Special Reports

Nooksack flows through Ferndale history

Alice Eldridge, daughter of Bellingham pioneers Edward and Teresa Eldridge, gave Ferndale its name when writing home one afternoon in 1874 about her experiences as the first teacher in the area.

Ferns surrounded her one-room log schoolhouse on the Thomas Wynn farm, west of what is now Interstate 5, just south of exit 262. She wasn't the first to notice the plants. Local Indians cultivated fern roots and ate them as a staple.

When county commissioners created a voting precinct among settlers in the area, they named it "Jam Precinct" after an ancient, river-blocking logjam over a mile in length that had settled at what was once the river's mouth, where the incoming tide still slows the river's flow.

Travel upstream was limited to canoes, as it involved a lengthy portage, the most popular being through Tenant Lake. Otherwise, the boats had to be dragged. One of them, salvaged from Silver Lake, now sits upstairs at the Gerdrum Museum near Maple Falls.

Early settlers, especially the growing community around Lynden, needed the river open for reliable commerce and safe travel. Given that, the name "Jam" became an insulting symbol of political indifference.

Enter Phoebe Judson, the so-called "mother of Lynden" who could also be called the "stepmother of Ferndale." She got the jam removed, attacking the problem as coolly as if it were just a giant dust bunny.

Judson put together several funding schemes, beginning in May 1876, and within weeks had money raised and a man hired, Probate Judge John Plaster. On a Sunday, Feb. 20, 1877, the last of the stumps, brush and tree trunks floated away. "Jam" was no more.

A 20-year era of steamboats on the Nooksack River followed. Then the railroads arrived in the 1890s. When the tracks reached the river at Ferndale, a swinging drawbridge that allowed steamboats to pass was installed. It's still there; the steamboats are not.

East vs. West

As a town, Ferndale began on the east side of the Nooksack, behind what is now Delancey's Garden Center, on land that Ambrose Rodgers bought in 1877.

Rodgers' brother Darius, storekeeper at the Sehome coal mine, opened a store there in 1878 when the mine closed. In the words of the popular 1874 folk song "Acres of Clams," they did very well provisioning fellow ex-miners wanting to "try farming, the only pursuit that is sure."

The store is now across the river in Pioneer Park, a fine place to learn out about Ferndale and Whatcom County history.

In 1882, the Rodgers brothers put together a syndicate to buy the steam-powered Gazelle, a Columbia River sternwheeler that unfortunately hit a snag and sunk not long after starting service between Seattle and various points along the Nooksack River.

Darius Rogers was wiped out, losing his business to fellow steamboat investor John Hardan of Barrett Lake. He was able to start over again on the west side of the Nooksack by pre-empting the claim of Billy Clark on a technicality. Clark, by then an old man, ran a ferry service to his land in the old Nooksack village Ta-Tas-Um, now Pioneer Park. Rodgers got the land but Hardan got the ferry at what had been known as Clark's Crossing.

Rodgers took the Ferndale post office with him to the west side, but Hardan obtained another permit. For a time, the west Ferndale and east Ferndale post offices faced off across the river. The question as to which would prevail became moot when the Postal Service found out and revoked Hardan's permit.

A rush of settlers in 1883, and businesses moving in from the town of Whatcom, in the dumps after its mine closed, secured Ferndale's future on the west side of the river.

Early pioneer John Tennant ran a real estate business where Delancey's Garden Center greenhouse now sits. A Methodist missionary, his church in east Ferndale is now the day-care center next to Delancey's.

In 1868, Tennant, along with Edmund Coleman, made the first ascent of Mount Baker. Tennant's house still sits on the north side of Tennant Lake, visible from Nielson Road just north of the entrance to Hovander Homestead Park.

Norm Robertson, 78, of Ferndale grew up on a 30-acre Brown Road farm that was typical of area's family farms that provided a good living through the 1960s. As if lifted whole from an Iowa cornfield, Ferndale became a farm town, complete with a Kelley-Farquhar fruit packing plant, and ag courses taught in the high school.

"We had 1,200 chickens and six or eight cows," Robertson recalled. "Before farming, my dad mined coal underneath Bellingham Bay. He also worked for the Pearson brothers. In the 1920s they were the first to electrify Ferndale with excess steam power from their sawmill."