Crowds cheered as the automobile ferry made its inaugural landing in Bellingham. The year was 1923. The vessel, the Canadian Pacific ferry “The Motor Princess,” docked at Central Avenue in Whatcom Creek Waterway.
Crowds cheered again in 1989, when the M/V Columbia made the Alaska ferry system’s inaugural docking at its new southern terminus, the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Fairhaven.
Over the decades, Bellingham’s waterfront has been much more than just an iconic feature of Whatcom County. Without Bellingham Bay, the city and county would be a much different place today.
Before the arrival of white settlers, the bay provided sustenance and a means of travel for native peoples, including Lummi and Nooksack tribal members.
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The first whites to set down roots were Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody, attracted by Whatcom Creek as a source of energy to power their lumber mill. As more settlers came, the bay was reshaped for development.
The first docks on the bay were built in the 1880s; some spanned the tide flats for a mile to reach deep water. With help from the federal government, dredging of local waterways began in the early 1900s, making shipping easier and providing material to fill the nearby flats.
In 1920, the Port of Bellingham was created, and was soon busy dredging Squalicum Creek, expanding moorage for fishing and pleasure boats, and buying waterfront land in Fairhaven.
In the 1940s, the waterfront stayed busy during the World War II shipping boom. Pacific American Fisheries, in Fairhaven, became the largest salmon cannery in the world, with 4,500 local jobs at its peak.
Shipping remained active after the war, thanks to the Georgia-Pacific mill and to the Intalco Aluminum smelter near Ferndale. Uniflite built vessels for fishers, recreational boaters, and the military, staying in business from 1957 to 1989. Pacific American Fisheries closed earlier, in 1966. Georgia-Pacific began closing its local mill in 2001.
Over the decades, the waterfront has changed along with industry ups and downs. Marine industry remains healthy today. Commercial fishing out of Squalicum and Blaine marinas supports nearly 1,800 direct jobs, generating almost $95 million a year in wages and salaries, according to a recent study for the port.
“Softer” non-industrial development is on the upswing, including Bellwether Hotel and its adjacent cluster of restaurants, shops and offices.
Public access is more of a focus, too. Marine Park, Taylor Avenue dock and boardwalk, Boulevard Park, Zuanich Point Park, Little Squalicum Park and the planned Cornwall Beach Park, provide a ring of recreational sites along the bay.
Much work remains before the vacant Georgia-Pacific site becomes fully developed, but it’s clear the waterfront will remain a focus for jobs, recreation, and a community sense of history and place.
Fittingly, Bellingham’s newest signature event, supported with $75,000 in tourism tax money, will be a Waterfront and Seafood Festival in 2016.