Highway 99 left indelible but fading mark through Bellingham


When William Wegley opened his City Center Motel in 1952, it's location at 2419 Elm St. placed it nicely along busy Highway 99, the north-south route that pierced Bellingham. Today, the business lives on in the age of freeway travel as the Lion's Inn Motel.


If you're in the mood for a trip back in time, grab a copy of "Washington's Highway 99" and hit the road.

Compiled by Bainbridge Island resident Chuck Flood, the book is a new addition to Arcadia Publishing's dizzying list of titles filled with vintage photographs and postcards from locales across the country.

For people strongly interested in Highway 99's impact on Bellingham, the city's website includes a series of short articles, a map, and 20 sets of "then-and-now" photos of buildings and intersections along the route.

The book and city website both harken back to the days before freeways, when main highways steered motorists through the hearts of communities and entrepreneurs took advantage by erecting motels, gas stations and restaurants to serve the motor trade and to wow eyeballs with their business' sometimes quirky designs.

Think of restaurants built to resemble coffee pots, Spanish castle dance halls, and gas stations that look like a giant cowboy hat and a giant pair of boots, and you get the idea.

In the early 1900s, an effort in Washington to promote good roads - led by Sam Hill, patron organizer of the Peace Arch - bore fruit with the construction of Primary State Highway 1, also known as Highway 99. The route became a main north-south route west of the Cascades.

Flood's book presents photos and postcards along the highway from Vancouver, Wash., north to Blaine. The book's first section, covering Blaine to Everett, includes 22 photos or postcards from Whatcom County.

Notable images include the Hamburger Express, a Bellingham eatery inside an old railroad car at 3300 Northwest Ave.; a postcard of the City Center Motel at 2419 Elm St., which still operates today as Lion's Inn Motel; a familiar (if you're as old as I am) Triple XXX Barrel root beer and fast food restaurant; and Uncle Tom's Cabins, an auto camp and gas station next to Fairhaven Park.

During its heyday, Highway 99 funneled tens of thousands of vehicles a day through downtown Bellingham.

But once Interstate 5 was punched through the county in the late '50s to mid '60s, many buildings along 99 disappeared, including the Shangri-La Motel on Holly Street, which was recently demolished to make way for a parking lot.

Others have been remodeled, including the Bellingham Travelodge at East Holly Street and Railroad Avenue. The motel, built in 1962, the year of the Seattle World's Fair, was remodeled six years ago for apartments, restaurants and other businesses and given a new name, the Gateway Building.

Highway 99's once-busy route also explains why many businesses on Samish Way began as tourist- and auto-oriented ventures, and makes clear why the main U.S. Postal Service office in Bellingham is on Prospect Street and not a bigger thoroughfare today.

In communities as in life, it's good to know where you've been as well as where you're going.


• "Washington's Highway 99" by Chuck Flood, $21.99 from Arcadia Publishing.

• Highway 99 in Bellingham: Go to this page at the city's website for more info on "Old Highway 99."

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

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