Special Reports

Center of business shifts with time

The business core of the town we now call Bellingham has been an undulating center that shifted from place to place, roughly following the veins of transportation.

In 1852, Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody hired two Lummi guides to canoe them to a place where a stream emptied into Bellingham Bay. Lummi and Nooksack Indians called the place "Whatcom," for the waterfall at the mouth of the creek and meaning "noisy-all-the-time."

The landing of that canoe was also the landing of commerce on Bellingham Bay. Roeder and Peabody named the new town Whatcom, after the creek, and built a mill. The area began to grow as lumber from the surrounding forests left Bellingham Bay for markets around the region.

Then, in 1858, the Fraser River Gold Rush trail led directly past the new town of Whatcom. Reports from that time claim there were more people camped out on the beach at Whatcom than in all of the rest of Washington Territory. When miners found a better way up the Fraser River, Whatcom shrunk to fewer than 100 people.

During the same time, the newly platted town of Sehome was growing to accommodate miners of a different sort - coal miners. Bellingham Bay Coal Mine, founded in 1855, soon became the biggest employer in the area. Exporting the coal meant building the Sehome dock to accommodate ships that would sail the product to market in California. The center of commerce for the bay cities migrated from Whatcom to Sehome, the area now occupied by downtown Bellingham.

Bennett's vision

It may have been Dirty Dan Harris who platted the town of Fairhaven in 1883, but it was the business acumen of Nelson Bennett that attracted big investors to the city five years later. Bennett, who had developed Tacoma, planned to bring railroads, steamers and real estate moguls to Fairhaven, creating a transportation hub for northern Puget Sound.

His vision for Fairhaven inspired an economic boom. Buildings went up so quickly that developers forgot to accommodate space for alleyways in the business area. Arrival of the railroads in 1891 attracted merchants from all over the region. Fairhaven became commerce central.

Fairhaven's boom turned to bust, however, with the nationwide depression of 1893. The deep ports of Fairhaven pulled the city out of the economic mire and helped it retain its place as a major center of commerce along the bay.

The 1903 vote to consolidate Fairhaven and Whatcom was the impetus for many local businesses to move into what we now think of as downtown Bellingham. The large industries ringing the bay were still tied to the shipping and railroad lines that serviced them along the waterfront, but small businesses relied on local buyers - the majority of whom lived in what had formerly been known as Sehome.

Auto worldOnce again, in 1960, transportation played a role in changing the location of the core business area. That's when a 5-mile stretch of Interstate 5 opened from Samish Way to Northwest Avenue.

Prior to the construction of I-5, travelers moved into or through downtown Bellingham on Pacific Highway (U.S. 99). The building of the interstate stole business from the downtown area and began to erode its customer base. Contractors completed I-5 in 1966.

Relocation of traffic away from the downtown business core and along the I-5 corridor inspired David Syre, CEO of Trillium Corp., to lobby for development of a mall where the freeway crossed Meridian Street. Downtown merchants fought, but lost, the battle to stop the mall.

Bellis Fair opened in 1988, draining more customers from an already struggling downtown. How to attract customer traffic remains a major focus for downtown Bellingham.

Meanwhile, the commercial area along Meridian continues to expand with the addition of such national chains as Wal-Mart and Costco. The influx of chain stores, combined with the location of Bellis Fair, has been instrumental in shifting the center of Bellingham's population even further north.