The Pickett Bridge at Prospect and Dupont streets is not actually Pickett’s bridge.
The bridge received some attention after city officials removed signs identifying the bridge along with directional signs leading to Pickett House two weeks ago following the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va. The signs are to stay down while Bellingham City Council members discuss whether or not to rename the bridge.
Capt. George E. Pickett was a U.S. Army officer who built Fort Bellingham in the 1850s and supervised construction of the first bridge across Whatcom Creek. He was also instrumental in securing the San Juan Islands for the U.S. He left the area in 1861 to fight for his home state of Virginia in the Civil War. Pickett later became a general in the Confederate States Army and helped lead a famous failed charge at the battle of Gettysburg.
Some residents and Western Washington University students have expressed their discomfort with a local landmark named in honor of a military leader who served during a war marked as “a pinnacle of America’s racist history,” according to a previous news release from the city. This prompted city officials, in coordination with the Historic Preservation Commission and other local stakeholders, to look into possibly renaming the bridge.
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However, the bridge that was named after Pickett by the City Council in 1918, is not the bridge that Pickett oversaw the construction of, or the first bridge to span Whatcom Creek.
Pickett was tasked in the summer of 1858 with building a military road across Whatcom Creek that would connect Fort Bellingham in the north with Fort Steilacoom in the south. Congress appropriated $30,000 for the construction, which would be the first to span Whatcom Creek, according to local historians and The Bellingham Herald’s archives.
Soldiers built the bridge under Pickett’s supervision at what would be Prospect and Ellsworth streets. The bridge lasted about 15 years until 1873, when it was rebuilt. The bridge was there until about 1903 when it was then replaced with a streetcar trestle, which was later removed in 1939.
The current bridge at Prospect and Dupont streets was known as the 17th Street bridge and was built around 1889. It was replaced with a concrete one in 1918 and the Daughters of the American Revolution put a commemorative bronze plaque on the bridge in September 1920, according to the archives.
When the plaque was placed, it wasn’t clear that the original military bridge was near the site, and might have led to some confusion between the multiple bridges, said Jeff Jewell, a local historian and research technician with the photo archives at Whatcom Museum.
City Council member April Barker will bring forward an item at the upcoming Sept. 11 council meeting to task the Historic Preservation Commission to look at the specific requests and concerns within the community regarding the name of the bridge, the history behind the designation and suggestions on how to move forward.
Barker said she believes the community is asking for a process and by tasking the commission with the research, it provides an opportunity for the public to learn about Bellingham’s history. She said she was unsure when the commission might make their presentation, but hoped it would be by the end of the year.
“Thoughtful community outreach and full research, that takes time. We want to do the full process to ensure we get a really good presentation on what the community concerns are, what the history is and how we should move forward,” Barker said.
There have been some suggestions to the council to leave the name on the bridge or consider renaming it after James Tilton Pickett, George Pickett’s son with his Native American wife; after different Lummi tribal elders, or to call it the Military Road Bridge.
“I think it would be inappropriate for us to just make some decision on what the name should be, and whether it should even be something different,” Barker said. “The community deserves a process to understand the true history and educate ourselves on the difficult history in our county and community. ...Ultimately we want to understand history from a full perspective.”