Bellingham History

The city of Bellingham gets its name from the bay on which it is situated. The bay was named after Sir William Bellingham, the controller of the storekeeper’s account of the Royal Navy. This name was given by George Vancouver, who visited the area in June 1792.

Though the area was charted by European explorers, it was not until 1854 that the first white settlers reached Bellingham Bay. They situated themselves where Whatcom Creek flows into the bay, and they called the settlement Whatcom. The Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858 brought thousands of miners, prospectors, storekeepers, and ne’er-do-wells north from California. What was once a sleepy little town on the bay now found itself bustling with activity. The T.G. Richards brick warehouse was built at this time, making it the first brick building in Washington. Similarly, the Northern Light, published by William Bausman during the boom, was the first newspaper in Whatcom County. The miners were unable to proceed, however, because they were required to obtain a permit in Victoria, B.C. before heading to the mines. The boom went bust just as soon as it started. The population of Whatcom plummeted almost as quickly as it had risen, and the sleepy Northwest village returned, at least for a few more decades.

By the turn of the century, there were four towns situated around Bellingham Bay: Whatcom, Bellingham, Fairhaven, and Sehome. On November 4, 1903, all four towns were consolidated into one, and the city of Bellingham was officially incorporated.

Lumber and shingle mills were springing up all over the county at this time. This, combined with the three railroad lines that had arrived in the early 1890s, connected Bellingham to the nationwide building market. There were 68 shingle mills in Whatcom County by 1900, producing $5 million worth of product in one year alone. Puget Sound Sawmills & Timber Co., in Fairhaven, was the largest shingle mill in the world, producing 135 million shingles in the first year of the new century.

When the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 hit, the foothills around Bellingham were clearcut to provide the lumber for the rebuilding of San Francisco. This boosted Bellingham’s progress even more, and it was once again a bustling seaport with huge ships bringing timber, lumber and shingles to San Francisco and the rest of the world.

Up until this time, coal mining was commonplace near town. But when Washington’s worst industrial accident occurred in the Blue Canyon mine at Lake Whatcom on April 8, 1895, the mines were soon sealed off and abandoned.

Another important part of the area’s development was the fishing industry. Eight salmon canneries were doing business in Whatcom County by 1925 – two on Bellingham Bay, the rest at Lummi Island, Semiahmoo, and Chuckanut Bay. Together, the canneries packed almost 500,000 cases of salmon in one year.

The cold efficiency of the fishing industry soon decimated the state’s salmon runs. In an effort to resupply the salmon population, traps were banned in the 1930s. This caused canneries to move their operations to Alaska, where traps were still legal and salmon were still abundant.

Bellingham’s location near the Inland Passage to Alaska and the Strait of Juan de Fuca did keep some canneries in operation. For example, P.A.F. shipped empty cans to Alaska, where they were packed with fish and shipped back for storage.