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Commission to research Pickett Bridge history; Pickett House directional signs go back up

City pulls Confederate general's name off Bellingham bridge

City of Bellingham officials removed signs identifying Pickett Bridge at Prospect and Dupont streets, as well as directional signs leading to Pickett House, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.
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City of Bellingham officials removed signs identifying Pickett Bridge at Prospect and Dupont streets, as well as directional signs leading to Pickett House, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.

The City Council unanimously moved Monday to task the Historic Preservation Commission to look into community concerns and the history behind the Pickett Bridge, located at Prospect and Dupont streets.

In the meantime, the directional signs leading to Pickett House are to be put back up.

Council member Terry Bornemann said sending the issue to the commission was a good thing.

“We shouldn’t be making decisions based on knee-jerk reactions because a couple of people want this, or a couple of people want that,” Bornemann said. “These are complicated issues, and this one is more complicated than a lot of what people are reacting to. We need a thorough conversation and discussion, not just reaction.”

The commission will be expected to understand community concerns, research the history of the bridge and present its findings and recommendations to the mayor and City Council. A date for when the recommendations might be made has not been set.

Council member Pinky Vargas echoed Bornemann’s sentiments, saying there was misinformation about the council’s involvement in the issue.

“I want to be very clear that we support this going to the Historic Commission. This is not a council decision alone, we can’t be reactive,” Vargas said. “We did not authorize the removal of the signs. … This was not the City Council’s purpose or objective. Our objective was to do this properly and not be reactive.”

City officials removed signs identifying the Pickett Bridge and directional signs leading to Pickett House after the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va. in mid-August. The Pickett Bridge signs are to stay down while council members discuss whether or not to rename the bridge, but directional signs leading to the Pickett House are to be restored soon.

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.

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City of Bellingham officials removed signs identifying Pickett Bridge at Prospect and Dupont streets, as well as directional signs leading to The Pickett House, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Officials said the removal of the signs were because of concerns from community members and Western Washington University students who expressed displeasure with the bridge bearing the name 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.

At an afternoon meeting, Mayor Kelli Linville apologized for not following the direction of the City Council to not remove the signs until after the Historic Commission had made its recommendations, and said she would direct Public Works crews to put the directional signs leading to Pickett House back up.

“I apologize for not just continuing on down the road with what you (the council) had asked me to do,” Linville said. “I wanted to let you know there was no malice involved in what happened, and if I had it to do over again, I would have followed the direction you gave to me.”

The bridge bearing Pickett’s name, and the one the City Council is concerned with, however, was not the bridge Pickett supervised construction of, nor was it the first to span Whatcom Creek. Pickett’s bridge was originally built at what would be Prospect and Ellsworth streets, while the current bridge was known as 17th Street bridge when it was built 31-years after Pickett’s.

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt

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