and restoration projects of all kinds have been encouraged and lauded with annual JCHS awards since 1978 and the historical society works closely with the city and other key groups (especially the Historic Preservation Committee, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Main Street Program) to promote a healthy combination of historic preservation and economic stability in the community.
JCHS takes its stewardship responsibilities seriously, managing its museum collections (8,000+ artifacts, 25,000+ photographs, and 500,000+ archival documents) with the support of grant funds and many volunteers. JCHS manages the Rothschild House Museum and the Commanding Officer's Quarters for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.
At the same time, JCHS was deeply involved in raising funds for the restoration of Port Townsend's landmark City Hall building. The 1892 building is a pivotal structure in the Port Townsend National Historic Landmark District. Its Council Chamber had served as the setting for democratic discourse since 1892. As the fire and police departments, police court, and City offices moved on to more modern facilities over the years, the Jefferson County Historical Society's museum expanded into the spaces left behind.
The maritime environment and over 112 years had taken their toll and the building was dangerously deteriorated. Port Townsend is located in an active seismic zone, and although the building has survived past earthquakes without serious damage, the stability of the building in a large earthquake was uncertain. The building's operating systems--mechanical, electrical, communications-- were outdated for use as the center of city government. In order to continue to be a viable home for city government and the Jefferson County Historical Society, rehabilitation of the building was necessary.
Believing that the economic and cultural viability of downtown Port Townsend is greatly strengthened by the presence of City Hall, the city partnered with JCHS to save the building. The first step was to build an attached annex; a new structure that seismically braces the older building and provides for the needs of a modern city government. At the same time, exterior restoration was completed on the original building. The Jefferson County Historical Society returned to its restored home in November of 2006.