Special Reports

Residents sought weekend solace at parks

It's tempting to think of Bellingham in 1903 as a young settlement, sweetly reclined at the foot of giant evergreens, daintily dipping her virgin toes in the pristine waters of Bellingham bay.

The reality was much different.

Industries - canneries, coal mines, lumber and shingle mills - ringed the bay; smoke from their stacks billowing skyward, sometimes thick enough to obliterate the view between Whatcom and Fairhaven.

Mudflats stole up the shore and into town. Rain turned dirt roads into puddles of muck. Horses left their calling cards all over the streets. By the time Sunday arrived, folks were ready to find a clean place to relax and socialize.

"People went on train excursion rides from Bellingham to various places on the line," said Richard Vanderway, education curator at Whatcom Museum of History & Art. "They just got out of the city and went on picnics."

White City amusement park, the last stop on the Lake Line streetcar, was a favorite destination in the early years following Bellingham's consolidation. Built along Lake Whatcom's north shore, the amusement park sported an impressive wooden roller coaster, plus a hotel, dance hall and an ice cream parlor.

Humphrey Griggs, 94, remembers White City well.

"If you didn't have a car, you had to take the streetcar out there," he said. "You could go on the Ferris wheel, the merry-go-round and eat hot dogs." Griggs' father, Horace, started Griggs Stationery and Printing Co. in downtown Bellingham in 1906, the same year White City opened. The park closed in 1919; Griggs' business continues today.

Park land donated

During the life of White City, Bellingham sprouted several major parks closer to home, many of them donated by individuals, firms or associations. Well-known philanthropists and investors like Charles X. Larrabee, Cyrus Gates and Henry Roeder donated generous parcels of land with an eye toward attracting homesteaders to the neighborhood.

Bellingham's oldest park was named for Elizabeth Roeder, Henry's wife. He donated 4.5 acres to the town of Whatcom in 1884, but the land sat unimproved until 1901, when the Ladies Cooperative Society erected a bandstand. From 1905 to 1912, the parks board oversaw major improvements, including construction of a small pond and the placement of Haller Fountain, donated by G. Morris Haller of Seattle.

In 1906, business partners Larrabee and Gates donated five acres for Fairhaven Park and promised to spend $250,000 on improvements. Other land donations followed, with the bulk of the eventual 16-acre park coming from Larrabee, Gates and the estate of Erastus Bartlett.

Complete with a rose garden, wading pool and pavilion, Fairhaven Park was home to the nation's tallest natural flagpole, a limbed red cedar that stood 177 feet tall.

Fairhaven Park featured a petting zoo from 1908 to 1922. Then, in 1923, part of the park was turned into an automobile tourist camp in the area where the parking lot is today. Instead of staying in hotels, visitors would pull their cars into the park and put up a tent, a turn-of-the-century precursor to today's RV parks.

Long before Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody arrived on Bellingham Bay in 1852, Lummi Indians used the three falls on Whatcom Creek for their traditional winter resort. In 1908, the downtown property went up for sale and civic leaders scrambled to buy the land before developers got hold of it.

Forming the Young Men's Commercial Club, 16 philanthropists bought the 40 acres and held it in trust until the city could afford to buy it in 1916. Today, the land is home to Maritime Heritage Park.

Although San Francisco industrialist Pierre B. Cornwall never lived in Bellingham, he founded Bellingham Bay Improvement Co. and played a giant role in the development of the early Bellingham Bay cities. Five years after Cornwall died in 1904, his children, Bertha Fischer and Bruce Cornwall, donated 65 acres to Bellingham to form Cornwall Memorial Park.

In the 1890s, sandstone from Sehome Hill was quarried and used for the foundation of Old Main at New Whatcom Normal School, now Western Washington University. After the establishment of Sehome Park in 1922, however, the hill was better known as Bellingham's premier lovers' lane. Sweethearts enjoyed a spectacular view of Bellingham Bay from the peak of Huntoon Drive, named for the parks commissioner who directed the road's development. The road originally made a loop up and over the hill, through a hand-dug sandstone tunnel. Today the road is closed to traffic, but still open to lovers.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, university and city officials worked together to turn Sehome Hill Park into an arboretum, a forested hilltop that stands as testament to the conservation ethic.