Whatcom County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Janet Oakley
  • Posted 7/31/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7327
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Whatcom County was established on March 9, 1854, by the Washington territorial government from a portion of Island County. The name Whatcom derives from a Nooksack word meaning "noisy water" and it was the name of a Nooksack chief. The county has the distinction of having beautiful marine vistas, lakes, rivers, and forested hills and mountains that rise toward majestic Mount Baker. These features were home to Native peoples for millennia; Europeans first encountered them in the 1700s. After the establishment of coal mines, a sawmill, and a military fort on Bellingham Bay in the 1850s, the county began to emerge as an important player in territorial economics and political life. Logging began, and the county emerged as an agricultural and lumber area. Canneries made the county world-renowned. In 1903, all the towns on Bellingham Bay came together under the name of Bellingham. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the county suffered economic troubles, but, along with the rest of the country, recovered after World War II. During the 1980s, Whatcom County began to grow into one of the most sought-out areas in the country, noted for recreational opportunities on land and water as well as colleges, city parks, light industries, and cultural events.

First Peoples

People have inhabited Whatcom County for nearly 12,000 years, occupying their areas for many centuries with only minor shifting. In historic times there were three tribal groups in the county: the Lummi, Nooksack, and Semiahmoo.

Lummi territory included parts of the San Juan Islands and the mainland from Point Whitehorn to Chuckanut Bay. Sometime between 1725 and 1800, they took over the mainland shore and weir site on the Nooksack River. The Semiahmoo were located to the north near present-day Blaine. In the late 1850s the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 assigned the Semiahmoo the same reservation as the Lummi. Today Lummi Tribal Nation near Ferndale is a vibrant community with its own school, Northwest Indian College and various business concerns. Descendants of the Semiahmoo play important community roles there as well.

The Nooksack had their own distinct language and had settlements between Lynden and Maple Falls. One of their villages was located at a prairie named Nuxwsa’aq near Goshen. This became the name Nooksack. Today the Nooksack tribal community is located in Deming.

Spanish and English Explorations

In 1791 Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper sent a sloop into the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and "discovered" Mount Baker. He named it La Gran Montana del Carmelo. Not long after, Eliza, which served under him, entered Bellingham Bay. He named the bay Gulf de Gaston, but the following year the British under George Vancouver’s command renamed it Bellingham after Sir William Bellingham, who had raised money for the expedition. The mountain became Mount Baker.

In 1827 the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Langley north of modern day Lynden. Their traders explored the northern part of Whatcom County.

On October 1852, English Captain William Pattle sailed into the bay looking for trees for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and found coal. His claim established Unionville. Two months later, California Gold Rush entrepreneurs Captain Henry Roeder (1824-1902) and Russell V. Peabody arrived on Bellingham Bay. From Pattle and other Puget Sound residents, they had heard about a waterfall on the bay. After asking permission of Chow'it'sut (?-1861), the Lummi leader who greeted them, the men built a sawmill at Whatcom Creek. Other Lummi leaders might have been less willing to allow the settlement in their territory.

First Settlement and First Industries

In 1853 Edward Eldridge arrived in Whatcom from California to work at the mill, bringing sawmill machinery, his wife Teresa, and his baby daughter. Teresa provided meals and wrote letters for the mill workers from her first cabin not far from the mill. Teresa Eldridge, first white woman in the area, became known as the "Mother of Whatcom."

That same year, more coal was discovered under the roots of a downed tree. San Francisco investors formed the Bellingham Bay Coal Company. In 1854, they hired San Francisco lawyer Edmund Fitzhugh to manage the new mine. He named the Sehome Mine after his father-in-law, Sea-hom, a Klallam-born leader of a Samish village. The mine became the largest employer in the Territory. Its company store, saloons, miners' cabins, and rooming houses made up the town of Sehome.

Settlers also filed claims on the south end of the bay, setting the future site of Fairhaven, one of four towns that would develop on the shoreline. Daniel "Dirty Dan" Harris (1826-1890) was a leading promoter of that settlement.

By 1855 there was sufficient economic value on the bay to warrant a military fort to protect against raiding northern Indians. There had been several incidents around the bay in which people were killed. While waiting for federal help, the townspeople built a blockhouse west of Whatcom Creek. They formed Whatcom Company, enlisting the remaining 42 men on the bay not working at the mine. On August 26,1856, Captain George Pickett (1825-1875) and Company D arrived. He oversaw the construction of Fort Bellingham and became a regular fixture in the social life at Sehome and Whatcom. Like several men on the bay, he took a Coast Salish woman as his wife.

Fraser River Gold Rush

As fear of attacks lessened, the Whatcom County Board of Supervisors improved "the Nook-sack Road," a trail that went from Bellingham Bay to Canada. It was widened in time for one of the most important events in the area’s history: the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858. The tiny population grew to 10,000 as miners set up tents and shacks on the beaches. The trail could be taken as a shortcut to the mining fields in British Columbia.

Investors erected the first brick building in Washington Territory, but speculation was short-lived. Canada mandated mining permits, and overnight, the miners left for Victoria. With the gold rushers gone, many businesses were ruined.

In the year 1857-1858, survey work began on the international boundary at the 49th parallel. Some of the men involved returned to squat around present day Lynden and Everson. John Tennant and his Lummi wife Clara filed the first official claim on the Nooksack River in 1859. They moved out in 1860 to Ta-ti-sum at present day Ferndale. That same year Ruben Bizer and Colonel James Patterson began to run cattle and horses at Sqweha’lich (Lynden). In 1863, Thomas Wynn settled with his Coast Salish wife above the Tennants’ cabin. For a long while they were the only settlers on the river. Economics changed that.

The settlements on the bay hung on, but during the 1870s they suffered severe blows. The sawmill burned down (1874), and after flooding, the Sehome Mine closed for good (1878), and the population was reduced to fewer than 20 families. People moved out to their claims around Ferndale and in Lynden. New arrivals were Phoebe (1832-1929) and Holden Judson who took Patterson’s claim in 1871.

The Big Jam

For years a logjam had impeded traffic on the Nooksack River at Ferndale. The fundraising efforts of Phoebe Jusdon and Mary Smith made the removal of the Big Jam at Ferndale possible. Work began in 1876 with John Plaster and members of the Lummi community doing the labor. It was completed in February 1877. The first steamboat went up to Ferndale sometime in 1878. Darius Rogers did much to promote his interests in the area.

In 1881, the "Washington Colony," a group of utopian Kansans, re-established the mill at Whatcom Creek. It became the Colony Mill. Out in the county, roving sawmills and "cross road" shingle mills harvested the huge trees that dotted the land, creating jobs. At one time there were more than 45 shingle mills and 17 sawmills as far east as Kendall and Deming.

Boats, Roads, Trains

Logged-off land opened up farms, which provided produce and eggs for the towns on Bellingham Bay, but getting back and forth was rough. It took eight hours in a wagon to go from the bay to Everson.

People clamored for better roads and transportation. Thirty-seven miles of newly planked roads, including the Guide Meridian and the Northwest Diagonal were developed. Ferries took people, wagons, and their animals across the various points on the winding Nooksack River. William Harkness ran a cable and flat-bed ferry at the Crossing at Everson, charging 24 cents for people and 50 cents for animals. (By the early twentieth century, bridges would replace the ferries.) At Whatcom Lake, little steamers took passengers from Silver Beach down to Park, from where people could get out to their homesteads in Acme and Saxon.

In 1884 Robert I. Morse opened his store in Sehome with $3,000 worth of paints, oils, wallpaper, and guns. Like others, he hoped the Great Northern Railroad would choose Fairhaven as its western headquarters and terminus. Nelson Bennet, who had helped develop Tacoma, led the drive to secure it. In anticipation, the Bellingham Bay Improvement Co. promoted real estate and building around the bay, but when the Great Northern chose Seattle for its terminus instead, speculation was off.

In the end, local railroads served the area. Two started in 1883. One, the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad Company, was completed in 1891 going from Bellingham to Sumas where it connected to the Canadian Pacific. The railroads and their branches went to the logging camps and the Blue Canyon Mine started up in 1891.

A couple of years later, the national Panic of 1893 hit the bay towns hard. Businesses and buildings were deserted. Still, it was this year that the predecessor of Western Washington University was founded. It was a teacher's college named New Whatcom State Normal School.


Whatcom County boomed again when the Pacific American Fisheries (PAC) organized in 1899 in Fairhaven. The largest canning operation in the world, PAC employed more than 1,000 Chinese and 4,500 "white persons" and canned most of the Puget Sound catch. PAC shipped around the world. Smaller canneries at Semiahmoo put out 2,000 cases of canned salmon daily, but PAC was king. The company’s large fishing fleet spurred work at the Fairhaven Shipyard, which would build freighters during World War I.

Other major industries included American Can Co., the Puget Sound Saw Mill and Shingle Co. (the largest shingle mill in the world), and the E. K. Wood Lumber Co. In addition, there were smaller mills, shipyards, box factories, and fish salteries. For many years, Fairhaven was a hub for transportation and for the fishing industry.

Mining also made a return with the Blue Canyon Coal Mine in 1895 at the southern end of Lake Whatcom. But coal mining declined from a high of 500 tons of coal a day to 50 or 60 tones a day in 1917. Like many mining concerns, it became a losing proposition. Yet when it closed, another mine, the Bellingham Coal Mine, opened on the northern end of the bay towns. This firm produced coal until 1954. Meanwhile, out in the foothills of Mount Baker, people looked for gold.

In 1903, all the towns on the bay came together under the name of Bellingham. By now the city streets had electric lights. During this period, the town experienced rapid growth, spurred by the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company, which was also building a large power plant on the Nooksack River to provide electricity to most of the region and to power the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad to the Mt. Baker gold fields.

Rise of Agriculture

As the county cleared out the trees, agriculture grew. In 1885, farmers formed The Northern Puget Sound Fair Association to promote their produce. This was followed by a county branch of State Horticultural Society in 1893 and the Northwest Agricultural Society in 1894. Hops fields appeared in Everson, Nooksack, Lynden, and Birch Bay. Dr. A. W. Thorton tried his hand at flax, and farmers in Ferndale grew sugar beets.

Other crops were potatoes, lettuce, and celery. Summer fruit and flower shows became popular, with one of the first being held at New Whatcom City Hall. With such growth, farmers formed granges throughout the county. In 1898, J. A. Willis, A. E. Jones and Frank E. Lee started the first fruit and vegetable canning and evaporating company.

It was during this time George Gibbs (considered the father of the flower bulb industry in the Northwest) moved his entire stock of lillium, candiums, and fresias bulbs to an old brickyard next to the former Fort Bellingham. In 1907, the U.S. Bureau of Plant Improvement set up its entire bulb stock of the National Botanical Gardens on a 10-acre plot next to Gibbs. The Bellingham Bulb Garden and Holland-American Company soon joined them. Tulips became so popular that in May 1920, the Tulip Time Festival was organized and Tulip Queen crowned. The next year 100,000 bulbs were planted. The bulb industry and festival continued until 1929 when a series of severe freezes forced the removal of the industry to Skagit County.

Dairy and poultry production also grew during the latter half of the nineteenth century. After the close of the Sehome Mine in the 1870s, farmers had no market. Eggs, cheese, flour, and "Iowa" butter came from outside the county. Then in 1892, a group of dairymen in the Custer area started the first creamery in Whatcom County. The creamery produced 150 gallons of milk, 100 pounds of butter and 75 pounds of cheese daily. A gallon of milk sold for nine cents and butter for 27 cents. They raised pigs on the side.

Sumas and Lynden followed with their own creameries in 1894. Lynden started a cheese factory. Not to be outdone, the women of the Cooperative Society subscribed for the first creamery on Bellingham Bay in 1896. Such fondness for milk and all its products led to the formation of the Whatcom Dairymen in 1919. A year later the association bought a creamery in Lynden and built a modern utility plant. It went on to become the world’s largest dried milk plant in the world.

Similarly, eggs started off in the early years as an out-of-state product, with "heavy shipments" coming from China overseas. There was little organization. Then in 1915, county egg producers formed the Whatcom County Egg Producers. President S. A. Griffith of Lynden insisted that members adopt a grading method. They shipped their eggs to Seattle for a "Kulshan Brand." In the 1920s a poultry feed organization merged with the egg and poultry farmers to create the Washington Egg and Poultry Cooperative Association. The merger galvanized the poultry business so that by 1926 the county led the state. It would dominate poultry farming through the 1960s, with Lynden the center of agriculture in the county.

Whatcom County Today

After World War II life in the county continued with few changes. While agriculture remained strong, some of the waterfront businesses declined. The Spring Festival returned as the Blossomtime Festival without the tulips. Then in the late 1950s, construction began on a five-mile stretch of I-5. Its completion would alter traffic to downtown Bellingham and start its decline while drawing more people to the rural areas.

Predecessors of Western Washington University continued to develop. In 1937 the New Whatcom State Normal School became Western Washington College of Education. In 1961, the name (and mission) was changed to Western Washington State College. In 1977 it became Western Washington University. By the 1980s it would become one of the largest employers in the county. In addition, newcomer Whatcom Community College outgrew its buildings and built a real campus north of Bellingham. Malls and housings developments appeared.

Whatcom County today is one of the fastest growing counties in the state. The county's population has grown from 127,780 in 1990 to 166,814 in 2000, and its towns are becoming cities, especially Lynden and Ferndale. A third of the population (53,508) still lives in rural areas, but of that fewer than 2,500 live on farms. Raspberries, apple orchards, and smaller, organic subscription farms are replacing the old ones.

In 1970 the Ski to Sea replaced the Blossomtime Festival after its decline during the Vietnam War. Each Memorial weekend, it now attracts more than 3,200 racers and tens of thousands viewers. Racing from the top of Mount Baker down to Fairhaven on the Bay, the race epitomizes the spirit and pride of the entire county.

Sources: Lottie Roeder Roth, The History of Whatcom County Vol. I (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926); Lelah Jackson Edson, The Fourth Corner (Bellingham: Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1968); Wayne Suttles, The Handbook of American Indian: NW Coast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990); Wayne Suttles, The Economic Life of the Coast Salish or Haro and Rosario Straits (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1974), 3; George H. Bacon, Booming and Panicking on Puget Sound (Bellingham: Pioneer Press, 1970); Dorothy Koert, Portrait of Lynden (Lynden: Lynden Tribune, 1976); Emmett Hawley, Squee Mus or Pioneer Days on the Nooksack (Seattle: Craftsman Press, 1945); The Blaine Journal, January 5, 1888, reproduced on Whatcom County Genealogical Society website accessed May 1, 2005 (http://www.rootsweb.com/~wawhatco/npaperindex.htm); The Bellingham Reveille, January to October, 1904 reproduced on Whatcom County Genealogical Society website accessed May 1, 2005 (http://www.rootsweb.com/~wawhatco/npaperindex.htm); The Acme Prospector, February 10, 1910 reproduced on Whatcom County Genealogical Society website accessed May 1, 2005 (http://www.rootsweb.com/~wawhatco/npaperindex.htm); Candace Wellman, "John and Clara Tennant," Bellingham's Centennial website accessed in May 2005 (http://www.acadweb.wwu.edu/cpnws/centennial/people/tennant.html); "Census 2000 Socioeconomic Profile for Whatcom County," State of Washington Office of Financial Management website accessed May 1, 2005 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/localdata/what.htm).

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