Special Reports

Port was hub of bustling timber industry

The first European settlers to take root in Bellingham Bay, Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody, arrived in a canoe powered by two Lummi Indian guides in 1852.

They were looking for hydropower to run a mill, and they found it at the Whatcom Creek falls, where Maritime Heritage Park sits today. With the permission of Lummi Chief Chawitzit, the two men built a mill and laid the groundwork for Whatcom County's timber industry.

Cutting their way through the ancient trees that grew right down to the water's edge, the pioneers slowly carved out a home on Bellingham Bay. In time, lumber and shingle mills sprang up all over the county to accommodate the byproduct of their work. In the early 1890s, three railroad lines arrived, connecting the bay cities to a nationwide market of builders.

By 1900, there were 68 shingle mills in Whatcom County, outputting $5 million worth of product in one year alone. Puget Sound Sawmills & Timber Co., in Fairhaven, was the largest shingle mill in the world, producing 135 million shingles in the first year of the new century. Bellingham Bay was a bustling port with huge sailing ships hauling timber, lumber and shingles to places around the world.

Mill memoriesIn 1904, William McGillivray's father, Dougal McGillivray, came from Canada to work at the Bloedel Donovan Mill on Lake Whatcom. "There used to be a shack town for the millworkers right there at the mill," said the 94-year-old unofficial mayor of Silver Beach. "I had two sisters born over there."

McGillivray, "Mac" to his friends, sits in the house he built in 1931. Near the shores of Lake Whatcom, his home is half a mile away from Bloedel Donovan Park, former site of the mill. He points out the window to the house next door. "I was born right there in 1909," he said with a grin.

McGillivray finished eighth grade and became a shingle worker at Bloedel Donovan when he was 14. He shared the job with his younger brother, Ray.

"Flatcars would come in on the Milwaukee or the Northern Pacific line and take the shingles to the bay and they'd load 'em up," he said.

Mac can remember expansive log booms floating down the 12-mile lake to the mill.

"It would take the tugboat all day to get the booms to us."

He rifles through a near century of memories and comes up with an old one, when Academy Street was just a stand of trees.

"There was a log chute that went right up Toad Lake hill. It was made out of wood, and they would grease it and then send the logs down. We used to play on the chute when we was kids," he recalled, slapping the arm of his chair with a guffaw. "People don't remember that, but I do!"

Mac worked in the mill until 1957, when Bloedel Donovan closed its doors for good. The end of his career in the timber industry echoes the live of so many others.

"Well, you know, they cut all the timber off from around here," he said. "And when they got all through with the timber, they just shut down and that was it!"