Bremerton's mayor wants people who've been priced out of Seattle to move there. But there's been something holding Bremerton back: the town's reputation. Bremerton used to be known less for its beautiful water views and more for its bar fights and prostitution.
We wanted to understand how much Bremerton has changed. So we tracked down people who remember the wild old days.
Jocelyn Bright was a young woman in Bremerton in the 1950s. She says she and her friends knew to stay away from First Street.
"Because the bars," she said. Lots of bars filled with sailors. "Being sailor bait was really a bad thing. For a girl."
That reputation continued into the 1960s and 1970s, when several bars on First Street were bought up by a man named Bernie Burden. He had figured out a way to make extra money by cashing checks for sailors and shipyard workers. "I made arrangements at the bank to borrow $25,000. Had to be insured, and all that crap," he said.
The plan worked. On payday, Bernie’s Place was often wall to wall men. First the night shift, which got off in the morning. Then the middle shift, then the last shift. Burden had to return to the bank between shifts to replenish all his cash.
"A lot of the wives would come down and wait for them because the old man probably wouldn’t make it home with his paycheck," he said, because the prostitutes and liquor offered the men plenty of ways to spend their money. Burden said at one point, there was a brothel above the local office of the Internal Revenue Service, down the street. It was a different time.
Burden owned a second bar a few doors down called the Bull and Bash, one of the wilder places in town, according to Cathy Watson who would sneak in when she was in high school. "They had live music, and there was an upstairs and a downstairs. And we’d go out to have a good time, young adults or whatever," she said.
Many of those young adults were military. Steve Gardener, a Vietnam vet at the Drift Inn on First Street, said different branches of the military came to blows at the Bull and Bash.
It wouldn’t take much to set things off. Gardener recalled some memorable fights. Usually they began with "One guy punching one guy, and then his buddy comes up and it just started spreading," he said. Soon, people were dropping each other off the balcony onto the pool table below, or, according to court records, throwing a pull tab machine at the bartender, or getting maced.
"Usually there was a circle of people watching," said Cathy Watson. "Whoever was going at it, they’d pound each other until it was over."
Want to learn more about Bremerton? KUOW's Region of Boom team is there all month. You can find their stories here.
Jeff David, a retired police officer, would break up fights in the 1970s. "You had to go in and trying to peel guys away," he said. "If they don’t know who you are, then they’re liable to turn around and start punching at you, thinking it’s someone else."
Dean Denis, also a retired officer, recalled another encounter with a man in West Bremerton. He had seen the man hit a woman.
"This guy was strong," Denis said. "He had a brand new cotton shirt on and he ripped it off." Like the Hulk? "Exactly! So I know this guy, he is pumped. And he’s crazy-pumped."
The cops – and the Navy shore patrol – eventually got the guy locked in the back of a Navy van. But he wasn’t done fighting. "If you’ve ever seen the cartoon where the cat and the mouse are in a bag?" Denis said. "Well, apparently, the subject took on the shore patrol. And the van is bouncing around, and the walls are exploding a little bit because bodies are going up against it. And then, all of a sudden, it’s calm. And the shore patrol steps out and says, 'Took care of it!'"
That man eventually apologized to Officer Denis, explaining that he'd been high on several drugs and hadn't anticipated their combined effect.
The darker side to Bremerton's rough and tumble nature became more obvious when harder drugs came on the market, like crack cocaine in the 1980s, and meth in the 1990s. Officer David found himself busting very young women. "A lot of the girls had turned to prostitution just to get drugs. And some of them were just physically sick. Especially from methamphetamine," said David.
That wasn’t what Bremerton wanted to be known for. People tried to clean things up. The waterfront – and the area near the ferry dock that includes First Street – got a makeover.
After the 1990s, a new crop of business owners moved in. "I was very scared to leave a software development career and buy a bar — and especially in Bremerton," said Mary Jo Rose, who bought the bar next to the Bull and Bash about 16 years ago.
There was still a lot of fighting and prostitution at the time. Rose and her husband set out to change things. They renamed the bar the South Pacific Sportsbar. They put in a tiki bar and installed a big window up front, to chase the shadows away. They brought in a ping pong table.
But troublesome customers took more effort to shake off. When a rough bar nearby called The Sandpiper closed down, its customers invaded the South Pacific. They stole liquor from behind the counter.
"I called the police and had them arrested right on the dance floor in front of everybody," Rose said, "That was one of the first death threats I got. But it was a sign to let that crowd know. This is not going to happen here, so you might want to find another bar to go to. And they did."
Meanwhile, the number of brawlers in Bremerton was shrinking. The town had begun to gentrify. Older bars struggled. It hurt Bernie Burden’s business.
"We don’t have near as many military sitting at the bar as you did in the old days," said Burden, who has since retired.
Still, business owners told me they struggle with Bremerton’s reputation as a town of fist fights in parking lots.
"Long held perceptions are hard to change," explained current Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan, who said Bremerton no longer deserves its rough reputation. As reasons for the change, he mentioned the makeover of the waterfront to the professionalization of the Navy. "The biggest reason is the Navy," he said. The Navy clamped down on bad behavior off the base.
Strachan said when he tells people he's police chief of Bremerton, people from other places often say, "'Oh gosh, it must be that stereotype of sailors and drunken fights and lots of arrests.'" That gives Strachan a chance to set the record straight.
"In the four years I’ve been there, I can count on one hand the negative interactions I’ve had with naval personnel. It just doesn't happen," he said.
Getting the story right is important to Bremerton, which is trying to convince people from Seattle to move there. Recently, locals taxed themselves to finance a faster ferry, which will shrink the commute to Seattle to under 30 minutes.
Strachan said Bremerton isn’t crime free. But the crimes Bremerton faces today are the same ones faced by the rest of the region.