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Bellingham’s Bayview Cemetery marks 125th anniversary with history tour

There’s a green enclave in the middle of Bellingham that’s home to more than 24,000 people, but the sounds you hear there are made only by visitors. Acres of grass and some 67 species of trees provide a peaceful backdrop for the stone and metal monuments that remind us we’re all mortal, and perhaps prompt us to ponder what we are each making of our limited time on earth.

Bayview Cemetery, Bellingham’s nonprofit burial park, is 125 years old. Working with a modest promotional budget, the cemetery hosted a history tour and talk last week, with more planned for next summer. Such talks and tours are informative, but don’t wait to explore Bayview yourself. Even if you don’t have loved ones buried there, or don’t have a compelling interest in local history, Bayview remains a calming place to amble and enjoy autumn’s mantle.

Waterfront burials

Early on, Bellingham Bay settlers buried their dead near the water, when they weren’t burying them in their backyard. In 1862, Fairhaven booster “Dirty Dan” Harris sold about four acres to the county for use as a cemetery. The acreage, where Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant is now located, sold for $150.

The land had been called Poe’s Point, after Alonzo M. Poe, the civil engineer whose land claim included the property. Other names linked to the property have been Commercial Point and, more aptly, Dead Man’s Point and Graveyard Point.

It wasn’t long before public officials decided a larger cemetery was needed. Population growth, I presume, made the need for more burial space evident. Fairhaven’s economic boom, I also presume, made the land more valuable for conducting business than for paying one’s respects.

So in 1887 the town of Whatcom (what is now the Old Town area), paid $250 for 10 acres for Whatcom City Cemetery, along the road to Lake Whatcom. The first burials there took place in 1888, with the Rev. John Dobbs of Methodist Episcopal Church first in line for his final resting place.

Another 12 acres for the cemetery were purchased in 1889, the same year Whatcom’s mayor dedicated the cemetery, giving us this year’s 125th anniversary. The cemetery expanded again in 1924, and the adjacent mausoleum was donated to the city five years later. Today, the cemetery covers about 100 acres, of which 55 are being actively used.

Starting in 1889, bodies buried at the Fairhaven waterfront were exhumed and reburied at the new cemetery. Accounts say 64 bodies were moved, a process not for the squeamish. Several years later, while Poe’s Point was being leveled with high-pressure hoses, parts of skeletons and at least one coffin made a belated appearance above ground.

Bodies from other small burial sites also were moved to the cemetery, which was given the name Bay View in 1902. Ask me when the two-word cemetery name became “Bayview” and I’ll tell you, I don’t know.

Taking the trolley

Access to the cemetery became easier when trolley service to Lake Whatcom opened in 1892. At first, mourners could ride to the cemetery with their loved one’s coffin on the front platform with the motorman, who, one hopes, wasn’t squeamish. In 1904, an enterprising undertaker began offering a private funeral trolley for rent. The large trolley car was bright white, with a hemlock interior and a glass-faced space for the casket.

When that trolley car was shipped to Everett, a replacement trolley was built with a mahogany interior and plush upholstery, just in time for the 1913 funeral procession for Albert Mead of Blaine, the only person from Whatcom County to serve as the state’s governor. An extra seven streetcars were needed for the many mourners.

Funeral trolley service, well, died, with the appearance of motorized hearses.

Other noteworthy people buried at Bayview include Ella Higginson, the once-famous Bellingham writer and Washington state poet laureate; Galen Biery, the well-known collector of historic Whatcom County photographs; John Joseph (J.J.) Donovan, the turn-of-the century business and civic leader recently honored with a bronze statue in Fairhaven; and Beverly Dobbs, a photographer who documented gold miners in Alaska in the early 1900s and made a groundbreaking motion picture about the gold rush and life north of the Arctic Circle.

You’ll also find Matthew Bickford, a Civil War soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor by Congress for leading a charge against a Confederate stockade in 1863. There are more than 200 Civil War veterans at Bayview, representing both sides of the noisy war in quiet repose.