- Frontier Boosters: Port Townsend and the Culture of Development in the American West by Elaine Naylor
The community of Port Townsend, along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the entrance to Puget Sound, offers a stage for Elaine Naylor to rescue the concept of boosterism from its academic dismissal. In Frontier Boosters Naylor attempts to use the town as a microcosm of diverse, consequential trends in the late nineteenth-century American West.
Founded shortly after the California gold rush, Port Townsend flourished by providing lumber to the fast-growing settlements there and elsewhere in the United States’ new coastal claims. It emerged as one of the [End Page 459] key American communities in the Puget Sound area, competing with towns like Olympia and Seattle for regional dominance. Port Townsend’s easy access to the Pacific Ocean aided its growth and economic prosperity. Boosters, from the press to local politicians to businesspeople, lobbied on its behalf and for several decades enjoyed its success. Port Townsend drew members of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds as workers and investors, and it offered opportunities for many people. Yet Naylor also describes how trans-Pacific and transcontinental issues reared their ugly heads in the town, including an effort to expunge Chinese immigrants from Port Townsend a few years after the federal government banned most newcomers from that country in 1882.
After several decades of wealth—demonstrated in the well-maintained Victorian houses that remain Port Townsend’s greatest modern attraction—the community faded at the end of the nineteenth century. Economic woes following the Panic of 1893 devastated the town, but its lack of easy access by rail to the rest of the United States proved more damaging. Railroads built to Seattle and Portland proved slow in extending links onto the Olympic Peninsula, and the once well-situated town found itself isolated from the essential new technology.
As an account of one of Washington’s most significant communities in the late nineteenth century, Naylor’s work offers an essential contribution that is well researched, engagingly written, and filled with compelling stories. Even those who, like this reviewer, have never visited Port Townsend will feel they know and appreciate the community. The book offers a valuable addendum to broader histories of early Washington, especially the work of Robert E. Ficken.
Yet the reader finishes Frontier Boosters feeling as if it never quite accomplished the optimistic goals set forth by Naylor. She identifies two purposes, in addition to telling the engaging tale of Port Townsend for its own merits. First, Naylor seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of boosters in the western United States, portrayed by many modern scholars as conniving profit-mongers eager to exploit a region for personal gain. Second, she hopes to use Port Townsend as a “community study” that demonstrates in microcosm a series of greater themes, “to further understanding of frontier settlement and economic development not only on that one frontier, but more broadly, and its findings argue for reassessment of certain aspects of these issues writ large.”
While the tools necessary to tackle both of these goals exist throughout the book, they never find full employment. In order to accomplish the first, an admirable and valuable task, Naylor needs to engage other scholarship to a greater extent, demonstrating the dismissal of boosters in academic writing. Without that foundation, her valid defence of Port Townsend’s enthusiasts lacks a foil to challenge. The second goal also needs to explore more fully existing writing, whether regional, national, [End Page 460] or international, to better place the town in context and illustrate its value. The absence of any discussion of interaction with nearby Canadian communities—Victoria and Vancouver, for example—is striking, even if only to explain why their presence perhaps impacted Port Townsend less than did settlements south of the border.
For audiences interested in local, state, and regional history, Frontier Boosters offers a great deal and should be praised as such. Those who hope to see an exploration of Port Townsend as reflective of...