Construction begins on the Whatcom Trail in September 1857.

  • By Janet Oakley
  • Posted 10/29/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7112
In September 1857, construction begins on the Whatcom Trail to connect Bellingham to Everson and the international boundary with Canada. The track will follow an existing Indian trail called the Nook-sack Road. Seven months later, gold will be discovered on the Fraser River in British Columbia and the trail will take on greater import and help open up the countryside. The route will eventually serve a telegraph line and be called Telegraph Road.

An Ancient Trail

The Whatcom Trail from Bellingham to present-day Everson, Washington, was part of an ancient trail system that went throughout Whatcom County and over the border into what is now Canada. It gave Coast Salish people from the interior access to clam and other shellfish grounds on Bellingham Bay as well as a path for trade between tribal communities on Birch Bay and in Canada. The Nooksack tribe, in particular, used it. They gave place names to settlements and crossings along the trail. Nekiyéy, a settlement at Ten Mile Creek (near the present-day Meridian Middle School, south of Lynden on Ten Mile Road) was such a place, where the trail wandered through beaver ponds and heavy forests and crossed the creek. The most important crossing was farther north on the spirited Nooksack River (south of present-day Everson). Less than a half mile away was an important Nooksack village.

In 1827 the Hudson’s Bay Company built a trading fort at Langley on the Fraser River, opening up new opportunities for trade in the Coast Salish communities. The HBC may have set up a station at Nekiyéy for trade in beaver pelts.

Permanent white settlement began on Bellingham Bay in 1852. Water travel provided the main form of transport, but early settlers knew of the Nook-sack Road as they called the trail. By 1857, the Whatcom County Board of Supervisors sought to do something to improve it.

On January 5, 1857, the supervisors appointed Russell A. Peabody, Charles Vail, and James Carr to study the possibility of cutting of a road from the settlement of Whatcom to the crossing on the Nooksack River just south of the international border. The men were designated "viewers" to "view out a county road from the Town of Whatcom to the Nootsaak Prairie to be ascertained as early as possible to report to the county commissioners at their next meeting" (Minutes). Their guides were to be paid $18.00 and the viewers $3.00 per diem for viewing. No road work was undertaken.

In September 1857, the board ordered the supervisor of District Number One "to proceed forthwith on the Noot-sack Road and cut said road suitable for a pack trail not to be less than six feet in width, and not to cut fallen timber less than eight feet in width" (Minutes).

The work began immediately. Armed with saws and axes men worked through the winter months. The "road" wound through thick forests and around knolls, and it dipped and rose through wetlands and over creeks. Logs served as bridges and were laid down for corduroy road surfaces in swampy areas.

Not Paved With Gold

In May 1858, the road reached the Nooksack River just as gold seekers were flooding onto the beaches of Bellingham Bay. Somehow they heard that the trail was a shorter and safer way to the gold fields, but when they realized it went only as far as the Nooksack River, the money they brought to buy supplies almost went elsewhere. The Whatcom town fathers knew that more work on the "road" was needed and it would have to connect to the Fraser River.

A committee of leading citizens hired A. M. Poe, the first surveyor and engineer to settle in the Northwest, to do the improvements. With some other prominent men from the community, he cut a trail through to the Fraser River only to find that once again fate and circumstances had intervened. The better gold fields had moved east and the new trail stopped short of the Cascade Mountains.

The committee raised a second stash of money from every settlement on the sound. Captain W. W. Delacy, a well-known engineer in the Northwest, took on the work of creating a new trail that would connect with an old Hudson’s Bay Company trail farther east on the British side of the border. For weeks, The Northern Light, whose editor was a great proponent of the Whatcom-Hope Trail as it was being called, published accounts of Delacy’s exploits.

Throughout the summer of 1858, reports came back to the bay about the making of the road, yet after all their work, by September’s end, the whole enterprise collapsed when gold miners were mandated to get their mining permits in Victoria. The boom vanished overnight, many of the miners taking their tents and wood shacks with them. The bay was deserted.

A Rough Way North

For years, the Whatcom-Hope Trail was just a rough way to the north. It got a name change in the mid-1860s after a telegraph line from California arrived on Bellingham Bay on its way to New Westminster over the border. A branch line was strung along the old trail, then abandoned. The name, Telegraph Road stuck. It was used as wagon road into the twentieth century, and later remembered only by local people.

In 2004, the trail has morphed into sections of graveled lanes on farmers' land. A short section of paved road near a Bellingham shopping mall bears the name of Telegraph Road. Only the curious ask and wonder about the road that for centuries carried commerce from the border to the bay.


Sources: Lelah Jackson Edson, The Fourth Corner (Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1968), 57-58; Brent Galloway and Alan Richardson, Nooksack Place Names: An Ethnohistoical and Linguistic Approach, working paper 18th International Conference on Salish and Neighboring Languages, 1983; Lottie Roeder Roth, The History of Whatcom County, Vol I (Pioneer Historical Publishing Company 1926); Whatcom County Commissioners Minutes, Vol. 1, January 5, 1857, May 12, 1857, September 1857, May 1858, September 1858, and May, 1862, Washington State Archives, Bellingham, Washington.

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