Special Reports

Brisk debate preceded consolidation

Bellingham beats out Whathaven as new nameIt was all quite complicated, Bellingham began as four towns on Bellingham Bay. Then there were two, which united into one city in 1903. The four original towns bore names that ring familiar today:

"Whatcom," at what is now Bellingham's Old Town area.

"Sehome," where downtown is now located.

"Bellingham," further south, near today's Boulevard Park.

"Fairhaven," where the commercial district by the same name lives on.

In 1890, Fairhaven developers bought the town of Bellingham. A year later, Whatcom and Sehome consolidated as New Whatcom. Then, with a special election on Oct. 27, 1903, Whatcom (which had dropped "New" by then) and Fairhaven consolidated into one city - Bellingham.

Getting the two towns to become Bellingham was no easy task. When consolidation boosters tried it in the mid-1890s, Whatcom voters endorsed the idea but Fairhaven voters turned thumbs down. By 1903, boosters were ready to try again.

Both local newspapers, the Daily Reveille and the Evening Herald (predecessor of The Bellingham Herald) favored consolidation, but public debate remained brisk. Proponents said creating one city would bring prosperity, improve government service and bring stature as Washington's fourth-largest community.

"The interests of the cities are identical; you cannot do a thing for one part of the Bay that you do not do for the other part," wealthy developer C.X Larrabee wrote at the time. "They would have been a good deal larger long ago had they been one city. Consolidation will stop all bickering and jealousies between them. It is much better to have one large town than two little ones."

But John Earles, owner of a big lumber mill in Fairhaven, feared for the future of his town: "If we vote for consolidation and carry it, then we will be doing a good thing for Whatcom and the large landowners there, but we will destroy Fairhaven. Harris Street will be deserted, her stores and workshops will be no more. They will all go to Whatcom."

What's in a name?

There was controversy over the name of the new city, too. Boosters feared that Whatcom voters wouldn't support a city named Fairhaven, and that Fairhaven voters would feel the same way about the name Whatcom. So the ballot measure proposed consolidation under the neutral name of Bellingham.

The name change to Bellingham involved political savvy. If one city wanted to annex another with no name change, it took two-thirds approval from the city being annexed. But if two cities wanted to consolidate under a third name, only 50 percent approval was needed from each.

Some citizens said the name of Bellingham was a fair compromise. Others said it was ridiculous to adopt the name of the local bay. One newspaper suggested a different compromise: "Whathaven."

Once enough signatures were gathered, the issue came up for a vote. Even the ballots proved controversial. In Fairhaven, where the mayor opposed consolidation, the ballot listed "against consolidation" first. In Whatcom, "for consolidation" filled the top spot.

In the end, consolidation won handily - 2,163 to 596.

If the number of ballots seems small, remember that in 1903 only men could vote. Women didn't have the right to vote in Washington until 1910, and not in federal elections until 1920.

With consolidation approved, a new mayor and City Council were elected and installed on Dec. 28, 1903. Newspapers placed the exact time of the birth of Bellingham as 11 minutes after 10 that evening.