Special Reports

Early settlers looked for good lumber mill site

The first tale of European discovery of what is now Whatcom County came in 1592.

An old Greek sailor, Juan de Fuca, told an Englishman, Michael Lok, that he had sailed north along the Pacific Coast and into a massive inlet near 48 degrees latitude. However, no record of de Fuca's sailing has been found, and his name may have been an alias.

The first recorded discovery of Whatcom County came in 1787, when English Capt. Charles W. Barclay sailed south and then directly into the strait separating Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. A year later, another Englishman, Capt. John Meares, entered the strait and named it after Juan de Fuca, relying on Lok's account of the Greek mariner.

Other sailors who explored the area include Spaniards and British explorers Capt. James Cook and Capt. George Vancouver. By the early 1800s, forts such as Vancouver, along the Columbia River, and Langley, on the Fraser River, became burgeoning settlements in the new Oregon Territory. From such outposts, trappers, traders and missionaries ventured into the wilderness.

By 1853, the area had grown so quickly that Washington Territory was established to rule the northern-most settlements, which had found little satisfaction in the territorial government of Oregon. A year later, the territorial legislature created a new entity, Whatcom County, embracing what is now Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties.

A short time before, on Dec. 15, 1852, Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody entered Bellingham Bay on an Indian canoe, with the hope of erecting a lumber mill to supply California. San Francisco had just suffered a great fire, and both men saw the prospect of selling lumber to the grand city. They were looking for a waterfall next to open water, so they could power their mill while providing easy access to ships. Just such a place could be found in a bay north of Fort Townsend, they'd been told.

They set out to find those roaring waters. As they came ashore, they saw a bustling Lummi village along a rocky shore below bluffs, part of what is now Bellingham.

Drawing a lineJust four years later, British and America crews surveyed the 49th parallel. While doing so, they set up small settlements on Semiahmoo Spit, named after a local tribe, and on the eastern shore of Drayton Harbor, where Blaine now stands.

The settlements along the county's coastline experienced a boom soon after as miners began passing through in search of gold along British Columbia's Fraser River. Although short-lived, the boom bolstered the settlements, even as provincial officials required the miners to check in at Victoria before proceeding to the gold fields.

Growth in Whatcom County slowed down for the next decade, but picked up again by 1870, as the many towns we know today began to see their first long-term settlers.