On February 24, 1881, the Birch Bay Post Office opens. Though it will survive only 10 years, the community itself will grow into a pleasant resort destination. Birch Bay is located in northwestern Whatcom County, about 16 miles northwest of Bellingham.
Birch Bay was home to the Semiahmoo, a small, peaceful Straits Salish tribe, in the time before the first recorded explorers passed through in the late eighteenth century. They shared the bay's bounty with members of the nearby Lummi and Nooksack tribes. According to Whatcom County historian Lottie Roeder Roth (who writes that she got her information from George Davidson, author of the Pacific Coast Pilot), the Semiahmoo name for Birch Bay was "Tsan-wuch."
By the time the first documented European explorers arrived at Birch Bay in the 1790s, the Semiahmoo had moved north and east, to near the site of the future community of Blaine. The Spanish arrived first and named the bay "Ensenada de Garzon," but the British were right behind them and promptly claimed the bay as British territory. Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), a member of British Navy Captain George Vancouver's (1757-1798) 1792 expedition, changed the name to Birch Bay for the abundance of black birch that grew there.
The 1841 expedition of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) charted Birch Bay and named the prominent point on its south end Whitehorn in honor of quarter gunner Daniel Whitehorn. During the 1850s, explorers and settlers journeyed through the area in significant numbers, but they were on their way either to the boundary survey a few miles north or to the Fraser River gold fields in British Columbia. The Birch Bay community itself didn't get its start until the early 1870s. One of the first permanent settlers, Charles Vogt, arrived in 1871; other early and well-known settlers included the families of B. H. Bruns and Henry Henspeter.
Logging mills sprang up, and the little community grew a bit more. There was talk of naming it Birchpoint, but this didn't get very far. A post office opened on February 24, 1881, but it lasted just 10 years. A school opened, perhaps as early as the late 1880s, and lasted for several decades before consolidating with Blaine. The community remained largely isolated until the 1920s, but not unknown. Even as early as the 1890s it was a favorite travel destination in Whatcom County because of the excellent clamming available in the bay. But getting there wasn't easy.
Access improved in the 1920s thanks to the automobile and better roads. Beachfront homes and resorts sprang up to accommodate seasonal (summer) residents. Keep in mind that a resort in the early twentieth century meant something far different to the vacationer from what it means in the early twenty-first century. In those days the experience lay in simply being able to get away. Birch Bay Resort, one of the area's more established resorts during the 1920s, consisted of 12 small cabins -- with one outhouse for all 12 cabins. There was also a two-story building with a store, a restaurant, a candy and ice cream shop, and a few rooms upstairs available for rent. A large dance hall (almost mandatory at resorts in those days) was just east of the main building, which was located at 4825 Alderson Road (where the C Shop is in 2014).
Growth accelerated after the end of World War II in 1945. More summer cottages were built and a small amusement park opened along the shoreline. Birch Bay Trailer Park & Sales (later renamed Birch Bay RV Resort) opened in 1950 near the bay just south of the Birch Bay-Lynden Road. Starting with a handful of residents, by 2014 it had grown to more than 125 permanent mobile and manufactured homes.
A State Park and a Canadian Twist
Birch Bay State Park opened in 1954. Located along the southern flank of the bay, the park offers 194 acres for campers and picnickers. It has more than a mile and a half of saltwater shoreline and offers spectacular views (on clear days) of the Canadian Gulf Islands to the west and the North Cascades to the east. Terrell Creek snakes through the park, and a nearby marsh on the park's south end (aptly known as Terrell Creek Marsh) is one of the preserved estuaries in North Puget Sound. A natural game sanctuary is at the park's north end.
Change began to come to Birch Bay during the second half of the 1960s. In 1966 ground was broken for Birch Bay Village, a planned community along the northern part of the bay, and houses were up by the following year. The rustic resort homes began to disappear and were replaced by more modern ones. Condominiums followed in the 1970s. A 1976 Birch Bay population study noted there were about 3,000 permanent residents in the Birch Bay area (this may have been a little high), with between 7,000 and 10,000 visitors on any given weekend during the summer.
During the 1970s and 1980s a majority of Birch Bay's seasonal property owners were Canadian. This influence has waned in the years since as more permanent, American ownership of homes has taken hold in the community, but it hasn't disappeared entirely. You can still spot plenty of British Columbia license plates on cars parked at Birch Bay homes and hear Canadian accents in local stores.
Birch Bay Today
There's been talk over the years of incorporating Birch Bay, but it hasn't happened. For census purposes the community is designed as the Birch Bay CDP (census-designated place), a 16-square-mile district that stretches south past Point Whitehorn and north to within a mile of the Semiahmoo Spit. The 2010 Birch Bay CDP counted 8,413 residents, more than triple the 2,656 counted in 1990. Birch Bay's median household income (for the period 2008-2012) was $51,181, more than $8,000 below the state median household income of $59,374. Nearly 89 percent of its residents were Caucasian.
More traditions have come as Birch Bay has continued to grow and evolve. One well-established tradition is the Birch Bay Marathon. It's been run yearly since 1969 at various times of the year. (The 1984 marathon was run in a blizzard. Three runners started, two finished.) Presently the course is run in February; the 2014 marathon attracted 100 participants.
A more recent tradition kicked off in 2004 with the Ring of Fire and Hope. At 7 p.m. on New Year's Eve people light hundreds of flares along the Birch Bay shoreline and reflect on the year past and on hopes for the year ahead. This is followed at noon on New Year's Day by the annual (since 1983) Polar Bear Plunge at Birch Bay Beach, a popular ritual for hundreds who don't mind a cold start to the new year.
Birch Bay is a pleasant enclave that increasingly has more to offer both the day-tripper and the permanent resident. One suspects it will eventually grow into a town of its own.