An old map of Bellingham stands behind a movable wall at Firehouse Performing Arts Center, and you can see it if you take off your shoes and if no one is dancing, acting or singing in the performance space.
It’s no ordinary map. It’s 11 feet tall, 11 feet wide, and is painted on concrete.
Firefighters created the map decades ago to show roads, gravel lanes, rights-of-way and fire hydrants throughout the city, to guide them to emergencies and other calls.
The map is at the arts center because, until recently, the building at 14th Street and Harris Avenue was Fairhaven’s fire station. That station was decommissioned eight years ago and was sold when the city built a larger fire hall nearby at 1590 Harris Ave.
Under the sale agreement, the arts center needs special approval before altering the building’s exterior, the fireplace and the terrazzo floor in the entryway, an Asian sycamore in the rear yard, or the map.
The center’s performance space has extra-thick walls to muffle sound, but two wall sections were built on hinges so they can swing open to reveal the map.
“We really wanted to make the historic aspects of the building viewable to the public,” said Matt Christman, the center’s founder.
The map is a familiar view to Ken Reimers, a Bellingham firefighter for 30 years, starting in 1948. During the 1950s, his duties included updating the map, and similar ones at the Maple Street station, since replaced, and the Prospect Street station, since remodeled for Whatcom Museum.
With paint brush in hand, Reimers revised the maps whenever he or someone else became aware of new streets and new hydrants.
“As far as I can remember, it wasn’t too systematic,” he said.
He thinks the maps date back to the 1920s. The Fairhaven station that’s now the arts center opened in 1927.
It’s clear the Fairhaven map wasn’t revised beyond the mid- ’60s, because there’s no trace of the new Interstate 5 slicing through the city.
In the southwest corner of the map, the words “to Seattle” accompany an arrow pointing to Chuckanut Drive. The name “Larson Mill” labels an area at the north end of Lake Whatcom, near where Bloedel Donovan Park was dedicated in 1946. “It’s kind of a time capsule,” Christman said.
Such maps weren’t the only directional devices for firefighters. Early on, alarm boxes with switches were installed at major intersections and buildings throughout Bellingham. The switches rang numbered bells at the downtown station, and outlying stations were alerted if they needed to respond.
When Reimers joined the department, fire vehicles also carried a city map on twin rollers. A firefighter would furiously scroll the map as the rig raced to the scene, hoping the map didn’t break en route, said Larry LaBree, who joined the department in 1971 and updated the rolled maps.
Later, LaBree, who retired three years ago, replaced the rolled maps with books of overlapping pages of a city map. Much easier to update, and the pages didn’t tear.
These days, fire vehicles carry computers with access to the city’s GIS maps, along with hard copies of the maps.
Of course, helpful citizens play a role, too, such as the person in 1953 who went to the Fairhaven station to report the fire that destroyed the landmark Fairhaven Hotel at 12th Street and Harris Avenue.
“I was working here the night the hotel burned down,” Reimers recalled. “I was the first one to put water on it.”