The City of Port Angeles has long been the primary urban center of the North Olympic Peninsula. The earliest residents of the area were Native Americans, such as the Klallam (“Strong People”) and Makah Indian tribes, who were sustained by the region’s abundant natural resources. These same natural resources – the naturally protected deep-water harbor, abundant coniferous forests, prolific wildlife and marine resources, and an overall natural beauty also attracted the first non-natives to the area and continue today to encourage visitors and new residents alike from all walks of life.
The first official non-native sighting of the Peninsula was made by an explorer named Juan Perez on August 10, 1774, and the first confirmed report of the Strait of Juan de Fuca was made by Captain Charles Barkley in 1787. A Greek named Apostolos Valerianos, who had a reputation for “tall tales,” claimed to find the Strait in 1592 but, it was Captain Charles Barkley, Master of the Austrian East India Company ship Imperial Eagle, who named the Strait in 1787.
Port Angeles has had several different names since its “discovery.” In 1791, Lt. Francisco Eliza, a Spanish explorer, called it “El Puerto de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles” as it provided a haven from the stormy passage through the Strait. A year later, it was shortened to Porto de los Angeles. Later it was called “False Dungeness” because of the similarities between Ediz Hook and the Dungeness Spit. Then it was called “Cherbourg” as someone who had been to France hoped it would become the “Cherbourg of America.” Finally, on June 6, 1862, the City was officially named Port Angeles.
The real settling of Port Angeles began in the 1850s, following the establishment of the boundary between Canada and the United States in 1846. However, it is Victor Smith who is referred to as the Founder of Port Angeles. Mr. Smith arrived in Port Townsend as a Customs Collector in 1861. But it appears he really had his eye on moving the Port of Entry, and therefore the Customs House, to Port Angeles where he happened to have an interest in some land. According to Port Angeles, Washington:A History – Volume I by Paul J. Martin, there are 13 coincidences which point to a plot conceived by “Smith and some men in Washington, D.C. to grab power, money and land on the Olympic Peninsula.” Through the auspices of Mr. Smith, on June 18, 1862, the Customs House was moved from Port Townsend to Port Angeles, conveniently close to the land Smith had already purchased. Coincidentally, the very next day Abraham Lincoln signed an order setting aside more than 3,500 acres of land at Port Angeles as a military and lighthouse reservation; this area is now known as Lincoln Park.
Unfortunately, with the passing of Mr. Smith in 1865, the Port of Entry was returned to Port Townsend, and Port Angeles became little more than a ghost town until the 1880s. It was the railroad that brought Port Angeles back to life. The railroad opened up the Pacific Northwest, and all those choosing to move west found a little bit of paradise.
The Puget Sound Cooperative Colony was founded in May of 1887, just east of town at the mouth of Ennis Creek. The colony was founded on the principle that people could improve themselves and their lot in life through cooperation and unity. They issued their own money and distributed it to the colonists every few months. At the start of 1890, the population of Port Angeles was less than 50, but by mid-year the population was over 1,000. In June of 1890, a public assembly of townspeople chose their first Mayor, John Dyke, and City Council. Incorporation occurred on June 11, 1890, and in December 1890, the first regular election was held. Willard Brumfield was elected Mayor over John Dyke, and for many years the City Council meetings were often brought to a premature close by brawls and fist fights as the council members fought over the town’s development plans. An election held on November 4, 1890, named Port Angeles as the county seat. The colony quickly grew, earning revenue from logging, dairy and crop farming, and a saw mill. The colonists built the first school, church, and Opera House. While at its peak, the colony was home to more than a thousand members. But, unfortunately, it slowly deteriorated and went bankrupt in 1894.
Logging and timber have long been important industries, and in 1912 Port Angeles was home to the world’s largest sawmill. In 1920, a large pulp and paper mill was built by Washington Pulp and Paper Company. Purchased a few years later and operated by Crown Zellerbach for over 60 years, the mill is now owned by Nippon Paper Industries.
In 1922, the Port of Port Angeles was formed. The natural deep-water harbor has always attracted shipping and both commercial and sports fishing. The Port operates a marina, boat haven, and international airport. The city hosts a Coast Guard Station for search and rescue activities in area waters as well as a pilot station where all inbound vessels pick up a pilot to guide the vessels through the inland waters to other Puget Sound ports.
Port Angeles has at various times been a stopping point for naval ships. In the 1920s and early 1930s, significant portions of the Pacific Fleet visited every summer. Naval visits slowly dropped off until they were stopped in the 1980s. After considerable effort by area residents, naval ships are again periodically visiting Port Angeles. Cruise ships are also making several stops in Port Angeles, giving passengers the opportunity to enjoy the splendor of the peninsula.
The first Coast Guard air station on the Pacific Coast was established at Ediz Hook on June 1, 1935. It is the oldest United States Coast Guard Station in the country. The piece of land occupied by the Coast Guard Station is the one remaining part of the military reservation that once included all of what is now Port Angeles. The first plane arrived on June 1; the plane, a Douglas RD-4 amphibian, was to perform its first rescue on August 9.
The station officially became Coast Guard Group Port Angeles in September of 1944 and received its first helicopter in 1946. Coast Guard Group Port Angeles now includes the stations at Quillayute River and Neah Bay and the cutter Point Bennet based in Port Townsend.
The town grew steadily through the ensuing decades. Norman Smith, the son of Victor Smith, served as Mayor in the early 1890s. By far, the largest civic project was the regrading of the downtown streets, which occurred in 1914. The Olympic Power Company was formed in 1911 to construct the Lower Elwha Dam. The county Courthouse was built on Lincoln Street in 1915. A new Fire station was built in 1931, a new Police station and jail was built in 1954, and a new city hall in 1987. In 1953, Port Angeles received the All American City Award, thereby rewarding all her efforts to grow and improve.