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Peace Arch Park (Blaine)

HistoryLink.org Essay 9194 : Printer-Friendly Format

Peace Arch Park is a 43-acre park located on the U.S.-Canadian border between Blaine, Washington, and Douglas, British Columbia. There are actually two parks -- Peace Arch State Park in the United States and Peace Arch Provincial Park in Canada --  and they adjoin each other along the border just east of Semiahmoo Bay. But the two are typically thought of as one, and the whole is known informally as Peace Arch Park. Initially developed in the 1930s, the park has the Peace Arch monument as its centerpiece, and is known for its attractive gardens, ethereal views, and open border.

The Peace Arch

When the Pacific Highway was dedicated at the border north of Blaine in 1915,  J. J. Donovan, vice president of the Pacific Highway Association in Whatcom County, placed a motion before the crowd (enthusiastically carried) that the American and Canadian governments be asked to build a marble “peace arch” at the site to commemorate both the dedication of the highway and 100 years of peace between Great Britain and the United States. But the real force behind the creation of the Peace Arch was Samuel “Sam” Hill (1857-1931), founder of the Washington State Good Roads Association. The idea for an arch was not entirely new -- a wooden arch was built over the railroad tracks at the border just north of Blaine when the railroad border crossing was completed in 1891, and in 1911 Blaine had built a temporary white arch on its main street to celebrate a fair -- but Hill’s arch was to be far more impressive.

In July 1920 work began on the 67-foot-tall concrete and steel structure that would become the Peace Arch. It was framed with 50 tons of steel, and 800 cubic yards of concrete were used in its construction. The arch was completed the following year and dedicated by Sam Hill in a ceremony on September 6, 1921. 

Built straddling the border between the United States and Canada, the arch has iron gates inside its portal, permanently held open. Above the gate on the west interior portal wall is written “1814 Open One Hundred Years 1914,” and on the east wall is etched, “May These Gates Never Be Closed.” Above the portal on the American side of the arch is inscribed “Children Of A Common Mother,” while over the Canadian side it reads “Brethren Dwelling Together In Unity.” Originally, 470 lights outlined the exterior and interior of the arch, illuminating it at night, but this proved impractical to maintain and they were removed in the mid-1940s.

Peace Arch Park

The original site at the Peace Arch consisted of seven acres, half on American soil, half on Canadian. From the earliest days there was talk of developing a park surrounding the arch, with five acres to be on American soil and five on Canadian, but during the 1920s the focus was more on building good roads into the area. There were also other problems that delayed the development of a park. On the American side of the arch, the ground was little more than a marshy swamp. A stone’s throw north of the arch on the Canadian side stood the St. Leonard Hotel, an old structure of dubious repute (it was known as “Blaine’s snake ranch,” and prostitutes were said to have once lived in shacks just across the road from the hotel). It was the 1930s before the park was actually developed.

In 1931 both the United States and Canada set aside land immediately surrounding the arch for their respective parks. The Americans developed their grounds first, with the Washington State Park Board approving the three-acre park in July 1932. It was named Samuel Hill Memorial Park. The park was financed with state funds, and an additional $1,500 was raised by Washington schoolchildren; these funds were used to landscape the park.

On the Canadian side, the infamous St. Leonard Hotel and surrounding buildings were demolished in the spring of 1932 in preparation for a park, but little additional work was done for much of the 1930s. Finally, toward the end of the decade, development of the Canadian park accelerated. Funding came primarily from the Canadian federal government and the British Columbia provincial government, although British Columbia schoolchildren also contributed at least $2,200. Canada’s 10-acre Peace Arch Provincial Park was dedicated in November 1939.

Once both parks were completed, it wasn’t long before their individual identities merged. In 1942 Samuel Hill Memorial Park was renamed Peace Arch Park (now [2009] Peace Arch State Park), and thereafter both parks were commonly thought of as one. Despite the challenges of World War II, both countries were able to landscape and expand the park during the 1940s, and by 1949 it had grown to a total of 24 acres -- nine in the United States, and 15 in Canada. Further expansion and development of the park took place during the 1960s, primarily on the American side as a result of the construction of Interstate 5 to the border. The park now (2009) covers approximately 43 acres, with 20 acres in the United States and 23 acres in Canada.

Celebrations and Demonstrations

From its earliest days, the park and the arch have been the site of traditional joint celebrations between the United States and Canada. Sunrise Easter services were held there for many years between 1931 and 1977. International Armistice Day, started in 1937, has evolved into an annual celebration, now informally known as “Hands Across The Border,” that draws thousands to the Peace Arch each year on the second Sunday in June. Parade marshals from the United States and Canada lead a procession through the arch’s portal, the flags of both countries are raised, and the two national anthems sung; student speakers speak, and veterans are recognized in a ceremony known as “Flowers for Peace.”  Many smaller organizations, and even individuals, also hold ceremonies at the park. People have married there, and babies have been christened under the arch’s portal.

Other ceremonies to mark specific events have also been held in the park. One early celebration, in June 1946, marked the centennial of the Oregon Treaty, which established the 49th parallel as the boundary between the United States and Canada in the West. At least 5,000 Americans and Canadians stood in the rain to witness the unveiling of the International Boundary Monument (which still stands in the park today). In September 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) and Canadian Premier Lester Pearson (1897-1972) signed the Columbia River Treaty in a ceremony held just south of the arch attended by about 25,000 people, who also braved rainy weather to witness the event. 

The arch and the park have also been the focal point of various demonstrations over the years.  One of the more notorious -- and one that briefly created a rare moment of tension between the United States and Canada -- came in May 1970 when approximately 450 Canadian demonstrators, protesting the recent U.S. invasion of Cambodia, crossed the border at Peace Arch Park, tore down U.S. flags, and vandalized structures in Blaine before police and Blaine citizens drove them back across the border in a hail of nightsticks and fists.

Peace Arch Park Today

Despite the widespread shock and paranoia that descended upon the United States after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the border remained open at Peace Arch Park. No fences were built; you could, and still can, stroll across the border in the park, and if you don’t stray too far beyond the park grounds no one will question you. But some subtle changes took place. By the spring of 2002, real-time cameras had been installed along the border on the American side of the park, and additional aircraft patrolled the skies. Those traveling beyond the border (rather than just visiting the park) were now required to show a birth certificate or passport, and as of 2009, only a passport is accepted. But no passport is needed simply to visit the park.

And the park is a one-of-a-kind place to visit. It features gardens on both sides of the border, with a total of 27 flower beds containing 25,000 flowers that are planted annually. Roses are, and always have been, one of the predominant flowers in the park, but tulips and dahlias and numerous other species are also represented. Rhododendron and heather bushes dot the park, while cedar and alder trees provide a taller contrast. Since 1998 the park has periodically been the site of sculpture displays, and concerts have been held there since the 1950s. There are kitchens on both the American and Canadian side of the park, and the Canadian kitchen has a large lawn in front where, on a warm summer day, people may be found playing a game of cricket.

But it is the arch itself that always draws your eye back to its spot on the grassy median between the north and southbound lanes of the freeway, complimented by a floral American flag in the southern end of the median, and a red and white flower garden depicting a Canadian maple leaf in the median’s north end. Even with wars continuing today and perhaps into infinity, this monument to peace endures.

Sources:
Richard E. Clark, Sam Hill’s Peace Arch (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006), 43-47, 92, 108, 192, 277-296, 378; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Blaine -- Thumbnail History” (by Phil Dougherty) http://www.historylink.org (accessed September 9, 2009);  United States Canada Peace Anniversary Association, website accessed September 6, 2009 (http://www.peacearchpark.org).


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Hotel St. Leonard, Canadian side of U.S.-Canada border, Blaine, ca. 1900
Courtesy A Symbol of Our Heritage, The Old Fir Tree: Blaine Centennial History


Peace Arch under construction, Blaine, 1920
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. UW4004)


Peace Arch, Canadian side, looking south to Blaine,1925
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. WAS0704)


Peace Arch illuminated at night, Blaine, 1930s
Postcard


Peace Arch Park, looking north from U.S. side of border, Blaine, August 2, 2008
HistoryLink.org Photo by Phil Dougherty


Peace Arch from U.S. side of border, Blaine, August 2, 2008
HistoryLink.org Photo by Phil Dougherty


Peace Arch from Canadian side, Blaine, August 2, 2008
HistoryLink.org Photo by Phil Dougherty


U.S. floral flag, Peace Arch Park, Blaine, August 2, 2008
HistoryLink.org photo by Phil Dougherty


Canadian floral flag, Peace Arch Park, Blaine, August 2, 2008
HistoryLink.org photo by Phil Dougherty


Garden and sculpture, Peace Arch Park, U.S. side, Blaine, August 19, 2009
HistoryLink.org photo by Phil Dougherty


Peace Arch Park (looking west to Semiahmoo Bay from the Canadian side), Blaine, August 19, 2009
Historylink.org Photo by Phil Dougherty


 
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