Kitsap County Washington

The Entering Kitsap County Sign and a map of Washington showing the location of Kitsap County in red.

Introduction to Kitsap County

On January 16th, 1857, the Washington Territorial Legislature created Slaughter County. To do this, they took land from King and Jefferson Counties, largely on the Kitsap Peninsula and neighboring Bainbridge Island. They named Port Madison on Bainbridge Island as County Seat. Today Kitsap County  Washington is largely unchanged in area, although the name, the seat and the population have all changed. Covering 566 square miles (of which 171 is water), the County’s 2019 estimated population was 271,473. That figure made it the third most densely populated county in Washington. City-Data.com says that the County is 83% urban, and that what farms exist are small. They average 27 acres in size.

A Brief History of Kitsap County Washington

You could argue that San Francisco built Kitsap County. Repeated fires in the California city meant lumber mills further north would thrive. By 1854, there were three major lumber mills on the Kitsap Peninsula. At the time, two counties divided the Peninsula: King County to the east and Jefferson County on the west. As Peninsula residents tired of traveling to Seattle or Port Townsend to conduct business, they pled for a county of their own. The Washington Territorial Legislature obliged, and on January 16th, 1857 they created Slaughter County. The new county took its name from Lt. William Alloway Slaughter. Slaughter served in the U.S. Army and died in the Yakima War in 1855.

The first election to take place in Slaughter County happened on July 13th, 1857. On the ballot was the name for the county. Voters got to choose between Mill, Madison and Kitsap. The region’s legislators had proposed Madison, but the Legislature honored the soldier instead. Kitsap was the name of a Suquamish chief who had lived on Bainbridge Island and had met Capt. George Vancouver. For some reason, Slaughter was not one of the options before the voters. Kitsap won hands down.


Port Madison on Bainbridge Island, was a company town serving one of the large lumber mills. With the creation of the new county, Port Madison was named seat. When the Port Madison mill closed, the town’s population dwindled. Voters chose another mill town, Sidney, for their new seat. Today Port Madison is a trendy part of the city of Bainbridge Island, and Sidney now calls itself Port Orchard.

A view of Sinclair Inlet from western Port Orchard, Kitsap County Washington
Sinclair Inlet Sunrise
Port Orchard, Washington

The Native People of Kitsap County

Prior to the arrival of Captain George Vancouver, three related groups of Salish people lived in what is now Kitsap County. One group of S’Klallam lived alongside Port Gamble, an inlet off Hood Canal. The Twana (Skokomish) lived in nine villages along Hood Canal. The Suquamish lived in villages scattered around the Kitsap Peninsula. Governor Isaac Stevens pushed through many treaties with the native peoples of Washington. Because the white negotiators did not speak the Salishan languages of the local inhabitants, there were many misunderstandings.

The Port Madison Reservation and the Suquamish People

The Treaty of Point Elliot set aside the Port Madison Reservation toward the northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula. As this was part of their traditional homeland, many Suquamish moved there. Many others did not, however. The tribe’s website  tells of the many difficulties faced by a people who lived communally and did not understand the concept of land ownership.

The Port Madison Reservation today is home to a revitalized native people. Port Madison Enterprises is the second largest private employer in Kitsap County with 752 employees. Again, the tribe’s website tells of the many ventures the tribe has taken on.  The tribe publishes a monthly newsletter, Suquamish News, which is available online.

The Port Gamble Reservation and the S’Klallam People

The Port Gamble Reservation, further north on the Peninsula, is home to the Port Gamble S’Klallam. The S’Klallam are cousins to the people who gave their name to Clallam County. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation has as mission:

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of life for Port Gamble S’Klallam tribal members while increasing the understanding of the Tribe’s rich cultural heritage with people who reside in the Puget Sound area and visitors from far and wide.

The Foundation works to advance an appreciation and understanding of S’Klallam art, history and culture. The Foundation also seeks to promote education, wellness and increase awareness and action to protect the environment. Another primary component of the Foundation’s mission is the management of Heronswood Garden.

I recommend the Foundation’s website as it is full of information about the tribe’s culture and heritage. The tribe’s website is also worth a visit. In addition, the tribe puts out a monthly newsletter that is available online.

Port Orchard–the Kitsap County  Washington Seat

 

The Kitsap County Washington Court House
The Kitsap County Court House
Port Orchard, Washington

Port Orchard was neither the original Kitsap County Seat nor the name of the community. Frederick Stevens platted the town in 1886 and named it to honor his father. It was only in 1893 that Sidney became Seat. Like other Kitsap Peninsula communities, the Sidney area was home to a large lumber mill. In 1854, William Renton moved his mill from Seattle’s Alki Point to a more sheltered location. He built his new mill on the north side of Sinclair Inlet, a bay off the larger Port Orchard. (Note that technically speaking, Port Orchard is that part of Puget Sound that separates Bainbridge Island from the Kitsap Peninsula.) Two towns grew up with Renton’s mill as their major industry, Sidney on the south side of the Inlet and Charleston on the north. The two communities fought over the name Port Orchard, and Sidney eventually won. Bremerton annexed Charleston in 1927.


Four years after Stevens platted the community, Sidney incorporated in 1890. It was the first town in Kitsap County to do so. In 1893, the town built a new courthouse and donated it to the County. To no one’s surprise, voters agreed to move the seat from Port Madison to Sidney. Almost simultaneously, the U.S. Government decided to build a new naval shipyard on Puget Sound. And not just on Puget Sound, but on Sinclair Inlet. The people of Sidney recognized an opportunity when the Federal Government dropped it in their laps.


It’s all in the name

The story behind the town’s name change has its humorous aspects. Both Charleston and Sidney petitioned the State Legislature to change their names to Port Orchard. Charleston got their petition in first, so the Legislature denied Sidney’s request. Sidney, however, went one step further. That town also requested a name change through the U.S. Post Office. The Post Office, unaware of the Legislature’s action, granted the request. This caused no little bit of confusion as many people referred to Charleston as Port Orchard. It was not until 1903 that the Legislature relented and officially gave Sidney the name Port Orchard.


Though the city has had its ups and downs over the years, today Port Orchard thrives. Many residents still work for the Naval yard, but many commute to work on the east side of Puget Sound. The city’s 2019 estimated population was 14,597, not quite double the official 2000 count of 7,693. My own take? Port Orchard is a lovely town to visit—and undoubtedly to live in, if you can afford it.

Bremerton

Aside from its Seat, Kitsap County Washington has three other incorporated cities. The largest in population is Bremerton. Home to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton sits on the north shore of Sinclair Inlet, a mile across the water from Port Orchard. Wikipedia recognizes six distinct neighborhoods in Bremerton. Two of these, Manette and Charleston, were independent cities before Bremerton annexed them. The Port Washington Narrows divides the city with that portion north of the narrows referred to as East Bremerton.

American Lieutenant Charles Wilkes first surveyed the area in 1841. He found it ideal for a naval yard. Thirty-six years later, another Lieutenant, Ambrose Barkley Wyckoff, returned to Sinclair Inlet. Once back home, he campaigned for the U.S. to build a naval base there. The government agreed, but was parsimonious in allocating money to purchase land. That didn’t stop two Seattlites from seeing the possibilities.

William Bremer Arrives

William Bremer and Henry Paul Hensel may not have known the old adage. That didn’t stop them from “mining the miners.” They paid $300 an acre for land along Sinclair Inlet, then sold that land to the U.S. for $50 an acre. Crazy? They lost $12,000 on that transaction. BUT—they bought up the land adjacent to the navy’s purchase. In 1891, Bremer filed a plat for a town he named for himself. As the base grew, so did the town Bremer built to serve that base. When the base faltered, so did the town.

Ships at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard
The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard

And then came the war. No, not the Spanish American War and long before World War I. The first years of the twentieth century saw a war between the U.S. Navy and the City of Bremerton. Appalled by the number of bars and other locales we might term “attractive nuisances,” the Navy threatened to close down the shipyard to protect the morals of its young sailors. Threats were met by half-hearted measures, and the battle went on for several months. Bremer himself was so upset that he tried to sell the entire town to the U.S. government so it could run things its way. The U.S. found Bremer’s price of $350,000 too high and refused. A hundred years later, much of downtown Bremerton was still owned by Bremer’s heirs. In 2019, the estimated population of Bremerton stood at 41,405, making it the most populous city in Kitsap County, Washington.

Bainbridge Island

With an estimated 25,298 residents in 2019, Bainbridge Island is Kitsap County’s second largest city. Originally incorporated on August 23rd, 1947 as Winslow, Washington, the town annexed the entire island in 1991. At that point, the city changed its name to reflect the new reality. Census figures for 1990 (before the annexation) show 3,081 residents. The 2000 figure shows a 559.1% increase to 20,308. I suppose that would justify adding so much territory.

Captain George Vancouver, in an unusual gaffe, missed Agate Passage and drew Bainbridge Island as a peninsula. It was the American Wickes who corrected the mistake and gave the island its name. In a region where so many names honor Englishmen, (Greek) Spaniards, and Native Americans, Bainbridge Island honors an American. Commodore William Bainbridge captained the USS Constitution during the War of 1812.

Directly opposite Seattle, Bainbridge Island was home to nine Suquamish villages. After the Point Elliott Treaty, the US claimed the land and settlers began to arrive. These included loggers, ship builders, and farmers. The latter included Japanese who began growing strawberries in 1883. During World War II, the Bainbridge Island Issei and Nisei were the first taken to internment camps.

Today, Bainbridge Island is largely a bedroom community for Seattle. After all, the city is just 35 minutes away by Washington State Ferry. A relatively easy commute.

Poulsbo

First Lutheran Church, Poulsbo,  Kitsap County Washington
First Lutheran Church ELCA,
Poulsbo, Washington

Also known as Little Norway, or even Viking City, Poulsbo is Kitsap County Washington’s fourth city in population. As of 2019, an estimated 11,168 Washingtonians call Poulsbo home. A hilly location overlooking Liberty Bay, the area apparently reminded the early settlers of their homes on Norway’s fjords. One of the original settlers, Ivar B. Moe, filed for a post office, naming the spot for his Norwegian hometown, Paulsbo. Someone back east apparently couldn’t read Moe’s handwriting. The Post Office became Poulsbo, and the town has had that name ever since. (It’s still pronounced as if it’s Pauls-bo.)

When you first drive into Poulsbo, a Viking greets you. “Welkommen til Poulsbo” reads the plinth on which he stands. In October, 2016, he wore a Seattle Seahawks pennant over his concrete chain mail.


You may have seen the name Poulsbo in your local grocery store. For years, Franz bakery of Portland, Oregon, sold Poulsbo bread. They discontinued the product in 2011 saying that there were now plenty of multi-grain breads available. The original Poulsbo Bread is still available at Sluys Bakery in Poulsbo. The lines are long and the smell divine, but the clerks are attentive and fast. As for the bread, Dan Sluys, co-owner of Sluys Bakery, told the Kitsap Sun newspaper:

We still make it from scratch. [The bakers at Sluys] put in our sunflower seeds, mill it, we grind our flax, put our honey and all the ingredients into it. We are the only place that can make it that way and not just by the mix.

Kitsap County Washington Business

The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest single employer in Kitsap County. As of July 2013, 16,392 civilians and 14,953 military members worked for that unit of government. The Naval Base Kitsap alone accounted for most of the military and one third of the civilian employees. Harrison Medical Center was the largest private sector employer. In 2014, Harrison joined CHI Franciscan, a regional medical group affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. In 2020, CHI Franciscan renamed Harrison to St. Michael Medical Center. St. Michael is the patron saint of doctors, soldiers, police and mariners. Seems appropriate for a facility in a naval community.

Recreation in Kitsap County

Kitsap County Washington is home to forty-two county parks. That’s not a bad total for a place so heavily urban. Ranging in size from the 1 acre Arness Roadside Park to the 3493 acre Port Gamble Forest Heritage Park, these parks offer variety. Skate Parks, Dog Parks, hiking trails, beaches—all can be found in a Kitsap County park. The County has a website listing all the parks and links to each park’s website. In addition, there are municipal parks in all of the County’s cities, and four state parks as well.

My Trip to Kitsap County 

The beginning of October, 2016, my friend Mike and I drove our Ford F350 pickup and pulled a 30’ long flatbed trailer. Our destination was Port Orchard where I would pick up a 1948 Frazer as a parts car. I’m glad Mike was willing to drive. I wouldn’t trust myself in an urban setting with such a long rig. While we spent most of our time with the fellow who gave me the car, we did take time to do some sightseeing.

Having driven up from Tacoma on Washington Highway 16, we continued north on Washington Highway 3 past Bremerton and on to Poulsbo. At this point, I don’t remember if we had the trailer attached as we drove those hilly streets. I was just along for the ride—and the photos.

What we didn’t see, and what would I like to visit on future trips? Bremerton—other than the naval shipyard from across the bay. I would love to cross the Agate Passage bridge and drive around Bainbridge Island. Also, I would very much like to go to Port Gamble and the far northern part of Kitsap County Washington. While there, I would make it a point to visit Point No Point. The name alone fascinates me, and then there’s the history. Not sure when I’ll be back, but rest assured, I will return to Kitsap County, Washington.

Endnotes

Websites I found interesting are linked below.  A special thanks to the writers of the History Link pages listed below, David Wilma, Catherine Hinchliff, Jennifer Ott and John Caldbick. 

Suquamish History
Port Madison Enterprises 
Bainbridge Island Experiences
Government Websites
Kitsap County
Port Orchard
Bainbridge Island City
Bremerton
City of Poulsbo
History Link Posts
Kitsap County, David Wilma. 
Port Orchard History, Catherine Hinchliff
Bainbridge Island, Jennifer Ott
Bremerton, John Caldbick
Poulsbo, Jennifer Ott
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