Initial Purchase The first grassy landing strip in operation in Whatcom County appears to be a north-south runway located near the intersections of Smith Road and Pacific Highway 99 in the 1920s. Although the exact origins of the Bellingham International Airport remain a point of debate among local historians, Whatcom County purchased 200 acres of land on October 20, 1936, at $50 per acre from local financier Charles F. Larrabee to build an airport. According to one source, the first runway was built surreptitiously by highway funds provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New-Deal Era work-relief program.
Early Development The classic account of the airport’s development can be found in Susan K. Wolff’s 1976 work, "Aviation History of Whatcom County." According to Wolff, the county approached the WPA for labor funds to build the first airport runway but was turned down. The WPA, she argues, cited the fact that WPA pavement funds were reserved for highway use only. As such, the county re-approached the WPA, this time claiming to be building a highway between Barnes and June roads. The unsuspecting WPA approved the road project, and began work on what workers jokingly dubbed “the highway to nowhere.”
Challenged by historian Neill Mullen, who pointed out that a “fake runway” was unlikely to go unnoticed by the WPA, it still appears that army blueprints made after WWII show the location. Moreover, being a radically decentralized operation, the WPA operated at a local level, with political deal-making not unheard of. Either way, many agencies were in play, and accurate records were not kept.
Construction is Halted Due to Land Preparation The airport progressed in fits and bursts in 1936, and Whatcom County officials wrote letters to the governor asking for state aid to supplement their funds. State, county, and local funds combined to form a sponsorship, which put 250 unemployed laborers to work for the WPA to build the airport’s first official runway. Unfortunately, work was halted for lack of county money by 1937. It appeared that preparation of the land was the expensive culprit.
Part of the problem was the sheer load of unanticipated prep work that needed to be done before construction of the runway could even start. Topographical maps of the area drafted in 1936 show that the airport lands were densely uneven, ranging from 130-160 feet above sea level. The airport lands even contained a small lake where the third runway would later be built. Indeed, according to an April 15, 1937, letter by field supervisor Eleanor Mulvey, the principal work that had been accomplished after almost a year of work was “clearing, grubbing, grading, drainage, etc.” Construction would not begin again in earnest until May of 1940.