For over 140 years, the First Presbyterian Church has ministered to the spiritual needs of friends and members in Port Townsend and surrounding communities. As we celebrate our 145th anniversary in 2018, we are reminded that for over 100 years the steeple has blended into the skyline of Port Townsend along with so many other charming Victorian reminders of the 19th century.
Shortly after the Civil War the Presbytery of Oregon decided to organize a church at Port Townsend in the Washington Territory. There were only two Presbyterian churches in the great northwest at that time-the First Presbyterian Church of Seattle and a small church in the San Juan Islands. The Reverend John Rea of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was commissioned to visit our city and to find out if a new church would be feasible. He arrived August 1, 1872 and just ten days later held his first service in the local Methodist church, which then was without a pastor.
Pastor Rea soon determined that the Presbyterian Church was needed here and a charter to organize was signed by seven women on March 8, 1873. All these women had been active in other churches. On March 16 the first communion service was held and several weeks later the church was received into the Presbytery of Oregon. The church was duly incorporated on November 27, 1873.
The next step, of course, was to build! A lot was purchased from Capt. E.S. Fowler for $250 in Gold coin. Pastor Rea led a drive for the next 18 months to raise money for a stone church building. The cornerstone was laid on September 6, 1875. Granite for the foundation and walls was quarried from the streets and bluffs as the congregation labored with their pastor to build the first stone church north of the Columbia River.
In the 1880’s the boom was on! Port Townsend was on its way to outgrow Seattle. To keep pace with the growing community, it was finally decided to erect a new church building under the leadership of Pastor D.T. Carnahan who was the first regularly installed pastor of the church in 1887. Dr Carnahan had a wide and varied experience as pastor of prominent churches before coming to Port Townsend. He was, in fact, serving at the Presbyterian Church at Gettysburg when the deciding battle of the Civil War was fought there. His church was used as a hospital during that bloody fight and he worked diligently among the wounded and dying. It became his lot to supervise the building of the new church. The old stone church was torn down but the stone blocks were used to build the foundation of the current building. They can still be seen as you walk around outside. Local architects Whiteway and Schroder designed the new church. The congregation of less than 100 raised $16,000 and the cornerstone was laid in 1889. The new church building was dedicated on March 16, 1890; mere months after Washington became a state, November 11, 1889. The building was proclaimed as “the finest edifice in Port Townsend” and “thoroughly modern” having a furnace, combination gas and electric fixtures, and was fully carpeted.
George Chapman, renowned as one of the best fresco artists in the United States, painted the ceiling and walls of the sanctuary. His work, unfortunately, was later damaged by moisture and was plastered over. A segment of his original design can be seen on the painted pipes of the organ. The pews, chandeliers and the beautiful stained glass windows are original. Some young girls in a church group known as “the Rosebud Girls” donated the chandelier in 1890.
Whalley & Genung built the tracker action organ in Oakland, California in 1890 for $2500. Our organ is one of very few remaining instruments built by this firm. The front is solid eastern walnut, and it has 692 pipes, ranging from 2 inches to 16 feet. It is the oldest organ in Washington State still in its original home.
In 1987, a fund drive for this $500,000 addition was authorized and ground was broken on June 11, 1989. Great care was taken to closely match the exterior architecture and siding with the older part of the building. A landmark dedication service was held on March 18, 1990. This unusual service recognized the centennial anniversary of the original building and also served as the dedication ceremony of the new addition. The Reverend Tim Dolan led this service.
A major restoration project in 1996 restored the exterior of the old building to its original Victorian splendor. The Jefferson County Historical Society recognized our congregation in 1998 with a plaque for “significant contribution to the spirit of historical preservation in the community.” The beautiful oak Celtic cross that now hangs above the altar was a gift to the church in 2014, from a family in the congregation.
The history of our buildings is but a symbol of the true history and presence of our church family in the community beginning in 1873 and stretching forward into the future.
The real history lies in the often steady and faithful witness of the sisters and brothers who have called FPCPT their spiritual home over the years. In ways both remarkable and quietly "behind the scenes," we have shared the love of God. We have experienced and endured the ups and downs of life. We are by no means holier than those around us, but we rejoice in the grace and empowering presence of God's Spirit, and look forward to a bright future woven into the fabric of our community.