Echoes of War: Mystery of a missing Confederate treasure in Whatcom County, Chapter 1

Janet Oakley of Bellingham wrote the first chaper of "Echoes of War: Mystery of the missing Confederate treasure in Whatcom County." Oakley is standing in front of the Territorial Courthouse in Bellingham's Old Town neighborhood.
Janet Oakley of Bellingham wrote the first chaper of "Echoes of War: Mystery of the missing Confederate treasure in Whatcom County." Oakley is standing in front of the Territorial Courthouse in Bellingham's Old Town neighborhood. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Editor's note: "Echoes of War" is a six-part, historical fiction story written by Whatcom County history researchers and writers. This is chapter one.

Phineus James Arkeson (known to his friends as Phinny) never intended to be a fingersmith, but the rumored sale of the old brick courthouse meant he had to get into the building to get the tin box.

Of course, it was all conjecture. The Grand Army of the Republic, the national group of Union veterans from the Civil War, had owned the old building since 1903, and Arkeson knew full well the ladies of the auxiliary wouldn't want to lose their meeting place, nor the income from rentals. Especially, Mrs. Arkeson, the auxiliary's secretary.

As Arkeson trudged down dark Holly Street, he pulled his coat close against the freezing night air. Despite progress in the city as a whole, this part of town west of Whatcom Creek seemed to be sliding down in its charm.

True, the street was no longer planked, and the fantastical City Hall and firehouse above it spoke of the booming growth of Bellingham. Not to mention, the twenty-one and a half miles of electrical lines, twenty-one shingle mills, two telephone companies, and the largest cannery in the world.

Business was prosperous. Arkeson's small shipping firm was doing very well. Last October, steamers and schooners loading up with lumber bound for Sydney or Liverpool crowded the bay.

But this old, founding part of the city faced hard times. While a few businesses remained on Holly Street, many of the buildings behind it were vacant. Meanwhile, East Holly up the hill bloomed with beautiful new buildings and enterprises.

Arkeson slipped onto Center Street and then froze when some New Year's Eve reveler shouted an obscenity a couple of blocks away. 1909 was nearly gone and 1910 breaking out soon. The drunkard was probably voicing his opinion about the proposed ordinance of the city going dry. That, along with the push for women's vote statewide.

Arkeson bet the sot never met his wife. Mrs. Arkeson not only supported the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, she attended the national meeting of suffragettes in Seattle last fall and pressed hard for reforms in Whatcom County.

If only you hadn't swayed our daughter, Millie, in such pursuits, he thought. A student at the Normal School, she had taken up the cause of women of lesser social standing.

Arkeson waited for another drunken outburst, but none came. Emboldened, he scurried across the half-frozen mud street to the planked walkway and onto the grounds behind the back of the old brick building.

The place was shadowed by the Knox Block of buildings to its left, but a moon, full only a few days before, made an unexpected appearance from behind a wide cloud. It illuminated not only the courthouse doors, but also the ghostly shape of the Whatcom Hotel next door.

Arkeson's heart missed a beat as he waited for any sound from the vacant hotel. Nothing. He mopped the sweat on his forehead, then attended to the back doors.

Access was easy, as he had his wife's key to the building, but once inside he did not turn on the lights. He groped his way across the room, guided by the moonlight coming through the tall windows. It hit the framed images and artifacts in cases honoring comrades who had fought for the North, including some mementos from his own experiences in an Ohio unit.

In the back room, he braved a light. Setting down his knapsack, he was soon working on a floor board by the bookcase. A half hour later, Arkeson was back at his palatial home on Garden Street.

"Why Phinny," Mrs. Arkeson said as she took his coat. "Where on earth have you been? Everyone is waiting in the parlor. It's nearly midnight."

Her long sapphire satin gown crackled. Her neck jewels glittered.

With irritation? he thought. "Sorry, Martha. I had to check on some last-minute inventory. Who's here?"

"Dr. and Mrs. Axel, the Engbergs, Mayor deMattos and friends from the Citizen League. Teddy's with them now." Theodore was their son, a senior at Bellingham High School.

"Do give them my apologies, dear. I just need to change. Will be with you in a moment."

Arkeson took the stairs to the second floor, then, when he was sure no one was looking, he slipped up to the seldom-used attic. In an unfinished room he turned on a light and set the knapsack on an old school desk.

Quickly, he opened the tin box and laid the contents on the desk. He had only seen them once before, but he knew they had some importance. First, a deed to the newly proposed Broadway Park plat, then an article in a California newspaper about the Bark Andron that went down in Bellingham Bay in 1852, and a brass key.

Why did Mackey Brown hide them at the old brick courthouse before he disappeared? What did he mean?

Janet Oakley of Bellingham is a historian, amateur gardener and the author of "Tree Soldier" and "Timber Rose."