Building on piles is reminder of maritime roots

Waterfront Tavern is part of city's history

April 7, 2008 

Let’s get the bad guys out of the way so we can move on to more important things about the Waterfront Tavern.

Yes, D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad drank there. So did James Allen Kinney, another killer. And maybe Ken Bianchi and Ted Bundy, too.

Do I care? Not a bit. The Waterfront has a lot more going for it than a few brushes with some nefarious characters.

First, lots of people love the food there. More important, the building is the last one on pilings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Old Town was pretty much a town built over water.

Hotels, shops, saloons, train tracks, an opera house … all sat on pilings over the mudflats and shallow waters at the north end of the bay.

“It was this sort of maritime community that we really don’t just conceive of anymore,” said Richard Vanderway, curator of education at the Whatcom Museum of History & Art. “There’s almost no vestige of it, besides the tavern.”

That’s why the building is historic, even if it’s not on any official list of historic buildings.

PRESSURE MAY BUILD

The City Council recently approved a plan to turn Old Town into Bellingham’s first “urban village.” I suspect that as Old Town’s new condos, shops and offices go up, the rising value of property will pressure the laid-back tavern to morph into something more upscale.

For now, Terry Taylor, who owns the building with his wife, Pat, says he doesn’t have any plans to sell. Lynne Farmer separately owns the tavern and seafood bar, having bought the business from the Taylors a decade ago.

Old Town — originally Whatcom, one of four pioneer towns on Bellingham Bay — was the first home for white settlers here because the falling waters of Whatcom Creek powered their sawmill.

Early on, Old Town was a main portal to the city, even more so after 1889 when a viaduct was built from Holly and Champion streets, down over the creek and up to B Street. The viaduct amounted to a main street on pilings, slicing over a busy waterfront.

“It wasn’t that much more to put in buildings on pilings,” Vanderway said. “Everybody just wanted to be where the action was.”

QUESTION OF DATES

A 1912 photograph shows the Waterfront Tavern building under construction (raising questions about the “1910” in wooden numbers now on the front of the tavern). A tobacco shop occupied the building in the early days, followed later by a clothing store.

Over time, most of watery Old Town became buildable ground as fill dirt and dredge materials were piled onto the mudflats. But the tavern building remained above water thanks to its location — smack in the middle of the opening where Whatcom Creek meets Whatcom Waterway.

By 1935, the building housed a saloon, the Marine Tavern, and waterfront drinking has been a mainstay there through the decades, with a side space filled by a barbershop, then a card room, now a seafood bar.

Today, the Waterfront is a quiet tavern where regulars nudge close to the bar. Softball trophies, TV sets, video games and beer signs cover the walls. On the south end, far from the bar, a bank of windows offers a broad view of the bay and the San Juan Islands beyond.

If you hope the building remains part of Old Town — and I count myself among that crowd — pray that a fire or tsunami doesn’t strike. Under city rules, the building cannot be rebuilt if damage from such a blow exceeds half of the replacement cost.

But under new rules being considered by the city, the building could be rebuilt, and maybe even enlarged. However, the rules won’t be adopted until next year, so keep your fingers crossed that nothing dire befalls the Waterfront and renders it mere memory.

Contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2291. Read his Now and Then blog at TheBellinghamHerald.com/blogs.

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