On June 1, 1920, the Port of Brownsville is established. Brownsville is located on the Kitsap Peninsula in Western Washington, about five miles north of Bremerton. In its early decades the Port will mainly serve the mosquito fleet and other boats. It will begin to expand in the 1960s, and this expansion will continue into the twenty-first century, but its goals today (2010) remain as they were in 1920: to provide public recreational opportunities and access to the water.
The unincorporated community of Brownsville, located in Kitsap County, first saw some scattered non-Native settlement in the 1860s, but real growth -- mostly of Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants -- did not arrive until the 1880s. When a post office was established in January 1890, it was named Brownsville after Solomon Brown, who was probably the first white settler to homestead in the area. By the early 1890s there was a small floating dock servicing Brownsville (a more permanent dock was built in 1901), and regular daily landings of steamers began in 1892 when the steamer Delta began delivering mail from Seattle.
By the early twentieth century, Brownsville had three boat routes servicing its docks, and for a time this worked so well that a “steamboat war” broke out in 1909. Fares for the Brownsville to Seattle run dropped from a quarter to as low as a nickel. But evidently the good service did not last. An article in the April 16, 1920, Kitsap County Herald complained of the poor steamboat service to Brownsville. (And the boats themselves were not always safe -- an article in the Herald later that year pointed out that some of the boats had rotten and weak railings, resulting in passengers occasionally falling overboard.)
To Build a Port
By 1920 Brownsville had become a destination of choice for some who had summer homes in the area or were just looking for a place to get away for awhile, and overall traffic to and from the community was increasing. A more established marina was needed to serve the increasing traffic, and as a result, a petition was filed in April 1920 with the Kitsap Board of County Commissioners to establish a port district at Brownsville. In May the board granted the petition, and an election was held on June 1, 1920. The measure passed by a vote of 43 to 16. E. L. Walker, E. Ekstedt, and G. G. Wagner were elected the first commissioners.
The Port’s port in 1920 consisted of a single dock, which continued to serve the mosquito fleet until the 1940s, as well as other boats. But it remained a relatively small backwater into the 1960s. A 1961 picture of the marina shows only one small finger pier added to the main dock, four boathouses, and six boats. But recreational boating at the port increased in the 1960s, and by 1970 a second finger pier had been added to the marina as well as a number of boathouses to meet the increased usage. The Port built its first breakwater to protect the piers about 1970.
The marina’s expansion continued through the 1970s and into the 1980s. By 1984 there were five finger piers extending from the main dock; this remains true today (2010), although the piers have since been expanded slightly, and now have a total of 310 permanent slips, 51 with boathouses. The marina’s breakwaters have likewise been upgraded over the years, and today two breakwaters totaling 1,300 feet in length surround the marina.
Today’s Port of Brownsville
In recent decades the Port has played a role in Kitsap County’s environmental development. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s the Port participated in a salmon recovery program on Steele Creek. A culvert in the creek blocked salmon from swimming upstream so they could spawn, and for many years port district volunteers trapped and hand-carried salmon to the other side of the culvert to help them along on their reproductive journey. In 2002 the Port contributed $50,000 to Kitsap County toward the restoration of the creek for salmon migration, and the culvert was eventually replaced with one that the fish can now swim through. District volunteers continue to count the number of fish swimming upstream to spawn.
Two Tall Ships, the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, have visited the port every August since 2007 (the Lady Washington also made a solo visit in 2006). Ship tours and cruises are provided, and the replicas of the two eighteenth-century sailing vessels are a popular tourist draw. In addition to the marina, the port offers both a waterfront park and an upland park. The upland park, named Burke Bay Overlook Park, is a favorite with the public, and has been used for weddings, receptions, neighborhood picnics, visiting yacht club functions, and more.
The port and marina are located on Burke Bay on the western edge of the Port Orchard Waterway. In 2008, the Port reported receiving $1.3 million in revenues from marina operations. The port district encompasses about 10.7 square miles, and its boundaries are defined by the Port Orchard Waterway on the east, NE McWilliams Road on the south, Central Valley Road on the west, and a line just south of Keyport on the north. In May 2009 there were 8,105 voters registered in the Brownsville Port District, representing 6,584 tax parcels and about 16,000 households. The district is governed by three commissioners elected to serve six-year terms.