150 Years Ago Bellingham Was A Forest
Today Bellingham has 69,260 people, looks back to 100 years of its past, and continues to look forward to a future yet to come.
For better or worse, Euro-American settlement on Bellingham Bay has changed thick forestland, mudflats, and saltwater coastland to a thriving city. European settlement began 150 years ago. The City of Bellingham emerged from four small towns 100 years ago.
While all people past and present may not have shared the same aspirations for the city, we have all shared this place we call Bellingham.
Today’s Lummi, Nooksack and other Coast Salish natives are descendants of people who may have come to North America from Asia as much as 12,000 years ago or more! At the time of first Euro-settlement, over 1,000 native people lived in Whatcom County (down from about 3,000 before the epidemics of the previous seventy-five years) utilizing the forests and water resources to make their living. Both the Lummis of Lummi Peninsula and the Nooksacks who lived upriver came to Bellingham for fish and shellfish. There was a seasonal living site at the mouth of Whatcom Creek.
The Lummis were important in the development of the bay’s first European settlement. They brought the first Euro-settlers to Bellingham Bay by canoe, helped to build the first buildings here, helped clear the land, and often provided food resources to help the new settlers through their first winters. Native American culture and perspective continue to influence our community today.
The Trees Were Big
The country now before us presents a most luxuriant landscape. The whole has the appearance of a continued forest extending as far as the eye could reach.
This was the description given by Captain George Vancouver as he explored the area in 1792. The giant trees of ancient forests reached to the water’s edge and continued unbroken to the mountains in the distance. Mild climate, heavy rainfall, and suitable soil conditions led to the growth of forests on such a monumental scale that early arrivers wrote to their relatives back east that they had to be seen to be believed!
The name Bellingham was first given to the Bay in 1792. That year English explorer George Vancouver charted Puget and North Sound waters and gave names to most everything on his map. He named some places after plants, some after events, and many after people. Often we just don’t know why he chose a certain person’s name to go with a specific locale.
Vancouver named Bellingham Bay after Sir William Bellingham, Controller of the Storekeepers Accounts for the British Navy. Bellingham had been the man who personally organized the provisions for Vancouver’s five-year trip. Sir William never saw the Pacific Ocean – let alone the small bay that was given his name!
Why Whatcom County?
The word Whatcom is derived from a Native American name. Native American people, including the forerunners of today’s Lummis, Nooksacks, Semiahmoos and others, had villages, camps, hunting and gathering sites, and travel routes that covered much of what is now Whatcom County.
There was a seasonal Native American campsite at the mouth of a creek that emptied into Bellingham Bay. Both Lummis and Nooksacks called the area Whatcom – translating in English to Noisy Waters or Noisy-all-the-time – a named that came from the sound of a waterfall at the mouth of the creek.
Lummis brought the area’s first permanent European settlers to see the waterfall. It became the power source for the first sawmill and the center of the first European settlement. The Anglicized version of the native name remained!
Four Towns on Bellingham Bay
Four separate towns were settled, platted, and in most cases incorporated on Bellingham Bay before they finally came together to be the single City of Bellingham in 1903. Landowners and industrialists formed separate towns or consolidated them to further their specific needs and to compete with, or cease competition with others on the bay. Each town had its own history, interests, and personality. But by 1903 four towns were only one.
The 1858 gold rush town –
The boot-straps settlers town.
Whatcom boomed big during the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858. That summer thousands camped in tents on her beaches as they waited for the completion of the trail north into Canada to the gold fields. It was said that summer there were more people living on the beach at Whatcom than in all the rest of Washington Territory put together! By the end of the summer gold seekers were finding better ways to get up the Fraser River – the population of Whatcom went back to little more than 100!
Early settlers like Henry and Elizabeth Roeder and Edward and Teresa Eldridge came and stayed. Low on capital they spent four decades trying to lure business and industry to Whatcom. Roeder’s mill failed, as did the larger Colony Mill. The 1890s brought a slight boom, then depression, followed by slow growth to and beyond consolidation in 1903.
Early Whatcom fought the mudflats that extended into the bay from their location. They needed long wharves and dredged waterways to connect to Bellingham Bay.
Whatcom is now what is called Old Town.
The coal mine town –
The company town that made the bay economy go.
Local settler Henry Roeder had found the coal – but knew he didn’t have the capital to build a mine. The land was sold to a San Francisco syndicate. They built the mine and brought sailing ships to bring the coal to California. The town was run by the company and the bay economy was run by the company too! In 1856 the U.S. Army built Fort Bellingham on the north end of the bay more for the safety of the coal mine than for the safety of early settlers. When the mine closed in 1878 there was little to keep Euro-settlers here, the next few years saw only several dozen families living on the bay.
Even with the mine closed, Californian Pierre B. Cornwall and his business partners still owned the land. By the late 1880s they provided money for a local railroad and looked for more coal. Cornwall pushed for Whatcom and Sehome to consolidate – even changing the name of his town from Sehome to New Whatcom to push the transition. The 1890s brought a bit of a boom, then deep depression, then slow growth after the turn-of-the-century.
Sehome is now Bellingham’s downtown.
The mines failed and the mill failed–
It was the town that hardly was.
William Pattle took a donation claim on Bellingham Bay in 1854 hoping to find coal there. The mine failed. In the early 1860s the Union Coal Company developed on the property. The community was called Unionville. This coal company failed too.
Edward Eldridge and his financial partner Erastus Bartlett filed a plat for Bellingham in 1883 but their mill was pretty much a failure as well. The town was never incorporated. In 1888 near empty lots were purchased by Fairhaven developer Nelson Bennett and the area became part of Fairhaven on its incorporation in 1890. The original town of Bellingham – let alone its predecessor Unionville – was pretty much forgotten!
The site is near today’s Boulevard Park.
The boom town of the early 1890s–
The bubble that burst.
Dan Harris platted his claim in 1883 and called it Fairhaven. But things really got rolling when his town site, that of old Bellingham to the north, and more, were bought by Tacoma developer Nelson Bennett in 1888. Bennett had made Tacoma into a city and planned to do the same to Fairhaven. Other major developers followed including C.X. Larrabee and James Wardner. They planned major business, industry, and railroad and steamship links. Real estate boomed. Buildings went up so fast they forgot space for alleys in the business blocks. Roads were graded and land was cleared to make Fairhaven the hub city of North Puget Sound!
The big depression of 1893 halted all the action. The boom quickly became a bust. Banks failed, businesses closed, the depression took Fairhaven down with it, as well as activities in the other bay cities. 1900 brought slow growth, and Fairhaven’s deep water made it the site of the majority of Bellingham Bay industry – even though the majority of the bay population was in Whatcom, to the north. At consolidation in 1903 Fairhaven was by far the smaller of the two remaining towns, with a population of only 6,000 to Whatcom’s 15,000!
Today, Fairhaven hosts several new businesses including a concentration of internet firms, web designers and webmasters. The internet sports betting website, Free Bet Advice, is one of a number of online betting and gaming firms who have offices in the downtown area.
Today on Bellingham’s south side, the name Fairhaven is still used for the commercial and suburban area.
October 27, 1903: Residents Vote to Consolidate
On October 27, 1903, more than 3,000 residents of Fairhaven, WA and Whatcom, WA cast positive ballots to consolidate their towns and create a new city on the banks of Bellingham Bay.
Voting results were Whatcom, 86% for consolidation, and Fairhaven, 63% for consolidation.
The news quickly spread throughout the entire city and before midnight every person in the city knew that the morning light would dawn upon a united people of Bellingham Bay from Squalicum Creek to Chuckanut.
The Evening Herald Newspaper
December 28, 1903: The Birth of Bellingham
Newspapers of the time saw the official birth of Bellingham as December 28, 1903. At this time the City Councils of Whatcom and Fairhaven were formally dissolved and the newly elected officers of the City of Bellingham were sworn into office. The newspapers put the exact birth of Bellingham as 10:11 p.m.! J.B. Bennett, the retiring Mayor of Whatcom gave the speech:
The auspicious hour has arrived. The official existence of Whatcom and Fairhaven is at an end. The dream of the past has become a living fact. By your sovereign votes you have decreed that upon the foundation of these divided cities you will rear a united city, and tonight she springs forth triumphant, to her proper place among the municipalities of this great commonwealth.
As the bell tolls the requiem over the old cities, may it sound the death knell forever to all past differences, to bitterness and hate, to dissension and discord, to petty jealousies, bickerings and factional quarrels. Let there be from this hour one city, with one destiny, unity of purpose, of action, and of aims.
On consolidation in 1904 the new City of Bellingham had a population of 22,000. By the next decade it would grow to over 30,000. This was a proportionate population spurt larger than at any time in our history save the 1980s and 1990s. The economy of Puget Sound was finally growing at a steady pass, with Bellingham’s economy a part of that growth. There would be downturns, but never again would the local economy crash as it had in the 1880s and 1890s. The local economic base of fishing and canning, logging and milling, farming and mining was not fully diverse, but adequate for its time.
Bellingham had three railroads plus steamship connections, streetcar lines, brick school buildings, one of the largest theaters in the West, industry, population, electricity, telephones, plans for deep waterways in the bay, and a thriving downtown core. It was a proud new city and the next decade would see much more growth.
However, much was very different from today. Most roads were still unpaved and there were probably less than half-a-dozen cars in the county. Most local transportation was public transportation and all transportation to major centers away from Bellingham was at the whim of public transportation timetables. It took a day to get to Seattle and about as long to get to Lynden. Many were without electricity and telephones and used outhouses instead of a sewer system. Wood stoves were in every kitchen. Most of today’s home appliances were still unknown including electric refrigerators, radios, television and more. The Bellingham community had many similar aspirations as today, but the tools of their daily lives and the types of activities that required their time each day were very different!
Bellingham: Growth without sensation and excitement?
The history of the cities on Bellingham Bay since 1900 has not been sensational. Save for the stirring events of war times the people have gone steadily and quietly about their business, but each year has shown definite progress and there has been no backwards steps. This quiet, persistent development while affording little of exciting narrative, has been the best possible for the welfare of the people.
In some ways this “little of excitement” has continued during the last 75 years as much as it did in the years after Bellingham’s consolidation documented in Roth’s History. Bellingham has grown with Puget Sound. It was true in the early 1900s and is true now. But we’ve never come out at the top of the pack. While big cities get bigger and new metropolitan cities emerge full-blown, Bellingham has simply marched on the best it could. In the last 100 years the city population has gone from fourth in the state to tenth – not because it hasn’t continued to grow – but because others have grown faster.
Perhaps we’re just as well pleased!