Pickett Bridge: The struggle with finding a name of ‘historic value’

A sign showing directions to Pickett House along F Street is pictured on Tuesday, Sept. 12, in Bellingham. The signs, which were taken down in mid-August, were put back up Tuesday.
A sign showing directions to Pickett House along F Street is pictured on Tuesday, Sept. 12, in Bellingham. The signs, which were taken down in mid-August, were put back up Tuesday. eabell@bhamherald.com

The city’s Historic Preservation Commission will be looking into community concerns and the history behind the Pickett Bridge, located at Prospect and Dupont streets, a first for the commission because the task differs from its usual duties.

City Council officially made the assignment Monday.

Marissa McGrath, who’s been on the commission about a year and a half, said the ad hoc group normally helps determine whether structures nominated for local, state or national historic registries meet the requirements, or if new building designs fit within certain design-specific areas, such as Fairhaven.

The commission is supposed to encourage conservation of Bellingham’s historic resources and serve as the city’s main resource in matters of history, historic planning and preservation, she said, adding the group mostly serves in an advisory capacity to the city.

McGrath said the commission meets only as needed – the group has only met twice since she became a member. She said the group hasn’t met yet regarding the Pickett Bridge task because they were waiting for the City Council to make it official.

“This is very different from anything we’ve been asked before. I’m excited to work with a group of people knowledgeable about local history on this process,” McGrath said.

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 bridge signs are to stay down while council members discuss whether or not to rename it, but directional signs leading to the Pickett House were restored Tuesday afternoon.

PickettSign 2
A sign showing directions to Pickett House along F Street is pictured on Tuesday, Sept. 12, in Bellingham. The signs, which were taken down in mid-August, were put back up Tuesday. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

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 left the area in 1861 to fight for his home state of Virginia in the Civil War, and later became a general in the Confederate States Army.

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 Confederate general, according to a previous news release from the city.

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.

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.

McGrath said she expects the commission to receive many suggestions to rename the bridge, but she’s “open to any idea.” She has reached out to local stakeholders and historians, as well as both the Lummi and Nooksack tribes for input.

“We have archaeological evidence that there have been indigenous uses of that creek for 10,000 years. Our history using that creek is like 160 years ...that’s a much more important and integral part of the Lummi and Nooksack and part of their history,” McGrath said. “It is one of the birthplaces of the town of Bellingham and Whatcom County, but there is a deeper, richer, longer history that existed before white immigrants and white settlers came here.”

“I hope we can move to a place of better collective understanding of our history by involving more voices and perspectives. … I want it to be something that we as a community have chosen,” she added.

In emails obtained by The Bellingham Herald through a public records request, several City Council members, as well as community members, offered some input into various names for the bridge. Many suggested naming the bridge after Pickett’s Native American wife, or his son, James Tilton Pickett. Others suggested naming it after Lummi tribal elders. Some said the bridge should go back to its original name, the Military Road Bridge.

Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist said it would be nice to have a set of guidelines in case similar issues come up in the future – that way the council or the city could apply a certain set of rules when it came to naming things.

Lilliquist said there are currently no plans to revisit other areas around town that have been named. He said he’s hoping the commission can find a name for the Pickett Bridge that sits well with a broad base of people. Lilliquist added that similar to the Arch of Healing and Reconciliation, the community should determine the value of the historical statement they want to make.

“They picked a value statement that matched our aspirations as a community,” Lilliquist said. “I think that with the bridge some people are hoping to treat it as a neutral historical fact, but memorials are never neutral in that way. They always make a statement one way or the other. … So let’s be clear with what we want to say and say it.”

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt

Related stories from Bellingham Herald