Researchers: Dynamiters diverted Nooksack

Lummi Indians camped on Lummi Island in this 1895 photo.
Lummi Indians camped on Lummi Island in this 1895 photo. PHOTO COURTESY OF WHATCOM MUSEUM OF HISTORY & ART

By the time the Bellingham Bay cities merged into the new city of Bellingham, the Whatcom County terrain had been radically changed for its first inhabitants as incoming settlers built houses and logging encampments, felled trees and blew apart logjams to make their lives and commerce easier.

Perhaps no single change in the area's geography affected local tribes and the city's founders as much as the diversion of the Nooksack River to Bellingham Bay from its historic terminus into Lummi Bay and the Straits of Georgia.

While the river naturally shifted back and forth from its historic Lummi River channel to the more easterly terminus throughout history, most researchers agree that it wasn't nature but a secret midnight dynamite party that made the river's final move east in 1908.

Although the shift provided easier access between the fledgling timber town of Bellingham and the upriver stands of old-growth trees, it muddied the river's waters and destroyed its usefulness as the eastern boundary of the Lummi Reservation.

Willie Jones, a Lummi tribal council member, said he remembered meeting an old professor in college around 1970 who had lived in Bellingham at the turn of the century.

"He would go on to the docks and look down in the water and see the rocks on the bottom of Bellingham Bay," Jones said. "He went back later and he couldn't see the bottom anymore."

Several local historians and researchers have detailed the historic shifts in the Nooksack's path. Leroy Deardorff, environmental director of Lummi Nation's natural resources department, wrote the first history of the river from a tribal perspective, and the most comprehensive to date, in 1992.

Here is the timeline of the Nooksack River's shift, according to Deardorff's text and other local historians:

  • Early 1800s: A logjam blocked the river's passage to Bellingham Bay and the river terminated via the Lummi River into Lummi Bay. To get past the jam, people had to exit their canoes and walk around.
  • 1877: People living along the river raised money to have the logjam removed and clear the channel to Bellingham Bay. Soon after, steamer traffic started up the river from Bellingham, and logging companies used it as a sluice.
  • 1890: Bellingham Bay Boom Co. constructed a piling boom across from the channel in Bellingham Bay to collect logs as they came down. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the boom illegally blocked the river's mouth, but by then the company was broke. Remnants of the boom still exist in the bay.
  • 1897: Logjams that formed at the mouth of the river blocked traffic. Congress OK'd $90,000 to clear the channel.
  • 1901: Despite efforts to remove the logjam, it kept growing, reportedly reaching more than a mile up the river.
  • 1908: Newspapers said the river's channel to the bay was once again clogged and that an unknown event had forced a new passage a mile east of the former outlet.
  • According to Deardorff, connecting Bellingham Bay to the upriver timber and settlements was a boon to early settlers.

    "If the main river began to empty into Lummi Bay, any trips, commercial or otherwise, between the cities on the bay and the upriver towns and settlements may have been increased by rerouting around the Lummi peninsula and perhaps encountering whatever additional hazards, weather or other, there might be," he wrote.

    Bellingham's first mayor, J.W. Romaine, had bought some property in the slice of land between the river's old channel and the new one formed in 1908.

    Romaine's purchase brought into question the eastern boundary of Lummi Reservation, defined by treaty as the Nooksack River. When the river was redirected a mile to the west in 1908, Romaine thought that shift had removed a sliver from the reservation, a sliver that included his land and an important overland route toward Ferndale.

    But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling in 1919 that though the river had changed, the boundaries of the reservation had not.