1858 magazine illustration portrays pioneer settlement of Whatcom


Take Holly Street into Bellingham's Old Town, then turn back the clock 154 years for a peek at the pioneer community called Whatcom.

A few dozen structures - mostly tents and shacks, and a handful of more substantial buildings - line Bellingham Bay in the area that's bounded today by Holly Street from C Street to F Street.

At high tide, the water laps the foot of a bluff that rises from where the old Whatcom County Territorial Courthouse stands today at 1308 E St.

At low tide, people dig for clams while others navigate the shallows in canoes or small flat-bottom boats.

High on the bluff stands a two-story house surrounded by a tall fence, or stockade. Behind the house rises a tall log structure, possibly a guard tower. Built in 1856, the house was home for Capt. George Pickett, who served on the bay for the U.S. Army until the Civil War rumbled and he famously sided with the Confederacy.

That description of Whatcom in 1858 isn't just the result of research by dogged historians. It's also the substance of an illustration - titled "City of Whatcom, Bellingham Bay." - that appeared in the Aug. 5, 1858, issue of Hutching's California Magazine.

For now, the illustration is considered the earliest close-range depiction of Whatcom.

Earlier sketches of Bellingham Bay exist, but they offer a distant view dominated by the arc of the bay, the densely forested landscape and Mount Baker on the horizon.

It's not surprising that a California magazine featured an illustration of Whatcom. It's also not surprising that the article with the illustration said little about Whatcom but said a lot about the trail from Bellingham Bay to the Fraser gold fields in British Columbia.

Whatcom suddenly became a bustling place the summer of 1858, with some 9,000 people descending on the community on their frenzied way to the gold fields.

"There's all this excitement about what's going on in the Fraser," said Janet Oakley of Bellingham, a tireless history writer.

Oakley learned about the illustration while researching the Ann Parry, the vessel that arrived in Whatcom on July 16, 1858, with 100,000 bricks and 73 barrels of lime to build a store for three San Francisco gents who hoped to become rich selling goods to miners. That store later became the Territorial Courthouse.

For her research, Oakley studied microfilm copies of the Daily Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper. In those days, newspapers routinely published "shipping intelligence" - details about the comings and goings of vessels, including their captains, passengers, destinations and cargo.

"Shipping intelligence is a really neat way to figure things out," Oakley said. "It's early talk radio."

In one issue, Oakley saw a short news item saying a "sketch" of Whatcom - meaning a short article or illustration - would appear July 5, 1858, for a steamship bound for the gold fields. Oakley is still trying to find that sketch, but during her search someone in an online maritime writers' group suggested that she check Hutchings' California Magazine.

In the Aug. 5 illustration, the Pickett house is easy to pinpoint on the bluff. By the shore below the Pickett house stands a partially hidden, flat-roof structure with two openings. Oakley says that's the shell of the brick store that became the Territorial Courthouse.

Because the bricks arrived July 16, the sketch must have been done late July before being sent south for publication.

Just west of the brick store stands a large building with three windows and a door on the water side. Oakley says that's the Walker House, which advertised itself as a "first-class" hotel with 50 beds, with room and board going for $12 a week.

A reporter who visited that spring didn't consider the community first-class.

"Whatcom is a miserable hole of a place," he wrote.


• Janet Oakley's blog: historyweaver.wordpress.com.

• George E. Pickett House: go to cob.org and search for "Pickett house."

• Whatcom County Historical Society: whatcomhistory.net.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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