Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from Northwest historian David Wilma’s new book “Historic Photos of Puget Sound.” Wilma graciously agreed to share some of the fantasic photos with Three Sheets Northwest.
In April 1792, George Vancouver, on behalf of the King of England, explored the coast of North America aboard HMS Discovery. Vancouver named the waters off the Strait of Juan de Fuca after Lieutenant Peter Puget, a member of his expedition. Fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company established a settlement at the mouth of the Nisqually River in 1833.
Fifteen years later, settlers from the United States staked claims to Olympia, and settlement grew in the 1850s around lumber mills. Some of these communities were orderly company towns like Port Blakely or less organized responses like Seattle.
In the 1850s, the first photographers began capturing scenes of life on Puget Sound. They positioned their heavy cameras with glass plate negatives on whatever stable platform they could find, frequently a wharf or pier. The images celebrated the pride of Puget Sound, its ships, homes, businesses, and industries.
Since social, commercial, and political activity depended on the water, many early shots include Puget Sound’s canoes, launches, fishing boats, steamers, sailing ships, and massive warships. Just as it did for the Native Americans, Puget Sound provided the highway that linked the region’s communities with each other and with the world. At first, Indian canoes and New England schooners moved people and goods up and down the Sound until steamers of the Mosquito Fleet took over. All attention and activity focused on wharves from Olympia to Bellingham, where side-wheelers and stern-wheelers called regularly to deliver news, mail, and travelers.
Residents of remote mill towns and farming communities visited big cities for both business and fun in the company of friends and neighbors.
City dwellers found restful resorts and quiet picnics as close as a stroll up a Mosquito Fleet gangplank. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, when some have proposed that Puget Sound be expanded into British Columbia and called the Salish Sea, the Sound is the center of attention—not for how it can be used, but how it can be protected.
As the once-abundant salmon runs have dwindled from a commercial mainstay to a tourist attraction, residents realized that they needed to change the role of the Sound in order to keep it. All that remains of canneries are broken rows of pilings. The fishing fleets no longer pull their bounty within sight of home, but have to sail a thousand miles to Alaska to stay in business. The Mosquito Fleet has been replaced by highways, bridges, and a ferry system that caters to the automobile. However, the natural scenery remains appealing today to residents, visitors, and admirers alike.