Daily Archives: August 5, 2009

The two-fisted, foul-mouthed whiskey king of Bainbridge Island

William Impett
William Impett

While digging into the history of Bainbridge distilleries for a recent story, I found a good amount of information about floating whiskey bars, desperately thirsty loggers and the reigning island whiskey king – William “Bob” Impett – a seaman, logger, druggist, miner and co-owner of the infamous Whiskey Forty, a backwoods still and saloon serving island mill workers in the late 1800s.

As is always the case when they let me run free in the Bainbridge Historical Museum’s library, I gathered way more information than I could put in my story. Fortunately, I have this blog to fill you in on all the booze-soaked history.

The company town of Port Madison (founded late 1850s) didn’t allow hard alcohol on its property, which included much of the north end of the island. Owner and town founder George Anson Meigs was an adamant teetotaler, allowing only beer at the town’s hotel.

William H. Seward, President Lincoln’s secretary of state, was impressed with Meigs’ efforts to keep Port Madison dry.

“Here is the modern sawmill of Puget Sound,” Seward wrote during a visit. “All the pleasant manifestations of family life were noticeable and not a drop of liquor was sold.”

Seward apparently didn’t venture near the town’s edges. That’s where a number of “whiskey farms” were known to operate – just beyond Meigs’ control, but close enough that workers could hike in for an after-work shot or two (or six).

Some whiskey shacks were best reached on water using whatever floating vessel could be had. One Bainbridge pioneer recounted seeing two Port Madison lumberjacks paddling on a log to a liquor establishment on a nearby point. Balanced between them was a hefty jug awaiting a refill.

Whiskey sellers also took to the seas to help workers get their fix. Floating bars – or “marine whiskey peddlers,” as Meigs called them – were frequent visitors to Port Madison.

“A floating whiskey battery and dance house is laying anchor around Puget Sound and the commanding pimp is to lay siege to all the different ports on the Sound, Port Madison not excepted,” reported a Seattle paper in 1866.

Meigs went after one floating saloon – Gin Palace Polly – in particular, successfully pinning several charges on its owner, Ben Sprague.

In the book “Son of the Profits,” author William Speidel wrote that Gin Palace Polly was “popular with the men who took the day off whenever Sprague’s jolly crew put in an appearance. It was less than enthusiastically received by the operators of the camps.”

Of all Port Madison’s whiskey purveyors, Impett’s Whiskey Forty received the most ink in history books.

“If you wanted to drink, that was the place,” island historian Jerry Elfendahl told me.

Sometimes described as a two-building establishment, the Forty was built teasingly close to Meigs’ property on 40 acres near the northwest intersection of present-day Sunrise Drive and Torvanger Road. While Meigs was successful in fining or shutting down other liquor establishments built or floated near his town, the Forty seems to have thrived for quite a while. Its success probably owes a lot to Impett, who appears to have been a tenacious, resourceful and downright mean guy – a match, perhaps, to Meigs, who museum director Hank Helm told me was a “scoundrel” in his own right.

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