New Year, New Railroad
Small towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived and died by the railroad -- if it passed through a small town, the town was likely to grow; if not, the town was just as likely to disappear. The railroad had bypassed Lynden in 1891, with the nearest stop in Clearbrook, more than six miles away. Thus it was big news indeed on April 18, 1903, when, in a rare Saturday extra, The Pacific Pilot (Lynden’s weekly newspaper, usually published on Thursday) proclaimed that the railroad was coming to town. A spur from Hampton (five miles east of Lynden) would be built and was scheduled to be completed by October 1.
But the shipment of rails necessary for the track was delayed by several months, pushing back the completion date. Even as the end of the year approached, the rails were laid only as far as Roo Brothers & Van Leeuwen’s Company mill on the eastern edge of town. But no matter. Simon Kildall, owner of Kildall Mercantile Company on the northwest corner of 5th and Front streets, and W. H. “Billy” Waples, owner of the Lynden Department store on the northeast corner of 5th and Front streets, got together and decided to have a party. The year 1903 had been a particularly auspicious year for both the Lynden community and these two businesses, and, to show their appreciation to the community, the two men decided to each host a huge New Year’s dinner as a way of celebrating both the coming of 1904 and the railroad.
Preparations began before Christmas. Everyone was invited, and it seemed like everyone came: Close to 3,000 people were estimated to be in the town of Lynden at 9 p.m. on New Year’s night, “nearly everyone within a radius of 15 miles” reported The Pacific Pilot in its next issue. Even the weather cooperated, with mild dry weather and an almost-full moon illuminating the way for the revelers.
Reveling Till the Wee Hours
Kildall’s store housed the Judson Opera Hall upstairs, and he prepared both floors for the occasion; he also hired a chef from Bellingham who spent several days making a meal of sandwiches, cake, pickles, coffee, and sweet cider for 1,600 people. At least that many came. Kildall also took the honors of arranging to charter the first passenger train ever into Lynden that evening, which carried nearly 100 specially invited guests and the Rohrbacher Orchestra of Bellingham. Various speakers spoke at Kildall’s dinner, including Lynden pioneer Charles Cline (1858-1914?), who gave a speech about Lynden’s history and Kildall’s contribution to it. After the speeches and dinner, the partygoers “enjoyed ‘tripping the light fantastic’ [dancing] until the small hours of the morning began to grow longer” (The Pacific Pilot, January 7, 1904, p. 1).
Waples held an equally lavish party at his store across the street. He hosted an oyster supper (prepared by Lynden resident F. C. Colley) that was attended by an estimated 900 people. The Lynden Band provided music, but Waples added an extra touch: an appearance by the Morgan Negro Jubilee Company, which sang, played, and told jokes on a stage erected in one of the ends of the store. They were a real crowd pleaser: “The negro jubilee club simply carried the house off its feet,” noted The Pacific Pilot the following Thursday. No dancing at the Waples affair, though the revelers did stick around and socialize well past midnight.
A Dream Realized
The significance of the railroad’s arrival in Lynden can best be described by the first white woman to settle in Lynden, Phoebe Judson, who took her first ride on the new track soon after, at the age of 72. The trip to Hampton and then to Whatcom (later part of Bellingham) resonated with her so much that she devoted a short chapter to it near the end of her book, A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home:
“After having traveled so long by the ‘shovel nose’ canoe, over the rough corduroys [roads], drawn by plodding oxen, and later by the jolting stage -- as I sat in the comfortable coach, gliding smoothly over the rails, I felt like a bird let loose. One dream of my life was at last realized.”