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The narrow-gauge Durango & Silverton train steams through history above the Animas River. (Photo by Scott DW Smith.)

The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012

From the Berkshires to the Cascades, we've crunched the numbers and pulled a list some of the most interesting spots around the country

5. Gig Harbor, WA

Gig Harbor, WA
(Brian Smale)
Take numerous art galleries. Add sailboats and local wines. Stir. Enjoy.

If you come by boat, as so many people do—beginning with a team of surveyors from the Congressionally mandated Wilkes Expedition in 1841—it’s easy to miss the narrow opening on the ragged west edge of Puget Sound that marks the entrance to Gig Harbor. That would be a pity because it leads to one of the snuggest harbors in the Pacific Northwest, a thicket of sailboat masts rimmed by tall pines on the far side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. When the sun shines you can see Mount Rainier and the snow-crusted Cascades on the eastern horizon; in squally weather the sky closes in so seascape artists paint from memory. Never mind. As local gallery owner Bill Fogarty would say, “Don’t let the drizzle get you down. Think of what it does for the rhododendrons.”

The unprepossessing little town (pop. 7,200) has lately been discovered by outlanders from Tacoma and Seattle in search of still relatively affordable waterfront property. Chain stores have sprung up out on the highway and old fishing docks have yielded to fancy powerboats and yachts. Day-trippers come for gourmet restaurants with Washington State wines, for nautical tchotchkes and for gallery walks held on the first Saturday of the month, during which one might meet, say, renowned local jeweler Kit Kuhn. 

Yet Gig Harbor remains a working fishing village with a fleet of about two dozen boats that head up to Alaska for salmon every summer. The fishing way of life is still passed down from one generation to another. “It sure spoils you for the 9 to 5,” says Guy Hoppen, who has done plenty of salmon seasons in Alaska. He’s the director of the Gig Harbor BoatShop, a former commercial facility in a tight cove bounded by working docks that is now an interpretive center promulgating the art of shipbuilding, partly to make sure salmon boats never get crowded out of the increasingly high-rent harbor. Trained eyes can pick out venerable old fishing vessels like the 1922 Commencement and 1925 Beryl E. among the pleasure boats.

Settled in the 19th century by immigrants from the Adriatic Coast of what is now Croatia, Gig Harbor is a little like Maine without Yankees. The Jerisiches, Dorotiches and other founding families were net fisher folk and ship builders. They stayed close together, founding Gig Harbor’s Roman Catholic St. Nicholas Church, still the starting place for the annual Maritime Gig Festival, highlighted by a blessing of the fleet.

Meanwhile, the peninsula’s forested hinterlands became home to many Scandinavians, who built dairy farms and planted strawberry patches that send their riches to Puget Sound markets.

Gig Harbor was isolated until the building of a bridge across the strait that separates the Olympic Peninsula from Tacoma. Engineered by the same company that gave San Francisco its Golden Gate Bridge, the 5,400-foot span was a wonder when completed in 1940. Thankfully, no one died when it collapsed a scant four months later, leaving Gig Harbor all but water-bound until the completion of a sturdier bridge in 1950, paralleled by another in 2007. You can still see dredged-up chunks of the first bridge’s foundations at the spacious new Harbor History Museum, added to the waterfront in 2010, along with a restored 19th-century one-room schoolhouse, a vintage Thunderbird sailboat hull and exhibitions about languages spoken by Native American Puyallup and Nisqually tribes, the bay’s first residents.

On any given summer weekend there’s likely to be a chowder cook-off, a quilt show or a festival celebrating boats, gardens or wine; vendors at the farmers market offer mandolin lessons along with strawberries and grass-fed beef. The town center is Skansie Brothers Park, where the city is restoring one of 17 historic net sheds that line the waterfront. On open-air film nights folks pile on blankets spread across the lawn to watch Free Willy, Jaws or another maritime classic. -- SS

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