Special Reports

Mines faced disasters, financial woes

An abandoned coal mine lies under the surface just above Bellingham Bay, near where Chrysalis Inn & Spa sits today. It's all that is left of the first coal mine in Whatcom County, begun in 1853 by William Pattle and some well-to-do partners.

Local natives had long known about the burnable material in the ground. Pattle's mine marked the first non-Indian venture in the county to tap the hundreds of square miles of coal in the area.

A more successful site was the Sehome Coal Mine, near Laurel Street in current-day Bellingham. The site was sold to a group of San Francisco investors who organized Bellingham Bay Coal Co.

The mine drew workers from all over the country to the newly formed town of Sehome. Houses, grocery stores and saloons sprang up as families began to move in.

The company shipped coal aboard steamers to the California market. By 1860, it was claimed, the mine employed more than 100 people and generated $300,000. The town was small, but the dreams were big.

Soon, however, cave-ins, fires and floods made the work difficult for the miners and expensive for the operators. The unstable economy took its toll and hopes of a profitable business were eventually abandoned, along with the mine, in 1878.

Thirteen years later, at the south end of Lake Whatcom, Idaho silver magnate James Wardner opened the Blue Canyon coal mine. Like the coal in Bellingham, the coal at Blue Canyon was low- to medium-grade bituminous, softer and not as desirable as anthracite coal.

Wardner's mine differed in a crucial way; his business venture was well-funded and had the backing of such leading businessmen as J. H. Bloedel, J. J. Donovan, Peter Larsen, C. W. Carter, and J. A. Kirkpatrick. Early on, the company landed an important contract with the U.S. Navy, supplying coal for the nation's North Pacific fleet.

Still, mining remained dangerous work. In 1895, a huge explosion at the Blue Canyon mine killed 23 workers, making it one the greatest industrial accidents in Washington history at the time. A memorial in Bayview Cemetery commemorates those who died.

When the mine reopened soon after the explosion, it produced a record 500 tons of coal in one day. But like most mines in Whatcom County, Warden's mine was an unprofitable venture overall. Total output for the mine by the time it closed in 1917 was estimated at 260,000 tons, only about 10,000 tons a year. In the last decade of business, the mine produced a mere 50 to 60 tons a day.

The major mine for 20th century Bellingham was the Bellingham Coal Mines, opened in 1917 and closed after 1954 near where the Albertson's grocery store now stands on Northwest Avenue. Donna Sands grew up not far from the mine and used to go there her dad to pick up coal to burn in their furnace.

"He'd drive the truck across the scales and they would weigh the truck," she recalled. "Then you'd go back to where the bunkers were."

Once her dad had the bed of the truck under the chute, he'd pull the chain, the chute would open and down would come the coal.

"Then you'd turn around, go across the scales, get weighed again and pay for the weight of whatever the difference was," Sands said.

Seeking gold

The hunt for gold touched Bellingham Bay in 1858 when miners headed for the Fraser River gold mines in Canada used Bellingham as a rest stop. Closer to home, miners fanned out into the foothills of Mount Baker hoping to strike it rich. There were successes here and there, but nothing like the lucrative hauls found in Canada and Alaska.

The Lone Jack mine on the east slope of Bear Mountain became quite famous in the region. Prospectors there built a mining camp and, in 1900, installed heavy machinery to crush rock. Miners then poured water over the crushed rock, washing away the gravel and, they hoped, leaving behind the heavier gold within the rock. Prospectors pulled $500,000 worth of gold out of the mine before it closed in 1924.

Probably the greatest find in the hills and mountains around Bellingham Bay was Chuckanut sandstone. Henry Roeder bought 93 acres of Chuckanut Mountain in the 1850s, paying a mere $1.50 per acre. He opened the Chuckanut Stone Quarry in 1857, one of the oldest quarries in the state, and began supplying stone for buildings along the West Coast. Before closing in 1908, the quarry averaged 200 tons a day.