The area that became Port Washington was originally inhabited by the Sauk tribe of Native Americans, and later explored by the French in the late 17th century. In 1835, General Wooster Harrison became the town's first permanent settler, in what he originally named "Wisconsin City." Harrison later renamed the town "Washington". Harrison's wife, Rhoda, was the first white settler to be buried in the town, when she died in 1837. Around 1843 the name was changed to "Sauk Washington". The town of Port Washington was formed in January 1846 and until 1847 included the surrounding areas and what is currently Fredonia, Saukville, and Belgium. The City of Port Washington was incorporated with its present name in 1882.
With a natural harbor at the mouth of Sauk Creek, the city became a port on Lake Michigan. The city exported cord wood, wheat and rye flour, bricks, and fish and hides, among other things.
In 1843, the first Christian religious services were held by the Methodist Episcopal Church in private homes. The first Catholic Church services were held in a similar manner in 1847. The Washington Democrat, the town's first newspaper, was started in 1847 by Flavius J. Mills. The population reached 2,500 in 1853 and continued to increase, with an influx of immigrants from Germany and Luxembourg between 1853 and 1865.
The United States Congress passed a military conscription law in late 1862, and Wisconsites were drafted to fight in the Civil War. Yet immigrants were not often keen to fight, and Germans and Luxembourgers in Port Washington protested the draft. In November 1862, they burned draft records and vandalized the homes of prominent Port Washington Republicans (the political party of President Lincoln).
In 1870, the city saw major improvements in transportation. Not only was the railroad approved to extend through Ozaukee County, the harbor was substantially improved. The dredging that occurred resulted in the first man-made harbor in North America.
J. M. Bostwick was instrumental in the opening of the Wisconsin Chair Company in September 1888, the success of which allowed the town to flourish. The Gilson Manufacturing Company started making garden tractors and tractor lawn mowers in 1894 and soon became the second-largest business, after the Wisconsin Chair Factory.
In 1896, Delos and Herbert Smith brought their commercial fishing business to Port Washington as that harbor afforded them the use of a steam powered fish tug. There, the Smith family would call Port Washington home to their family business. Smith Bros., as it was called, grew to a fleet of fishing tugs, fish wholesale, whitefish caviar, burbot oil, fish retail (markets), restaurants, and a hotel.
From 1910 through 1935, Port Washington was the home of Paramount Records and other associated record labels. In 1940, the population was 4,046; 4,754 in 1950.
The Port Washington power plant operated by Wisconsin Electric Power Company, now known as We Energies, was established in the area. In 1943 the company stated that the Port Washington Plant was "the most efficient steam power plant in the world." The coal-fired plant received shipments of coal primarily by lake boat from its beginnings in 1935 until 2004 when the coal-fired boilers were taken out of service. The plant has since been converted to generate electricity from natural gas. The end of coal shipments also ended the use of Port Washington as a commercial port. The harbor is now used almost exclusively by recreational boaters.
Port Washington has the largest collection of pre-Civil War buildings in Wisconsin, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Port Washington Visitor Center is itself in the historic Edward Dodge House, also known as the "Pebble House." The three-story brick courthouse was built in 1854 and originally served as jail, housing for the jailer, county offices and courtrooms.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 7.08 square miles (18.34 km2), of which, 5.82 square miles (15.07 km2) is land and 1.26 square miles (3.26 km2) is water.
The city is located at the mouth of Sauk Creek on Lake Michigan, and includes the 63-acre (250,000 m²) Lake Bluff Park, where Possibility Playground is located. Its average elevation above sea level is 612 feet (187 m). Downtown Port Washington is close to the level of Lake Michigan (approximately 581 feet above sea level) and adjacent to the marina. The remainder of the city resides somewhat higher, spread across seven hills.
Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve is a large bluffland and wetland county protected area on the shore of Lake Michigan, just south of the city.
As of the census of 2010, there were 11,250 people, 4,704 households, and 2,956 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,933.0 inhabitants per square mile (746.3/km2). There were 5,020 housing units at an average density of 862.5 per square mile (333.0/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 95.0% White, 1.6% African American, 0.4% Native American, 0.7% Asian, 0.8% from other races, and 1.4% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 3.1% of the population.
There were 4,704 households of which 29.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 51.0% were married couples living together, 8.3% had a female householder with no husband present, 3.5% had a male householder with no wife present, and 37.2% were non-families. 31.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.9% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.31 and the average family size was 2.91.
The median age in the city was 39.5 years. 22.4% of residents were under the age of 18; 7.6% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 28.2% were from 25 to 44; 27% were from 45 to 64; and 14.7% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 49.0% male and 51.0% female.
As of the census of 2000, there were 10,467 people residing in Port Washington. The racial makeup of the city was 97.0% White, 0.7% Black or African American, 0.5% Asian, 0.4% Native American, 0% Pacific Islander, 0.6% from other races, and 0.89% from two or more races. 1.5% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 3,244 families and 4,763 households, of which 34.0% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 57.5% were married couples living together, 7.4% had a female householder with no husband present and 31.9% were non-families. The householder lives alone in 26.3% of all households and 10.5% of householders were aged 65 or older. The average household size was 2.49 and the average family size was 3.05.
In the city, the population was spread out with 6.6% under the age of 5, 74.2% aged 18 and over, and 13.2% 65 years and over. The median age was 36.7 years. The population is 50.4% female and 49.6% male.
In 1999 the median income for a family was $62,557. The per capita income for the city was $24,770. About 2.6% of families and 4.0% of the population were below the poverty line.
Interstate 43 passes around Port Washington to the city's west and north. WI-32 passes north to south through the city while WI-33 travels from the west before it terminates downtown.
The Ozaukee Interurban Trail, a cycling trail that follows the former interurban rail line, passes through Port Washington as it traverses Ozaukee County.
The TransPORT taxi service is available within the city and surrounding two-mile radius.
The Ozaukee County Shared Ride Taxi Service is operated by the county and offers county wide transportation. Unlike a typical taxi, the rider must contact the Shared Ride Taxi Service to schedule their pick-up date and time. The taxi service plans their routes based on the number of riders, pick-up/drop-off time and destination then plans the routes accordingly.
Port Washington has one of the largest charter fishing fleets on the Great Lakes. Shoe manufacturer Allen Edmonds, as well as lawn and garden equipment producer, Simplicity Manufacturing Company, were founded in Port Washington. Simplicity was purchased by Briggs & Stratton in 2004, who closed its doors on October 15, 2008. It also contains the Port Washington Generating Station, a large, gas-fired power plant operated by WEC Energy Group.
Port Washington is served by the Port Washington-Saukville school district.The Maritime Heritage Festival celebrates the town's nautical history.
The Lion's Fest & Fish Derby is an annual fishing competition.
Fish Day, billed as the "World's Largest One Day Outdoor Fish Fry", has been held annually since 1964 on the third Saturday in July.