Samish Way is in the news these day with the announcement that the city of Bellingham wants to condemn the Aloha Motel for being a drug haven.
The street has gone through major changes over the decades. To ponder those changes, try to imagine Samish Way without pavement, motels, gas stations or restaurants. And no freeway, too.
Doing so makes it easier to realize that Samish Way runs along the western edge of a valley stretching from Sehome Hill east to Puget Hill, and easier to understand why the valley tempted fishers and builders to make it one of Bellingham’s early neighborhoods.
By the early 1930s, what is now North Samish Way carried a pastoral name, Maple Valley Road. A graveled road then, it ran past fields, woods and a few houses.
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In 1933, John Johnson, a Norwegian immigrant by way of North Dakota, and his son, Jim, opened a two-pump gas station and repair garage at the midway point in the road. The nearest other business was a restaurant nearly two miles distant. When Jim Johnson wasn’t busy servicing and repairing cars, his friends and customers would drop by to visit and keep warm by the potbellied stove inside the station.
That low-key way of life would soon change. Samish Way’s evolution from easygoing back road to troubled thoroughfare has many causes, to be sure, but one factor is Samish’s up-and-down history as a main route into and out of town.
By the mid-1930s, Samish Way was designated as part of Highway 99, also known as Pacific Highway 1. The route from Canada to Oregon was the main north-south route through Western Washington, and thus the main road through Bellingham. The highway was a network of existing roads, such as Chuckanut Drive and the old Samish highway. Inside Bellingham, Highway 99 followed city streets; from Samish Way to downtown, then out Prospect Street to Elm Street, Northwest Avenue and points north.
It wasn’t long before all of that traffic flowing through the city brought new car-oriented businesses to Samish Way. By 1945, Johnson’s service station’s neighbors included a handful of motor courts and a so-called tourist camp called Lone Star Camp. Restaurants and other gas stations sprouted, too.
In time, the flood of Highway 99 traffic began to trouble city and business leaders, who complained that downtown was becoming choked with traffic and a difficult place to find parking. Civic leaders hoped for change. Big change was on the way.
Work on a limited-access route through Bellingham — the local part of Interstate 5 — began in the early 1950s north of Bellingham, but the freeway through Bellingham wouldn’t be finished until the mid-60s.
In the meantime, Samish Way remained a busy, auto-oriented strip with numerous motels, eateries and gas stations, and other businesses. The Aloha Motel opened in 1960. Other new businesses in the early ’60s included a Texaco service station where Diego’s Mexican Grill is now located and an A&W Drive-In where Boomer’s Drive-In now sits.
The freeway through Bellingham followed the Lincoln Street route between Sehome and Puget hills, rather than a waterfront route favored by some civic leaders. That put Samish Way in the freeway’s hip pocket, draining some of Samish’s vitality but keeping its pulse alive with a freeway exchange at the south end, by Fielding Street.
Work on the freeway from Ferndale south to Northwest Avenue was finished by 1956. The next stage, from Northwest Avenue south to Fielding, wrapped up in 1960. The third stage, from Fielding south to Lake Padden, was done by 1966.
Work on the freeway here and elsewhere got a big boost after President Eisenhower in 1955 proposed funding for a national highway system, in part to provide quick escape routes in the event of an atomic attack. Bombs or no bombs, the freeway changed in Samish Way.
Bellingham Mall, the shopping area now called Sehome Village, was built near the Fielding interchange in the 1960s. It was an early major commercial development outside of downtown, years ahead of Bellis Fair mall.
With the Samish Way exchange in place, motels along Samish remained open for business, but faced new competition from businesses with easy freeway access elsewhere. The freeway also made it easier for motorists to pass through Bellingham without having to stop for the night.
The 1970s and 1980s brought a slew of gas stations to Samish Way, and more chain restaurants, including Shakey’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Arby’s and McDonald’s.
Today, there are still many viable businesses along Samish, and Sehome Village, with a Haggen grocery store, REI and numerous other shops, stays busy. But, say police, several low-cost motels along Samish have become troublesome spots with recurring drug and crime problems.