Economic History of Kitsap County

The following was excerpted from "Kitsap: A Centennial History" and "Port Madison, 1854-1889" by Fredi Perry, ed., "Manette Pioneering" by Erv Jensen, ed., and an article by Chloe Sutton published in the May 15, 1953 edition of the Bremerton Sun.

     Native Americans were the first known inhabitants of what would become Kitsap County. The Suquamish were the area's principal tribe (the Clallam were also a presence, though less formidable than the Suquamish). They and others around Puget Sound formed a tribal confederation that was ruled by Chief Kitsap, one of the confederation's greatest leaders. Kitsap ruled the confederation from Old-man House on Agate Pass (at present-day Port Madison).

     Because of the alliance, tribes of the Puget Sound confederation engaged widely in intertribal commerce and trade, making them the first in the region to engage in such activities. The region's watery surroundings meant that canoes were an important part of everyday life. Canoes were an essential means of transport, one that allowed tribes around the Sound to engage in commerce and trade. Canoes were also used to fish for salmon - a staple of the Suquamish diet. Their diet was supplemented with shellfish, waterfowl, and wild berries.

     White explorers first came upon what would become Kitsap County in 1792 when Captain George Vancouver - in commmand of the H.M.S. Discovery - charted Puget Sound. In fact, Vancouver was met by Chief Kitsap, who helped guide the vessel to safe harbor off of Restoration Point between Bainbridge and Blake islands. Once at anchor, Vancouver and his party set off in skiffs to chart upper Puget Sound. Among their notable discoveries were Port Orchard and Hood Canal.

     Vancouver's report on Puget Sound stimulated the interest of the fur industry. By the turn of the century, both the Northwest Fur Company and Pacific Fur Company were vying for trapping rights in the new territory. In time, John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company was put out of business by the Northwest Fur Company. The Northwest Fur Company, in turn, was subsumed by the Hudson's Bay Company. The Hudson's Bay Company - through its Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin - held a virtual monopoly over a vast fur empire from its base in Vancouver (Wa).

     In 1841, Lt. Charles Wilkes - in command of the U.S.S Vincennes and U.S.S. Porpoise - charted Puget Sound for the United States government. The expedition was done in anticipation of the U.S. gaining full sovereignty over the region (which at the time was ruled by the U.S. and Great Britain under the Joint Occupation Treaty of 1818). Present-day Kitsap County was among the areas charted by the Wilkes party. Perhaps the most striking of their observations was that of the harbor at Port Orchard which they found to be "deep enough for the largest class of vessels, with a bold shore and a good anchorage." Fifty years later, the harbor became the site of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. The U.S. gained sovereignty over the region in 1846. This marked the last days of the region's fur trade industry as the Hudson's Bay Company was forced to relocate north of the 49th parallel - the new international boundary. The industry would most likely have faded anyway since the region's beaver population had been trapped to the point of extinction.

     With the fur industry in rapid decline, the territory was opened to settlement. However, before settlement could commence, there lay the task of clearing dense stands of virgin Douglas fir that reached all the way to shore. As a result, the 1850s saw logging emerge in Kitsap County. At first, harvested logs were shipped straight to California and other world markets by clipper ship. In 1853 - the year Washington became a territory - companies were formed in California to secure market niches for finished lumber. The result was the first lumber mills in Kitsap County - the J.J. Felt & Co. mill at Appletree Cove (later moved to Port Madison) and the Pope & Talbot mill at Port Gamble.

     Some entreprenuers came by way of sea. Before they established their lumber mill at Alki Point, William Renton (for whom the present-day city of Renton is named) and Daniel Howard captained ships engaged in transporting logs between Puget Sound and San Francisco. In 1854, they relocated their mill to Port Orchard (and later to Port Blakely).

     The end of the Indian Wars of 1855-56 (during which the village of Seattle was attacked) saw the Suquamish and Clallam cede land to the United States. The tribes were removed to reservations - the Suquamish to the Port Madison Reservation and the Clallam to the Port Gamble Reservation. The end of hostilities gave rise to increased settlement and population growth which, in turn, fueled industry expansion. In 1857, the area's major logging concerns - through their territorial representatives - had Slaughter County (pop. 400) created for their convenience. The county was soon renamed Kitsap, which translates from the Salish word for brave.

     Logging and lumber milling continued to be the county's principal industries. At the height of logging activity in the 1870s, as many as 15 huge camps operated within the county - providing a steady stream of logs for local mills. Interestingly enough, the demand for logs and lumber fueled the demand for sea vessels to transport those goods from Puget Sound to California. From this emerged Kitsap County's prominent wooden ship building industry - the most famous builder being Hall Brothers (of Port Blakely and later Winslow). By the 1880s and 1890s, however, Kitsap County's logging and lumber industries plunged into a deep depression when the California market became saturated. Most left for California while others headed across the water to Seattle or Tacoma. A few found work in the county's fledgling herring fishing industry.

     Kitsap County's population grew rapidly in the latter half of the 1880s, particularly around present-day Bremerton, Port Orchard, and Port Madison.

     Because the inland expanses were densely forested, settlement was concentrated along the shore. Dense forests also kept roads and railroads from making inroads into the area. From necessity was born the so-called Mosquito Fleet. This assorted collection of small steamers plied the waters of the Sound between 1910 and 1930. They were a vital means of transporting passengers, mail, and commodities between towns in Kitsap County and Seattle.

     By the 1930s, road transportation in Kitsap County had improved tremendously. More and more residents were driving automobiles. In 1930, the Manette Bridge opened for business. The 1,573-foot bridge, constructed of wooden planks and pilings, linked Manette and Bremerton. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened to traffic in 1940, only to collapse that very same year. The new bridge was opened in 1950. The Port Washington Narrows Bridge (or Warren Street Bridge) opened to traffic in 1958. Bridges such as these eventually pushed the Mosquito Fleet into obsolescence.

     Few sectors have had as great an employment and economic impact on Kitsap County as the military - more specifically the United States Navy. The county hosts the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (Bremerton), Naval Submarine Base (Bangor), and Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station (Keyport). For that reason, this section has been reserved specifically to chart its history.

     Prospects for Puget Sound Naval Shipyard first arose in 1888 when a Navy commission sited Sinclair Inlet as the best place on Puget Sound for a drydock. When the report was released, real estate prices soared to $200 an acre as speculators gobbled up property. What the speculators did not anticipate, however, was that Lt. Ambrose Barkley Wyckoff, U.S.N. would offered them $50 an acre - and not a dollar more. In September 1891, Lt. Wyckoff purchased 190.25 acres of land on Sinclair Inlet for $9,512.50. The land was described as wilderness with heavily forested ridges fronted by marshes and swamps. It was there that the Puget Sound Naval Station was sited with Lt. Wyckoff as its first commandant.

     Puget Sound Naval Station was a tremendous economic opportunity for Kitsap County as the logging and lumber industry had slumped in the early 1880s and 1890s (local logging and lumber industries all but disappeared by the 1950s before making a slight comeback in the 1970s).

     Puget Sound Naval Station undertook as its first major project the construction of Drydock I. The drydock was completed in April 1896 at a cost of $744,636. Work was sporadic, however, with long periods of down time. Navy officials now felt that the shipyard was in a poor location - too far removed from labor and supply markets in Seattle and Tacoma. Undaunted, Lt. Wyckoff commissioned a study comparing the Station so favorably with other shipyards that officials in Washington, D.C. awarded $300,000 of work to the Station in 1900 and $500,000 in 1901.

    In 1900, employment at Puget Sound Naval Station expanded from 143 to 610. New buildings - including a hospital - were added. During this period, Puget Sound Naval Station was recommissioned as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Construction of Drydock II began in 1909 and was completed four years later at cost of $2,300,000. At the time, it was at the Navy's largest drydock. Shipyard employment rose during World War I as its 6,500 workers launched 25 subchasers, 2 minesweepers, 2 ammunition ships, 7 tugs, and 1,700 smaller vessels. World War II brought similar activity as Shipyard employment soared to 34,000 by 1945. Over the course of the war, shipyard workers built, fitted out, overhauled, or repaired nearly 400 American and Allied vessels - including five of the eight American battleships damaged at Pearl Harbor. Employment at the Shipyard fell off sharply after World War II, but increased again during the Korean War.

     Today, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard employs 12,672 civilians (not to mention the 5,551 military personnel assigned to ships that are either being overhauled or are assigned to the shipyard). In any case, shipyard employment is at one of its highest levels in recent years. Activity at the shipyard continues to be strong as several ships are expected to arrive in 1990. They include a supercarrier, a guided-missle cruiser, and two submarines. In fact, the carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, when it docks, will join the U.S.S. Nimitz which is already undergoing work at the yard. The supercarriers alone should account for 11,000 to 12,000 county residents.

     The newest of the state's military installations is the Naval Submarine Base at Bangor. Construction of the 7,676-acre base began in 1974, and was completed by 1977 at a cost $1.2 billion. The base became operational in 1981 and is today home to eight nuclear-powered Trident submarines (the first arrived in 1982; the last in 1987). The base now has more than 10,000 military and civilian personnel: 5,490 military personnel, 2,864 federal civilian employees, and 1,680 private contractors.

     The Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station (NUWES) at Keyport is the second oldest (after PSNS) of the county's military installations. NUWES was constructed in 1910 and activated in 1914 with a total appropriation of $145,000. Today, the base has approximately 4,400 military and civilian personnel (300 military personnel, 3,300 federal civilian employees, and 800 private contractors.

     Prior to becoming a submarine base, the site was known as Bangor Munitions Depot. It was there that combat ships unloaded live munitions before being serviced at, for example, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. This munitions "parking" is now done at Indian Island at the tip of Hood Canal (except for Trident Submarines, whose missles and torpedoes are serviced at their own base).

     The base provides all maintenance and training for Trident subs and their crews at the Trident Training Facility, Trident Refit Facility, Strategic Weapons Facility (Pacific), and Delta Pier. Bangor's drydock is one of the deepest ever built by the Navy as well as the only one built parallel to the shoreline.

     Originally the Pacific Coast Torpedo Station, NUWES was sited at Keyport because of proximity to still water (at a sheltered inlet on Liberty Bay) for torpedo testing and access to all points in the Pacific. Today, the base's main function is to proof-test and maintain torpedoes for the Navy fleet. The base also repairs and issues sonar equipment, fire control equipment, targets, and mines.

     The Naval Hospital at Bremerton is a major employer with 871 employees (518 military personnel, 290 civilian employees, and 63 contractors). The Naval Supply Center Puget Sound is also a large employer with 761 employees (730 civilian employees, 27 military personnel, and 4 contractors).

     Today, Kitsap County is still largely dependent upon its myriad of military installations and facilities. Moreover, much of the county's non-military economy is indirectly related to military activity. The county's healthy retail trade and service sectors cater largely to active-duty (and retired) military personnel, federal civilian employees, defense contractors, and their respective families. The county's military installations are not expected to be adversely effected by federal defense spending cuts. Consequently, the current pattern of activity should continue to dominate the local economy. Of course, there are other factors affecting the Kitsap County economy. More recently, Kitsap County - particularly Bainbridge Island - has attracted residents who work in the greater Seattle area but live in the county. This phenomenon is also occurring to some extent in the south county as residents are increasingly taking advantage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (State Route 16) to commute to and from workplaces in the greater Tacoma area.

     A fixture in Kitsap County since 1946, Bremerton-based Olympic College has been a major source of jobs and vocational-technical training for county residents and military personnel.

     The county's tourism and recreation-related industries have benefitted from local population growth as well as increased awareness of recreational opportunties within the area. For example, the county has seven state recreation areas with scenic Puget Sound as a backdrop. They are (in alphabetical order) Fay Bainbridge Recreation Area, Fort Ward Recreation Area, Illahee Recreation Area, Kitsap Memorial Recreation Area, Manchester Recreation Area, Scenic Beach Recreation Area, and Old Man House (Agate Pass).

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