On October 23, 1915, Washington Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) accepts the deed to land along Chuckanut Drive in Whatcom County that becomes Washington's first state park. In its earliest years the park, initially named Chuckanut State Park, is little more than a picnic site with a nice beach on Samish Bay. It will be renamed Larrabee State Park in 1923 to honor the family that donated the original land. The Larrabees, and others, will donate significantly more land beginning in the 1930s, and the park will grow to become one of the largest in the state.
The First State Park
Shortly after taking office in 1913, Governor Lister suggested to Charles Larrabee (1843-1914), one of Bellingham's wealthiest and most influential citizens, the idea of establishing a state park south of Bellingham along a part of Chuckanut Drive -- then known as Waterfront Road and still under construction. Larrabee agreed to deed waterfront property that he owned for the park, but died in 1914 before the deed was prepared.
His widow, Frances Larrabee (1867-1941), made the planned donation, and on October 23, 1915, Lister formally accepted the park. A big dedication ceremony was planned at the park for that day, which was to include the dedication of Chuckanut Drive, but was canceled two days earlier because mudslides blocked the road. Later sources say the deed was for 20 acres, though several articles that appeared in 1915 in various newspapers (including Bellingham's American Reveille) describe the new park as five acres larger. Although there was serious discussion of naming the park for Larrabee, it was initially named Chuckanut State Park. In February 1923 the State Parks Committee changed the name to Larrabee State Park.
Lister's vision included more than just one state park. He envisioned a series of parks spread out along the state's new and rapidly expanding highway system. They would be managed by the Washington State Board of Park Commissioners (later the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission), which had been established by the state legislature two years earlier. The ball got rolling on November 22, 1915, when the board accepted not one but two donated park properties -- the Larrabee gift and the Jackson Prairie Courthouse (later Jackson Court House State Park) in Lewis County -- as Washington's first state parks.
Bust and Boom
About a dozen more state parks followed in the 1920s. The parks committee hired park caretakers and began collecting camping fees and concession rentals at the parks. Larrabee State Park didn't have much luck with its first caretakers. One was fired for financial irregularities and another turned out to be an early version of Barney Fife, the bombastic deputy sheriff in The Andy Griffith Show. This second caretaker's finale came in 1930, during Prohibition, when he was fired after setting up an illegal roadblock on Chuckanut Drive in an attempt to catch bootleggers.
But the park had bigger problems than just Barney Fife-esque caretakers as the 1930s dawned. Along with most of the state's parks, it was feeling the effects of the Great Depression and deep funding cuts. These cuts closed many parks. Larrabee State Park managed to stay open, but it still needed a competent manager. It got one in 1935 when Dave Johnson arrived. At the time the park's amenities consisted of the beach, a bathhouse, and a few picnic tables, but Johnson saw the potential. He tirelessly spread the word about the park, and when it got $30,000 in funding the following year, he made sure improvements followed, adding a water system, kitchen shelters with hot and cold running water, and playground equipment.
At the same time, the park began to grow. In 1937 Frances Larrabee and her son, Charles, donated 1,500 additional acres. Other nearby landowners later donated more land, which led to more development. By 1965 the park had grown to nearly 2,000 acres and was attracting a quarter-million visitors a year. A particular site in the park, located at the north end of Clayton Beach, was also attracting visitors -- naked ones. The informal nude beach lasted until the 1990s, when park rangers began issuing citations. An effort followed to formally establish a nude beach at the park, but the Department of Parks and Recreation turned it down.
In 2015, Larrabee State Park encompassed 2,683 acres stretching from near the Whatcom-Skagit county line north almost to the Bellingham city limits. It offered miles of hiking trails climbing as high as 1,940 feet, dozens of picnic sites and camping sites, a boat launch, an amphitheater, large fields, and 8,100 feet of saltwater shoreline.