Dean Kahn

New history book: Mount Baker Lodge fabulous but ill-fated

This photo shows Mount Baker Lodge in the center, with its annex just beyond the observation tower. The annex was built in 1928. Heather Inn is in the upper right corner, with cabins to the left. The annex, inn and cabins all survived the 1931 fire that destroyed the lodge.
This photo shows Mount Baker Lodge in the center, with its annex just beyond the observation tower. The annex was built in 1928. Heather Inn is in the upper right corner, with cabins to the left. The annex, inn and cabins all survived the 1931 fire that destroyed the lodge. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

At long last there’s a book devoted solely to Mount Baker Lodge, the stunning resort hotel at Heather Meadows that opened the summer of 1927.

Alas, the lodge burned to the ground four years later, leaving future generations of admirers like Mike Impero yearning to see the lobby’s polished oak floor, enjoy a meal in the massive dining hall, and gaze at the mountains from the lodge’s 70-foot observation tower.

“I’d give anything to walk into this thing,” he said.

Impero, who lives north of Bellingham, can’t travel back in time to visit the lodge, so he did the next best thing: He researched and wrote a history of the lodge, and gathered hundreds of photographs, documents and artifacts. His new book, “The Grand Lady of Mount Baker; A History of the Mount Baker Lodge From 1927-1931,” is now available at local stores.

“If you like history and you like detail, this is it,” Impero said.

Impero, 74, was a good candidate to tell the Grand Lady’s tale. The son of a logger, he attended grade school in Maple Falls and graduated from Mount Baker High School. He’s the author of three other history books about the upper reaches of Whatcom County: “The Lone Jack,” “Dreams of Gold,” and “The Boys of Glacier.”

“I’ve always had a great love for the area,” he said.

Now retired, he owned Impero Construction Co. for 35 years, so he knows more than a thing or two about construction projects, from finances to finishing touches.

Building the lodge was a story in itself. Early construction proceeded even though the mountain road hadn’t been punched through to the building site. Crews had to bring in building materials by packhorse and stockpile them before winter snows made passage impossible.

The L-shaped lodge was roofed and enclosed so interior work could proceed during the winter. Heavy snows required extra effort to keep the roof from collapsing, and strong winds blew snow into the lodge through the siding.

“They had to shovel that out because they’d already laid the oak floors,” Impero said. “What they went through was monumental.”

The main lodge had 100 rooms. In addition, the nearby Heather Inn housed workers, several cottages provided space for campers and tourists, and a 32-room lodge annex was built in 1928. Altogether, the complex had room for about 340 people.

Grand opening

The lodge officially opened July 14, 1927, with a formal banquet and dancing.

For visitors, the lodge must have smelled like a forest, with cedar shakes covering the walls of the lobby, dining room and hallways. At one end of the lobby, a massive stone fireplace burned logs up to 10 feet long.

Each room had hot and cold water, a telephone, and space heaters. Some had a fireplace.

For fun, people boated in a small lake, hiked, rode horses, played miniature golf, watched movies, listened to music, and sang by campfires.

The Bellingham Herald had called the lodge “Bellingham’s greatest attraction that, more than anything else, was counted on to make Bellingham one of the principal tourist centers of the West.”

Business boomed, but the venture had built-in problems. The lodge wasn’t designed for wintertime occupancy and fledgling winter sports, Impero said, so its business season ran only from mid-June to Labor Day.

Mountain lodges elsewhere had railroad stops near their front doors, but people had to drive or catch a bus from Bellingham to reach Mount Baker Lodge. As the Great Depression tightened its grip, fewer people could afford junkets to the lodge, and the lodge’s ritzy reputation deterred visitors of more moderate means, Impero said.

The lodge was built by Mount Baker Development Co., headed by such prominent Whatcom County leaders as E.B. Deming, the wealthy head of Pacific American Fisheries; J.J. Donovan, engineer and businessman; Bert Huntoon, engineer and road builder; and Frank Sefrit, managing editor of The Bellingham Herald. Their venture was backed by their own money, by $250,000 raised by shares of stock sold to the public, and by $200,000 in bonds.

Sad ending

On Aug. 5, 1931, shortly after 5 in the morning, people saw smoke rising from the roof of the lodge. The massive wooden structure and its oil tank were quickly engulfed in flames.

In a lost cause, employees fought the inferno with water from a reservoir uphill. No one died, but in just over two hours the lodge was reduced to smoldering ruins amid a few stone chimneys and the lobby fireplace.

“It burned clean,” Impero said.

The fire was attributed to faulty wiring or the lodge’s balky direct-current power system. Whatever the cause, the developers’ insurance coverage fell far short. While Heather Inn and the annex survived, energy for a new lodge waned. Even with construction costs lower because of the Depression, the lodge was never rebuilt.

After his research, Impero says the developers may have let the beauty of the mountain setting outweigh a sound business approach.

“They were overwhelmed with the concept,” he said.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com. Read his columns at bellinghamherald.com/dean-kahn.

Mount Baker Lodge book

“The Grand Lady of Mount Baker; A History of the Mount Baker Lodge From 1927 - 1931,” by Mike Impero, retails for $34.95.

The 192-page, large-format book includes numerous color and black-and-white photographs, and a cover-pocket insert with a reproduction of a 1941 U.S. Forest Service map of the Nooksack recreation area.

The book is available at Village Books, Henderson Books, U.S. Forest Service ranger stations in Whatcom County and Sedro-Woolley, and in shops and stores along Mount Baker Highway.

  Comments