A Prime Location
From canoes to sailing ships to freighters, the inviting shores of Bellingham Bay have served as a northwest source for transportation, trade, and industry. Creation of the Port of Bellingham in 1920 brought control of the vital harbor under one organization, permitting creation of public use docks for travelers and cargo. Industries dotting the waterfront helped the city grow, and as they have closed, have allowed for huge new opportunities.
North Coast Indians first enjoyed the bountiful seafood in the bay and tidelands, with European explorers arriving by ship on the northwest coast in the 1700s. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy named Bellingham Bay for Sir William Bellingham.
The Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, and Semiahmoo Indians were coastal, Salish-speaking tribes primarily living around the Nooksack and Lummi Rivers and had inhabited Bellingham and its vicinity for thousands of years. Fishing, especially salmon and shellfish, was a huge part of native life and survival. As such, the Whatcom Creek estuary, although never permanently settled by the Lummis, functioned as an important seasonal fishing encampment, where they could harvest the fish that congregated at the bottom of the falls.
Trade Brings Business
White settlers arrived by the 1850s to 1880s, taking advantage of the natural resources of the area, which included fur, lumber, coal, and fishing. Long docks
were built over the tidelands, the first of these being the Colony Wharf in 1883. The Colony Wharf was built by a group of community utopians from Kansas calling themselves the Washington Colony. The group sought to open a profitable logging mill to sustain their new community. Because of the lengthy tide flats along Bellingham Bay, the dock stretched nearly a mile to reach deep water. Dredging had not yet begun on the shoreline.
By the time the port began operations as an entity, the waterfront was an active center of trade dominated by a myriad of private interests. A small number of large, private enterprises dominated the shorelines. The major waterfront businesses operating by the 1920s included Siemens Mill, Whatcom Falls (Loggie) Mill, Morrison Mill, Bloedel-Donovan Mill, E.K. Wood Mill, Puget Sound Saw Mill and Shingle Company, and the Pacific American Fisheries Cannery in Fairhaven.
Next: Growth and Planning