Walking Washington's History: Bellingham

Oct 12, 2016

Editor's note: This story was written by a Northwest Public Radio listener as part of our "Walking Washington's History" series. 

We asked listeners to take one of ten historical walks in a book of the same name by Judy Bentley. Stories are have been edited minimally to preserve the writer's experiences, and all photos were provided by the participants.

Elane Beach, right, at the Bellingham Farmer's Market.
Credit Elane Beach

The Walker: Elane Beach

Hello, my name is Elane Beach. I consider myself a true Washingtonian:  I love the history, natural beauty, and people of Washington State. I was born in Spokane, graduated high school in Kelso, and attended colleges in Olympia and Yakima. I currently live in Richland and have a vacation home on Whidbey Island. I have traveled most of the State so when Northwest Public Radio asked for volunteers to walk Washington's history, I thought it would be great to get out and experience a city in a different way. Fortunately, my assignment took me to Bellingham; a city I did not know very well.

The Walk: Bellingham

A mural depicting native peoples seen in downtown Bellingham.
Credit Elane Beach

Reading Judy Bentley's Walking Washington's History:  Ten Cities helped prepare me for my walking adventure. I learned that the City of Bellingham was formerly four villages: Whatcom, Bellingham, Sehome, and Fairhaven. Bentley describes Bellingham as a "Reluctant City," with its history of boom and bust economy.  The first settlers arrived around 1852 and with the help of one of Bellingham's First Peoples, the Lummi Tribe, established a sawmill on the falls of Whatcom Creek.  Later, there was the gold rush, coal mining, dreams of a railroad terminal, logging, fishing, canneries, paper mill and a state college that contributed to Bellingham’s past.  As one of the longest walks in her book, Bentley offers a seven-mile tour, plus an additional three-mile extended walk, throughout Bellingham's history.  With this in mind, I laced up my tennis shoes and was ready to discover Bellingham.

It is about 292 miles and a five-hour drive from Richland to Bellingham, Washington. The landscape and history could not be more different.

It was a beautiful, sunny August day when I arrived. The city was larger than I expected. The natural landscape surrounding Bellingham is breathtaking! It was such a treat to see the snow-topped Mt. Baker nearby. Whenever I looked up, it seemed like I had a view of Bellingham Bay. Looking out on the water, I could see the San Juan Islands and the hills of nearby Canada. There were a lot of sailboats and ships floating by, as well as a variety of water fowl (including a seagull swallowing a starfish). I only had two days to visit and a lot of history to discover. Fortunately, I only got lost a few times. 

Bellingham's Mt. Baker Theater
Credit Elane Beach

There was so much to see and experience in Bellingham. Downtown Bellingham has so many beautifully restored buildings like the Mt. Baker Theater. Fairhaven was charming with its historical buildings, shops, and cafes. The Farmer's Market was bustling and offered lots of treats and entertainment. I tried but I just could not see it all. Here are just a few of the highlights of my trip:

During my visit the Whatcom Museum was celebrating its 75th anniversary. Established in 1941, Whatcom Museum consists of three buildings: the iconic Old City Hall, the Syre Education Center, and the modern-day Lightcather. In celebration, admission was free and they offered special presentations and exhibits. The Clearbrook Dixie Band was playing in the streets, food trucks were parked near by, children were creating chalk-art on the sidewalks, and folks were in good spirits and friendly.  I could have spent my entire time at the museum.  The photo archive at the Lightcather was extensive and the exhibits looked interesting, but unfortunately I just did not have enough time to really study them.

Bellingham's old city hall.
Credit Elane Beach

The Old City Hall was built in 1892. It's a beautiful red brick building with Victorian cupolas and a central clock tower. One can see Old City Hall from most of downtown Bellingham. I had the most fun at the Syre Education Center. Build in 1926, it was originally the City of Bellingham's Fire Hall. Today it houses permanent historical exhibits including "Northwest Coast First Nations", "Pioneer Life", "Logging" and "Birds of the Pacific Northwest". The dioramas and artifacts were fun but the collections of taxidermy birds were amazing!   I should disclose that I am an avid bird watcher. While visiting, Paul Woodcock of the North Cascades Audubon Society gave a talk about the history of the bird collection and the founding director, John Edson.  It was fascinating.

Judy Bentley mentions in her book how some cities have "incorporated historical interpretation into kiosks, sidewalk, plaques history spots, and works of public art" and how other cities "have seized on the aftermath of deindustrialization of Superfund cleanups to create new public spaces." After walking around downtown I could see the City of Bellingham has done both and has plans for more.  I felt safe walking around by myself in Bellingham. There are kiosks with city maps and historical information that made it easy and helpful.

On this beautiful day there were a lot of folks hanging out in the Maritime Heritage Park, including the homeless. It was wonderful to learn how this historically important area was recently the City dump and sewage treatment center but is now a beautiful park and fish hatchery.  Just down the street from the Maritime Heritage Park I could hear the sounds of bulldozers and trucks clearing away what was the old site of the Georgia-Pacific Paper Mill.  They have saved some of the more interesting structures to be incorporated in a new waterfront development after it's clean up.

Taylor Dock in Bellingham
Credit Elane Beach

My favorite part of the Bellingham walk was along Taylor Dock and Boulevard Park. Not only was the scenery breathtaking and the history interesting but I also got to walk it with friends.  I was very fortunate that my friend, Trina Roberston, was home visiting her parents and invited me to stay with them. Her parents, Dick and Arla Fowler moved to Bellingham in the early '60s and still live in the family home where they raised their three children, just a few blocks from Taylor Dock. Every morning, Arla walks along the dock. It was very special for me to join her and Trina. The dock is beautifully crafted. It drops down, over the water, and around the site that was once a cannery.  I got to hear stories of how things have changed over the years and to see the "Big Tin Rock" which is a big pile of tin discarded from the canneries.

Past the old cannery site is Boulevard Park. There was a lot of activity at the park.  Folks were getting a coffee at the nearby Woods Coffee shop and walking their dogs. Families were biking and playing in the sandy beach. There was a public stage with beautiful murals where children were giving an impromptu performance.  There were signs that another phase of the Park would be continuing the pathway along the water and to downtown Bellingham.

Thank you Northwest Public Radio for giving me this opportunity to learn more about Bellingham and it's history. I look forward to visiting other cities Bentley features in her book and continue to discovery Washington's history.