James G. Swan, Promoter
Smith's only peer on the peninsula, as a promoter of unbuilt
railroads, was James G. Swan of Port Townsend, a vastly different
type. Swan was a sort of Renaissance figure in the rain forest:
scientist, author, judge, ethnologist, collector of art, collector
of customs, teacher, oyster-grower, promoter, linguist, fish
commissioner, diplomat, historian, deputy sheriff, admiralty
lawyer, journalist, trader, artist, and representative for the
1848 it would have seemed easy to predict the course of swan's
life; hard work, shrewd trading, gradually accumulating wealth and
respect in his native Boston, where his family had lived since
before the Revolution and owned, in fact, some land the Battle of
Bunker Hill had been fought on a good life, but unexceptional. It
was not at all the one he lived.
had been born in 1818, married in 1841, and was the father of a
girl and a boy. He had read for the law and was doing well as a
ship chandler. He was a grave little man with a rather thin voice,
something of a scholar, it seemed; at least he always had a book
thrust in the pocket of his coat.
gold was discovered in California, and the respectable,
conventional Mr. Swan sold out his shipping business, left his
family, and took passage on the Rob Roy for San Francisco.
1851 Swan was working as purser on a Sacramento River steamer, the
Tehama. One of the passengers, Captain Charles J. W. Russell, a
big oyster and clam-huckster from Willapa Harbor, just north of
the Columbia, invited Swan to come north for a visit, which he
spending a year with Russell, Swan went into the oyster business
himself. It was mainly a matter of persuading the Indians to bring
to him huge Willapa oysters, big as plates, which were put in
barrels and sent to San Francisco. Success in the oyster business
depended for the most part on maintaining good relations with the
Indians, who pried the crop from the harbor rocks at low tide.
was as good a friend as the peninsula Indians ever had. He learned
their language - not just the Chinook trading jargon, but the
individual tongues of the varied tribes; he studied their art and
their culture, viewing both with far less condescension than that
shown by other observers of the period.
Boston man with an interest in ships, he was particularly
impressed with their great canoes, and though normally the writing
in his journals is cool and objective, well adapted to scientific
description, excitement shows through whenever he writes of the
great black dugouts:
The canoe which I had
purchased was a beauty. She was forty-six feet long and six feet
wide, and had thirty Indians in her when she crossed the bar at
the mouth of the Bay. She was the largest canoe that had been
brought from up the coast, although the Indians round
Vancouver's and Queen Charlotte's islands have canoes capable of
carrying one hundred warriors.
These canoes are beautiful
specimens of naval architecture. Formed of a single log of
cedar, they present a model of which a white mechanic might well
the summer of 1854 Swan was appointed customs collector for the
coast between Willapa Harbor and Cape Flattery, a district that
assured him of some exciting canoe rides. At the time there were
only two white men known to be living in the entire stretch, and
one of them was William O'Leary, a singularly taciturn Irishman
who had holed up in a cabin beside a small stream emptying into
Grays Harbor and went twenty years without speaking to anyone.
Swan's district was not overburdened with customs receipts.
main function was to keep an eye on British and Russian traders,
who sometimes visited the coast to trade with the Indians for
sealskins, whale oil, dogfish oil, and an occasional sea otter
Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens undertook to negotiate a treaty
with the coastal Indians he chose Swan as an aide. On a cold,
foggy February morning, Swan rode with the governor and twelve
other white men to the meeting ground in a grove of trees on a
bluff above the beach-site of the present town of Cosmopolis -
where there had already gathered representatives of the various
The negotiations broke down over the question of a
reservation. Governor Stevens insisted that the Indians all retire
to one reservation around Lake Quinault. Nakarty, a leader of the
Chinooks, stated the case of those who refused.
are willing to sell our land," said Nakarty, "but we do
not want to go away from our homes. Our fathers and mothers and
ancestors are buried there, and by them we wish to bury our dead
and be buried ourselves. We wish, therefore, each to have a place
on his own land where we can live, and you may have the rest; but
we can't go north among the other tribes. We are not friends and
if we went together we should fight, and soon we all would be
felt this was a legitimate argument, and though at the time he was
not able to convince the governor, a treaty providing separate
reservation was negotiated the following year by Indian Agent Mike
Simmons, a pioneer from Tumwater, who, though illiterate, was an
authority on Indian languages and Indian customs.
1856 Governor Stevens became Congressman Stevens, and with him to
Washington, D. C., went Swan as private secretary. While in the
capital he became friends with the administrators of the
Smithsonian Institution, which was then only ten years old; later
he was to gather several of their most important collections. He
also found time to write his first book, The Northwest Coast, or
Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory.
returned to the Territory in 1858 and settled in Port Townsend,
thus raising its population to 531. He saw in the settlement "an
inevitable New York," which was par for the course; most
Puget Sound pioneers considered their communities certain to
suffer in the near future the blessings of overcrowding. Seattle's
pioneers referred to their first cabins as New York Alki, "Alki"
being jargon for by-and-by. At Whiskey Flat, as Dungeness was then
called, the saying was, "We're as big as New York, only the
town ain't built yet."
1859 Swan became associated with a trading post at Neah Bay, where
Samuel Hancock, a Virginia-born handyman, had tried unsuccessfully
to establish a post in 1845. Hancock was one of the more colorful
pioneers. He started west without even twenty-five cents to
contribute toward the hire of a pilot for the covered wagon train
he joined, but with skill enough as wheel-maker, brick-baker,
kiln-builder, and coal prospector to earn an interesting living in
the Puget Sound country. He came to Neah Bay on an impulse and set
himself up to trade in whale oil and otter skins, but the Makahs
were not inclined to cooperate.
boycotted his store, broke his canoe, threatened his life. He
spent one night crouched in his cabin with four Colt revolvers
loaded and an Indian boy as hostage. The next day, according to
his account in his autobiography (a book that reads in spots like
fiction, and probably is), he bluffed the Makahs into tolerance by
pretending to write a letter to President Millard Fillmore,
tattling on them. He tore up the letter when they rebuilt his
canoe. But he soon gave up on the trading post.
did not fare much better. He soon abandoned trading for teaching,
accepting appointment as a teacher for the Indian Service. It was
a trying experience. The Makahs were suspicious of the school.
They looked on it as an instrument for turning Indian children
into imitation white men, which it was.
Makahs were not interested in Shakespeare or the Tudors or Latin,
or even in methods of growing cotton. One of Swan's rare bursts of
impatience with the Indians came when some of the Makahs asked him
to pay them for sending their children to his classes.
evening shortly after the end of the Civil War, while Swan was
still on the reservation, the smoke of a steamer was observed on
the horizon. Steamers were rare on the Pacific. Swan thought this
might be the Confederate raider Shenandoah, then still at large,
coming in to bombard the lighthouse on Tatoosh, or perhaps to
ravage Port Townsend. He ordered the employees of the Indian
Agency to run up the American flag and stand by to repel attack.
steamer entered the harbor after dark and anchored far out. The
men ashore spent an anxious night until, with the dawn, they made
her out to be Her Majesty's Ship Devastation, just in from the
1866 Swan returned to Port Townsend to practice law. He served
seven years as probate judge, taking time out on one occasion to
act as a deputy sheriff. That was when no one else wanted the
assignment of arresting twenty-six Clallams who had surprised a
party of Vancouver Island Indians on Dungeness spit and killed
them all. Swan brought back the offenders for trial.
also served as assistant United States Fisheries Commissioner and
engaged in a loud scientific argument with Henry Elliott over the
swimming habits of seal pups. But the last thirty years of Swan's
life centered on his efforts to get a railroad for Port Townsend.
That endeavor proved more frustrating than teaching school at Neah
the Northern Pacific was slowly pushing its line north from the
Columbia River to Puget Sound in 1871, Swan called a meeting of
Port Townsend business leaders and persuaded them to offer the
railroad a large amount of local property if it would bend the
line north and bring it to tidewater at Port Townsend. Any chance
of that dream coming true ended with the collapse of Jay Cooke,
that flower of inflation. The N. P. terminus went to Tacoma, which
nearly fifteen years Swan worked to raise the interest of editors
and financiers in a railroad to Port Townsend. He sat at his desk
"amidst Hydah gods and Cape Flattery devils, images in stone
and wood, and implements of savage warfare," as one visitor
put it, and wrote, with a stub pen dipped in purple ink, long,
almost indecipherable letters on the merits of Port Townsend's
harbor and the riches awaiting the sponsors of a railroad.
businessmen incorporated the Port Townsend Southern railroad in
1887. It was to run to Portland, and the only thing, it needed to
be a success was money. When no one offered to put up the money
the populace, in approved fashion, started laying track themselves
and laid the standard mile before diving up.
Oregon Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific,
agreed in 1890 to take over the franchise if Port Townsend would
help out with a subsidy of a hundred thousand dollars. The gift
was bundled up by popular subscription. Fifteen hundred laborers
started laying track down to Hood Canal. This was the dream come
Townsend boomed. Population doubled to 3500 and doubled again.
Waterfront lots sold for ten thousand dollars, and lots out of
sight of water - in fact, out of reach of water - brought a
thousand. Farmers who the year before had had trouble buying flour
for the kitchen sold their homesteads for as much as a hundred
thousand; Tom Bracken got a record $160,000 for his 160 acres.
Real-estate transactions for 1890 totaled $4,594,695.93
was faith rewarded. And most of the old settlers promptly
reinvested in Port Townsend. The ships that would come to meet the
railroad would need a dry-dock; the inhabitants ponied up to
subsidize construction of a floating dry-dock. A smelter had been
started at nearby Irondale, and Port Townsend helped finance a
rail factory that was to use its iron. The town was sure to grow
to twenty thousand, and the old timers raised sandstone warehouses
and office buildings and hotels to meet the needs of the
newcomers; for themselves they built on the bluff a handsome array
of tall clapboard houses, capped with widows' walks.
rails reached from Port Townsend to Quilcene before the bottom
dropped out of everything. Brandon Satterlee has described how the
news struck one community on the fine:
It was one of those
wonderful days when nature seems to cry out for all her
creatures to luxuriate. Frank and I were setting type for the
next issue; Father had been writing at his paperstrewn table and
had arisen to fill his trusty corncob, when we heard the rumble
of Telegrapher Lord's handcar.
He entered the shop and
handed Father a telegram with the remark, 'Here's something for
you, Sat, that I don't think you'll like,' and immediately left.
Father opened the envelope, read the message and dropped heavily
in his chair. He stared at it a long time; then came over to my
case. I thought I detected a note of worry in his voice as he
'Let me have your stick,
Brandon. I'll finish this take and you go up to Fil Hamilton's
and tell him to come down here as soon as can be and bring the
squire with him.'
I was glad to get outside,
and raced up the track like a pupil on the last day of school. I
found Hamilton in his orchard and delivered my message. He
'What's up, Dub?'
'I don't know,' was all I
'Come out to the barn while
I hitch up and you can ride back with me.' On our way to the
barn we stopped in the store and Fil told Squire McArdle. By the
time we had the horse hitched to the buggy, he was at the barn.
The men seemed to sense disaster and the trip to the office was
made principally in silence.
Charley Hamilton, Lou
Seitzinger and Jay Bristow were at the office when we entered.
'What's up, Sat?' was Hamilton's quick greeting. He ignored the
other men. Father walked over to the table and picked up the
telegram. 'I'm afraid this is it,' he said with a sigh; then
'The jig is up. Reliable
word reached me that Portland court today appointed receiver for
0. I. Co. This kills all hope that road will be extended. SWAN.'
had not stopped the rapid motions of typesetting, and the click of
the type as he dropped them into the stick sounded like hammer
blows in the long, deathlike silence that filled the room while
the men absorbed the full import of this news. Hamilton opened his
mouth in amazement, and the squire began to make the familiar
nervous motion with his hands.
outside came the soothing plop, plop, plop, as each bucket of the
water wheel passed under the spout of the flume and received its
quota of water, and then the splash, splash, splash as it was
discharged into the stream at the low point of revolution. In a
Madrona tree nearby a colony of crows set up a raucous scolding,
while over the bay a flock of graceful, screaming gulls circled
above the white sails of a yawl.
was the comedian, Bristow, who broke the impressive silence with
Len Flickinger's favorite expression, "Therein be hell
poppin' an' no pitch hot." Bristow could afford to be
facetious - he was the least affected.
shot a meaningful glance at Father, and McArdle said in a low
tone, "Let's go out on the beach." They went out
together, and the other men, taking the hint, started up the track
toward the townsite to spread the gruesome news. I picked up my
composing stick where Father had laid it down when we came in.
Through the window beside my case I saw three troubled men sit on
a log at highwater mark. I would have given much to hear their
conversation. Frequently Hamilton arose and took a few nervous
steps back and forth.
Frank filled his stick and dumped the type on the galley, he broke
"Did you hear that
telegram Dad read?" he asked.
"Yes. Doesn't sound
very good, does it?""Not a bit. Judge Swan would never
send a message like that if it wasn't true. Nobody in the world
wants to see the road extended more than he. I wonder what will
become of us."
was in Quilcene. In Port Townsend it was even worse. The
real-estate boom collapsed. Those who had become suddenly rich
became suddenly bankrupt. The floating dry-dock was towed off to
Dockton, down the sound. The machines in the nail factory were
sold for junk. Cobwebs gathered in the sandstone warehouses. For a
time even the brothels closed.
Swan was one of those who stayed on. He still believed. He still
wrote long letters in his tiny hand. In time even Port Townsend
found his faith a bit funny. It was his habit to go each evening
to a small restaurant near Union Dock to eat a quiet meal and read
the paper. One evening a young man decided to have some fun at the
a seat near Swan's, he launched a discussion on the economic
future of Puget Sound. His central theme was that the future of
Port Townsend was as nothing when compared to the possibilities of
Seattle. Within a year, he predicted, no right-thinking man with a
decent desire to better himself would remain in a tomb like Port
Townsend unless Seattle saw fit to raise a twenty-foot fence to
keep out those who would share in her inevitable wealth.
Swan laid down his paper. He listened in silence to the young
man's monologue. At last he rose and walked over to the table and
leaned closer, as if to make certain he had heard correctly.
certain no mistake had been made, he raised his heavy cane and
brought it down with an echoing thump across the youth's
shoulders. That attended to, he shot his cuffs, straightened his
black frock coat, stroked his beard, and stalked from the
restaurant with the air, said an enraptured observer, of one who
has performed a meritorious deed and has done it most effectually.
Swan died in 1900, still believing.
railroad has yet been built to connect Port Angeles or Port
Townsend with the transcontinental lines.