Explore the History of the Swan Hotel in Port Townsend

The Swan Hotel, in the heart of Maritime Port Townsend, is adjacent to Point Hudson Marina and directly across the street from the Northwest Maritime Center.  It has a colorful, yet patchwork kind of history, just as it has three distinctive types of buildings on the property. After the city was settled, the property itself was originally owned by James Gilchrist Swan, a prominent citizen and peacemaker with the local S’Klallam Native American Tribe.  Set amid the vintage, historical town of Port Townsend, treat yourself to a stay at our boutique hotel.

Port Townsend History

Port Townsend's history extends long before settlers would come to call this area Port Townsend Bay. The official settlement of the city took place on the 24th of April 1851.  Port Townsend was known as the "City of Dreams" because of the early speculation that the city would be the largest harbor on the west coast. Prior to its settlement, the port was home to the S'Kallam Indian Community of Kah Tai. In 1904, the city park in Port Townsend was dedicated to Chief Chetzemoka (also known as Chief T'chiis-a-ma-hum or the Duke of York).

Early settlers reportedly had issues pronouncing the chief's name, resulting in his being called the Duke of York. Today, Chetzemoka City Park is one of many dog-friendly parks and places of interest in the port. It sits on the hillside, with spectacular views of the Cascade Mountains, as well as a tropical water garden, picnic areas and a bandstand designed to look like the original Victorian Bandstand that sat in the park.

Swan Hotel History

The site of the Main Building at The Swan Hotel has had many purposes over the years, including offices on the main floor and housing for personnel when Point Hudson was used as a Coast Guard facility as well as a possible quarantine site for sailors entering the Puget Sound area from the Far East in the late 1800’s. All of the rooms in the Main Building have private bathrooms and the entire third floor is dedicated to the Penthouse Suite which also includes a crow’s nest accessible from the loft area. 

Many visitors to our community are enamored with the cottages on the property.  As legend has it, the four cottages were originally brought in by railcar to house railroad workers near what is now the Port Townsend Paper Mill.  At that time in 1889, Port Townsend was considered the largest port city in the Puget Sound region.  Many businesses and investors flocked to the city to seek their fortunes and Port Townsend became known as the “City of Dreams.”  

Alas, the prosperity which brought many folks to the area was quickly dispelled when the railroad owners decided to cut a quicker rail path to Canada through a small town known as Seattle.  The cottages were dumped alongside the unfinished rails and left behind.  Sometime later, the four cottages were carefully transported to their current location to serve as housing for some of the local working girls on the waterfront.  They had bunks in the cottages and slept four to six girls in a room.  In the 1920’s, the cottages were used as small rental units for people arriving in town as boat builders and others seeking short-term residence.  

Perhaps the least-known but most interesting tale is in regards to The Swan Hotel Lobby.  The building was originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.  It was a modular home and was there to represent the “house of the future.”    After the Fair, the building was purchased by a Port Townsend business owner and moved by barge to its current location.  

James Gilchrist Swan  (Jan. 11, 1818 - May 18, 1900)

The Swan Hotel is named after historian and early pioneer James Gilchrist Swan, who moved to Port Townsend in 1859, and was — among many other vocations — a collector of Native American art.  One of his many jobs and interests was compiling the ethnology and collecting artifacts of the Northwest natives for the Smithsonian Institution.  In the process, he acquired his own collection of native art. Some of this collection is now housed at the Jefferson County Historical Society.

Swan held a variety of positions throughout his life. He worked as an oysterman, a customs inspector, secretary to a congressional delegate, judge, natural historian and ethnographer, to name just a few of his occupations.  He was an extremely prolific writer and left valuable historical records in the form of books, newspaper articles, two monographs for the Smithsonian and more than 60 volumes of diaries.  Swan arrived in Port Townsend not long after its founding in 1851.  Port Townsend was the base from which he traveled west to Neah Bay, where he was a school teacher, and north to learn about the Haida Indians of the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada.

In 1978, Swan’s grandson, Charles P. Swan donated many of his grandfather’s items to the historical society. His donations make up a large portion of the museum’s Swan collection.

For History Buffs

  •  Jefferson County Historical Museum
  •  Twisted History Tours
  •  Rothschild House
  •  The Artillery Museum
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