History of Bellingham, Washington

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The history of Bellingham, Washington, as it is now known, begins with the settling of Whatcom County in the mid-to-late 19th century.

The name of Bellingham is derived from the bay on which the city is situated. George Vancouver, who visited the area in June 1792, named the bay for Sir William Bellingham, the controller of the storekeeper's account of the Royal Navy.[1]

Arrival of First Settlers[edit]

When the first white European settlers reached the area in 1854, the coastal areas around Bellingham Bay and the surrounding islands had been inhabited for thousands of years by Coast Salish peoples. The land on which Bellingham is located was ceded to European Americans by the local Native American tribes, including the Lummi people, in the controversial Treaty of Point Elliott (1855). The Lummi people continue to live in the area, many of them on Lummi Peninsula across the bay from the present-day City of Bellingham

Local history and legend credit one "Blanket" Bill Jarman as the first white man to reside in the area[citation needed]. The first substantial settlement was named Whatcom, located where Whatcom Creek empties into the bay. ("Whatcom" is based on a local Indian word meaning "noisy water," referring to Whatcom falls at the mouth of the creek.) It was at this location that schooner Capt. Henry Roeder and Russel Peabody set up a lumber mill, having been told of the falls location by Lummi leader Chow’it’sut while south in Olympia, Washington. The mill was later destroyed by a fire in 1873. Roeder also established coal mining operations in the area of town that came to be called Sehome (named after a member of the nearby Samish Indian tribe).

A stockade, "Fort Bellingham", was built on Peabody Hill, and commanded by Captain George E. Pickett, who arrived in 1856 and later became famous as a Confederate General in the American Civil War. Pickett's house remains to this day as the oldest house in the city.[2] Where Fort Bellingham was located now lies northwest just outside of the current city limits, near a road that still bear the name "Ft. Bellingham."

Whatcom Creek, South Downtown Bellingham, and Sehome Hill as seen from Maritime Heritage Park. The mouth of Whatcom Creek is obscured to the lower right.

Early Bellingham[edit]

In 1858, the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush caused thousands of miners, storekeepers, and scalawags to head north from California. Whatcom grew overnight from a small northwest mill town to a bustling seaport, the basetown for the Whatcom Trail, which led to the Fraser Canyon goldfields, used in open defiance of colonial Governor James Douglas's edict that all entry to the gold colony be made via Victoria, British Columbia. The first brick building in Washington was built this same year, the T. G. Richards and Company Store. The building, which still stands today and is being restored, later became the territorial courthouse until 1884.

The first newspaper in Whatcom County, the Northern Light, was published by William Bausman during the boom. Just as soon as it started, the boom went bust with the miners being forced to stop at Victoria, B.C. for a permit before heading to the mining fields. Whatcom's population dropped almost as quickly as it had grown, and the sleepy little town on the bay returned.

In the early 1890s, three railroad lines arrived, connecting the bay cities to a nationwide market of builders. The foothills around Bellingham were clearcut after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to help provide the lumber for the rebuilding of San Francisco. In time, lumber and shingle mills sprang up all over the county to accommodate the byproduct of their work.

A fictionalized account of the history of early Bellingham is "The Living" by Annie Dillard.

Four Towns[edit]

The City of Bellingham was officially incorporated on November 4, 1903. It was the result of the consolidation of four towns initially situated around Bellingham Bay: Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham, and Fairhaven. Thus, the history of Bellingham begins with the history of each of these settlements located on Bellingham Bay. Whatcom on the north end of the bay came first, then Sehome along the eastern shore, followed by Fairhaven which was laid out on the southern end of the bay. The tiny town of Bellingham, originally situated between Sehome and Fairhaven, came last in 1890. A year later, Whatcom and Sehome merged to become New Whatcom, which later reverted to back to Whatcom. The name "Bellingham" was proposed as a compromise name for the final merger, since the all residents of shared Bellingham Bay in common.

Coal mining was commonplace near town from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Coal was originally discovered by Henry Roeder off the northeastern shore of Bellingham Bay. In 1854, a group of San Francisco investors established Bellingham Bay Coal Company. By 1866, Darius Ogden Mills purchased and reorganized the company, making it a subsidiary of his Black Diamond Coal Mining Company. The Sehome Coal Mine at the present Laurel Street in Bellingham, employed 100 people in 1860. Under the management of Pierre B. Cornwall, the mine operated profitably until its closure in 1878. By this time, Black Diamond had acquired a considerable amount of land around Bellingham Bay, and throughout the next 19 years, Cornwall focused the company’s efforts on the sale of its real estate.[3] The Blue Canyon mine, at the south end of Lake Whatcom, opened in 1891 with solid investment, and supplied lower-grade bituminous coal for the United States Pacific Fleet. Twenty-three workers died in huge explosion on April 8, 1895, Washington's worst industrial accident to date. The Blue Canyon mine closed in 1917, having produced 250,000 tons of coal.[4] That same year, the Bellingham Coal Mines opened near present-day Northwest and Birchwood Avenues. The mine extended to hundreds of miles of tunnels as deep as 1200'. It ran southwest to Bellingham Bay, on both sides of Squalicum Creek, an area of about one square mile. It employed some 250 miners digging over 200,000 tons of coal annually, at its peak in the 1920s. It was closed in 1955.[4][5][6]

1890 bank building in the Fairhaven District at dusk (2008).

In 1889, Cornwall and an association of investors formed the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company (BBIC). The company was mostly composed of wealthy California businessmen who were investing heavily into Bellingham with the vision that it would one day become an important urban center for commerce and trade. The BBIC invested in several diverse enterprises such as shipping, coal, mining, railroad construction, real estate sales and utilities. Even though their dreams of turning Bellingham into a Pacific Northwest metropolis never came to fruition, the BBIC made an immense contribution to the economic development of Bellingham. The BBIC had the franchise for providing electricity to the city of Bellingham, which at that time primarily went to street lighting and electric streetcars. However, by 1903 the small generator powering Bellingham was proving to be inadequate for the growing city. The BBIC began developing a hydroelectric plant on the north fork of the Nooksack River, below Nooksack Falls. However, all the difficulties of maintaining a generator and trying to construct the Nooksack site took its toll on BBIC. In 1905 the board of directors announced the sale of its utility holdings to Stone & Webster.[7]

BBIC was not the only outside firm with an interest in Bellingham utilities. The General Electric Company of New York purchased Bellingham's Fairhaven Line and New Whatcom street rail line in 1897. In 1898 the utility merged into the Northern Railway and Improvement Company which prompted the Electric Corporation of Boston to purchase a large block of shares. Stone & Webster was also involved in Puget Sound area railways including a considerable amount in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett. By 1902, Stone & Webster had acquired the Fairhaven and New Whatcom. Over the next several months Northern Railway and Improvement sold the rest of its holdings which included Fairhaven Electric Light, Power and Motor Company and the Whatcom-Fairhaven Gas Company. Stone & Webster organized these under the umbrella name of the Whatcom County Railway and Light Company.[8]

Bellingham circa 1909

The Bellingham Riots occurred on September 5, 1907. A group of 400-500 white men with intentions to exclude East Indian immigrants from the local work force mobbed waterfront barracks. The white men beat and hospitalized 6 Indians while 410 Indians were jailed. By the next day, most East Indians had fled town, followed by many residents of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino descent. No actions were taken against the perpetrators. On the 100th anniversary of the riots, Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas proclaimed a "day of healing and reconciliation" in recognition of the sad event.[9]

Fairhaven[edit]

In 1861 "Dirty Dan" Harris purchased much of the land that is now Fairhaven for $53.75. He platted the land in 1883, giving it its current name. A group of investors in Seattle and Tacoma purchased the town for $70,000, hoping to create a metropolis that would rival Seattle and Tacoma. Fairhaven's population in 1903 is estimated at 5,500. Major industries included fishing, sawmills and shipyards. A single canning facility employed a thousand people.[10]

During the speculative frenzy of the 1890s, the grand Fairhaven Hotel was built to attract railroad tycoons to choose Fairhaven as the west coast terminus of transcontinental railways. The railways never came, but the imposing remnant of the old hotel stood until a fire and demolition in 1953.

In 1903, Fairhaven received a grant to build the area’s first Carnegie-funded library on 12th Street. The library continues to operate as a branch of the Bellingham Public Library system.

Salmon Fishing Heritage[edit]

Salmon fishing was always a local dietary staple, but commercial-scale salmon fishing did not take off until around 1900, when wire fish traps were used to catch 30 tons of fish at a time. Most fish were canned for shipment, and at one time the largest salmon processing plant in the world was Pacific-American Fisheries cannery located in Fairhaven. Canneries were among the city's largest employers from 1900 through 1945, surpassing the earlier coal and lumber industries.

By 1925, eight salmon canneries were doing business in Whatcom County - two on Bellingham Bay, the rest at Lummi Island, Semiahmoo and Chuckanut Bay. Together, they packed nearly a half-million cases of salmon one year[citation needed]. Increased efficiency in the canneries, combined with the cold efficiency of the fish traps, eventually decimated the area's salmon runs. Traps were banned in the 1930s, prompting canneries to move their fish-catching operations to Alaska, where salmon were still abundant and traps were still legal. Bellingham's proximity to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and to the Inside Passage to Alaska helped keep some cannery operations here. P.A.F., for example, shipped empty cans to Alaska, where they were packed with fish and shipped back for storage.

Evolution of the University[edit]

The year 1899 saw the completion of the main building (now called Old Main) of the New Whatcom Normal School, a teachers college located on Sehome hill. By the 1930s, the school had become the Western Washington College of Education, maintaining its focus on teacher training. In 1961 the school had grown into a broad degree-granting institution and was renamed the Western Washington State College. Today, student enrollment at Western Washington University stands around 14,000 students.

Late 20th century[edit]

Pipeline Accident[edit]

On June 10, 1999, the Olympic Pipeline ruptured in Whatcom Falls Park near Whatcom Creek, leaking 237,000 US gallons (897 m³) of gasoline into the creek.[11] The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the damage done by an IMCO construction crew while conducting modifications to a water treatment plant, but not reported to Olympic or any agency authorities.[12] The 400-mile (640 km) pipeline carries gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from four refineries to the Renton, Washington distribution center and to locations as far south as Portland, Oregon, including all the fuel for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The four refineries are the BP's Cherry Point Refinery and ConocoPhillips' refinery both at Ferndale, Washington and Shell Oil Company's refinery and Tesoro's refinery both at Anacortes, Washington.

The vapor layer from the spill overcame an 18 year old man, Liam Gordon Wood, who was fishing in the creek; he fell into the creek and subsequently drowned.[13] An explosion was set off by two young boys playing with a fireplace lighter and burned over a mile (1.6 km) of the creek bed and sent a black smoke cloud over 30,000 feet (10 km) into the air. Steven Tsiorvias and Wade King, both age 10, were students at nearby Roosevelt Elementary School. They were discovered by firefighters immediately and rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital. The boys were airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. They died the next day due to extensive burns from proximity to the blast.[13] Although some buildings were destroyed, due to road closures and evacuations around the creek, there were no further fatalities. The explosion resulted in over $45 million in property damage. Several years later, the families of the pipeline victims sued Olympic Pipeline Company and settled for around $100 million in damages, which they pledged would help support pipeline safety and provide legal representation for pipeline accident victims.

Because of the efforts of the Tsiorvias and King families, whose children died in the tragedy, the U.S. Department of Justice worked to make $4 million of the criminal settlement with the pipeline companies available to start the independent Pipeline Safety Trust.[14] The Pipeline Safety Trust is now the only independent non-profit organization working to ensure greater safety of the pipelines that run through communities nationwide.

See also[edit]

Archives[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hitchman, Robert (1985), Place Names of Washington, Washington State Historical Society, p. 18, ISBN 0-917048-57-1 
  2. ^ George E. Pickett House, City of Bellingham, retrieved 2007-08-17 
  3. ^ BBIC Company Records
  4. ^ a b Southcott, Bonnie Hart (2003-10-20), "Mines faced disasters, financial woes", The Bellingham Herald, retrieved 2008-03-10 
  5. ^ Stark, John (2008-03-02), "Beneath the city of Bellingham lie the memories of the mines", The Bellingham Herald, retrieved 2008-03-10 
  6. ^ Burkhart, Brendan (2003), "Postcards and Dead Fish: The Capitalism and the Construction of Place, Bellingham, Washington, 1918-1927", Occasional Papers (Center for Pacific Northwest Studies), retrieved 2008-03-10 . The coal mines are described in 1 - "Introduction" and 5 - "Claiming the Nature of Place".
  7. ^ Library Of Congress Engineering Record
  8. ^ Library Of Congress
  9. ^ http://www.cob.org/documents/features/day-of-healing-proclamation.pdf
  10. ^ http://www.acadweb.wwu.edu/cpnws/centennial/
  11. ^ Holt, Gordy; Mcclure, Robert (May 24, 2004). "Wear caused gas leak in Olympic pipeline". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 
  12. ^ National Transportation Safety Board (October 8, 2002) Pipeline Rupture and Subsequent Fire in Bellingham, Washington Report (PDF)
  13. ^ a b HistoryLink: Olympic Pipeline Accident Accessed: 13 August 2008.
  14. ^ Pipeline Safety Trust Homepage