HISTORY

Settlers drawn to inviting shores of Blaine

November 10, 2007 

A large crowd turned out for the dedication of the Peace Arch in September 1921. The arch remains Blaine's premier landmark.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WHATCOM MUSEUM OF HISTORY & ART

  • POINT ROBERTS

    Point Roberts — a peninsula tip separated by water from mainland U.S. — began as an unused military reserve and became a center of the fishing industry. It's still one of the best places to fish and to watch whales.

    Early settlers were squatters in a lawless no-man's land, finally receiving title to their farms up to 50 years later. Today, Canadian vacationers swell the summer ranks of what locals know is a place of off-season solitude and self-discovery.

A broad beach of pure sand emerges during low tide from Birch Bay State Park north past Blaine to Point Roberts. A gift of the last ice age, the beach makes the area ideal for summer recreation while hosting prodigious colonies of tasty shellfish.

The earliest people to leave evidence behind in the area hunted mastodon, but later evidence shows an orientation to the sea.

The villages, with their post-and-beam houses and their designs found along the Pacific Rim, today are marked by thick shell middens, such as on the former Whelan farm in northeast Point Roberts and on Semiahmoo Spit.

The earliest Europeans settled in places where natives had found safe harbors for their seagoing canoes, wood to build their houses, salmon to eat and pure artesian water to drink. Blaine once maintained an artesian drinking fountain, now a flower box at the west end of G Street.

To keep his men from getting scurvy, early explorer George Vancouver stopped at Birch Bay for beer — spruce beer he brewed himself as a source of vitamin C. The tradition he began of people coming south from what is now Canada to sit in the sun and drink beer on the beach continues unabated.

Europeans first settled in what is now Blaine in 1857, when a joint British-American survey party camped at the current site of Semiahmoo Resort and across the bay. They mislocated the 49th parallel, putting the official border 400 feet too far north.

The next year, a gold rush on the Fraser River drew hordes from California, many of whom fell in love with the countryside and stayed, beginning another continuing tradition.

Blaine began to grow rapidly in the late 1880s, incorporating in 1890. At the same time came the first electric lights and the railroad's arrival, heralded by Blaine's first mayor, N.A. Cornish, whose daughter Nellie went on to found a noted school of the arts in Seattle.

More than one million cases of salmon were canned that year on the coast, much of it on Semiahmoo Spit. Within a decade, over five million cases were produced.

The salmon were trapped, a practice that lasted until outlawed by a citizens initiative in 1934. The canneries declined after that, but the fishing fleet in Blaine grew dramatically.

"Trap fishing was wasteful, no question," said Blaine gill-netter Bert Isakson, 89.

He recalled being told of a year when so many fish were brought in that the canneries couldn't take them all.

"They said you could walk completely around Drayton Harbor on dead pinks."

Another resource heavily exploited was wood. Blaine supplied much of the lumber used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, in part because square-rigged ships could sail in and out of Semiahmoo Bay. Cedar stumps were cut up for shingles, local mills producing them by the millions.

At one time, Blaine was the second largest city in the county and the third most active port in the state. That status declined as railroads and roads expanded, but a picturesque collection of Victorian homes and buildings remains from those busy times.

Blaine's economy became increasingly dependent on Canadian customers, especially as industries based on natural resources faded after World War II. The once numerous canneries closed; sawmills and shingle mills burned.

Interstate 5 pushed through in the late 1950s and early '60s, draining business from Blaine merchants while filling in the Cain Creek gully that was an unofficial greenbelt through town.

"That's about when the mayor's son opened the first blue movie house," recalled businessman Art Lawrenson. "He'd show four movies a day, and here across the street I'd feed 'em all a hamburger and a couple of beers."

Blaine's "blue" period, and reputation, ended last year when the last adult business closed.

Blaine's enduring symbol remains the Peace Arch, dedicated in 1921. Promoted and built by an early advocate of good roads, Sam Hill, son-in-law of railroad baron James J. Hill, the arch straddles the U.S.-Canada border at Peace Arch State Park.

A few people still living in Blaine remember seeing the dedication ceremony and Hill's magnificent silk hat. The park that surrounds the arch began as a memorial to Hill at his death in 1931.

Today, people from both sides of the border stroll through the park. Though often taken for granted by locals, the privilege is one of the few things about the border unchanged after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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