Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Destination: Port Blakely, Bainbridge Island

If you arrived here by searching for a chart, please see this page.
At the very Southeast corner of Bainbridge Island, just below Eagle Harbor (where the ferries dock) is Port Blakely. There are no tricks to getting into Port Blakely, but you should give the Northern point defining the harbor a wide berth due to rocks. Also, while passing Eagle Harbor, pay very close attention to the red buoy and the dolphin with the red day mark which delineate the Tyee Shoal. It is a narrow fit between the VTS traffic Southbound land and Tyee Shoal - know where you are. There is a shoal extending Northward from Blakely Rocks, so don't drift too far South. Actually, these cautions make it sound far, far worse than it is. The biggest problem we face on entering Port Blakely is that we seem to always tangle with ferries entering or leaving Eagle Harbor.

Port Blakely is deep. To anchor in the middle you will be in 50 feet of water. But do not crowd the back of the harbor too tight - there is a cable crossing back there. The sign is kind of dilapidated, but can be seen just to the West of the last house on the Northern shore. (Soundings on these chart segments are in feet.)

One of the greatest charms of Port Blakely is that it has a clear view of downtown Seattle. At sunset, the sunlight reflecting off the skyscrapers makes them seem aflame. And then the city lights begin to come on. At full dark, the Eastern skyline is dominated by the lit up city. As you can see from this picture taken from an anchorage along the Northern shore of Port Blakely, the skyline view is better from the South shore. If you choose to anchor along the South shore, pay close attention to your depth sounder, it shoals off rather more quickly than some people seem to imagine.

Ferry wakes entering the harbor are the only negative. They are not terrible, especially if there is any breeze, which tends to keep the boats bow- or stern-to the wakes.

Port Blakely has a rich history. The modern part began in 1863 when Captain William Renton (Seattle folks: recognize that name?) bought 164.5 acres that included and surrounded what is now Port Blakely, for $205.63. By May 28, 1864, he had built and begun operating a sawmill; the first cargo was loaded onto the Nahumkeag. This initial mill was turning out about 70,000 board feet a day (a board foot is 12" x 12" x 1"; a 16 foot 2x6 is 16 board feet). The mill continued to expand, and at one time it was the largest mill in the world, producing over 200,000 board feet a day. Port Blakely was filled to overflowing with square riggers hauling all that output - mostly to San Francisco, where a building boom was going on. A village sprung up around the mill to house the workers.

Then finally, the Hall brothers constructed a shipyard on the North shore, just past the end of the sawmill, because of the ready availability of quality lumber. The first vessel built by the Hall brothers was the 365 ton three-masted schooner , Maria Smith, launched May 1, 1881. Not only was there a steady supply of lumber for the ship construction, the cargo was virtually guaranteed as well.

Fire was a constant danger in a steam-powered sawmill, fired by the wood waste from the mill itself, and covered with sawdust. In 1888, the unthinkable happened, and the mill burned down. It was immediately rebuilt, this time with all the modern amenities, including fire ponds and an integrated sprinkler system. Just a year later, Seattle burned.

It is difficult to see the busy frenetic harbor when you are at anchor there today. At the head of Port Blakely, the mill pond, with a dam across the end of the bay is still very much in existence. Logs were let into the mill pond on a flood tide, and a gate was lowered on ebb tides, to retain the water.

Also still in existence is the old boiler house, a concrete pillbox now decorated with grafitti.

The villages, the bunkhouses, and the entire structure of the mill (except as noted) is gone. There is no sign at all of the shipyard that produced 88 square riggers. (On the south shore, there is the skeleton of a ship which is revealed at low tide, but I think it is too small to be one of these.) The harbor is very peaceful today, but at night sometimes it seems that the whine of an 8 foot circular saw is still echoing around the harbor.

If you have a continuing interest in the history of this harbor, I highly recommend the book Port Blakely (The Community Captain Renton Built), by Andrew Price, 1989 (ISBN 0-9625376-0-8).

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