Special Reports

City services born of population boom

In 1903, many of the businesses in Old Town were built on pilings and perched over the tideflats.

There were only a handful of paved roads in the entire city. Most people got around by horse and buggy, by streetcar or by walking. A trip to Seattle involved a 10-hour steamer ride from Sehome Dock. A trip to the bathroom meant a dash to the outhouse.

Bellingham had a lot of growing up to do.

While outside interests, particularly those of the San Francisco-based Bellingham Bay Improvement Co., steered the development of the bay cities through the late 1800s, the job really fell to the local city leaders after consolidation in 1903.

The Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad, the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway were all bringing new arrivals every day from all over the country, people who were looking for opportunity.

"Percentage wise, between 1900 and 1910, the population of Bellingham almost doubled," said Richard Vanderway, education curator at Whatcom Museum of History & Art. "It was the time of the biggest population growth in the history of Whatcom County, outside of the 1980s and 1990s."

A housing boom ensued to accommodate the new arrivals, and the city went to work providing the services that citizens expected.

Bellingham established a paid fire department in 1905. The 12 firefighters used a three-horse combination chemical, 60-ton tank, and carried 1,200 feet of hose. They also had a two-horse wagon and an old Silsby steam engine. The Silsby had a foot bell the driver could ring and a steam whistle the engineer could blow as the team galloped through town to a fire.

Bellingham had 21 police officers in 1904 and, interestingly enough, added only one more officer to the team by 1926.

The city water system, built by Bellingham Bay Improvement in the 1880s and bought by the city of Whatcom in 1892, was a gravity system made of light steel and cast iron pipe. In 1926, Bellingham bought the Lake Padden-fed Fairhaven City Water system. Today's system diverts water from the middle fork of the Nooksack River to Lake Whatcom and arrives via 14 reservoirs - filtered, chlorinated and with a dash of powdered, active carbon for taste.

By 1925, there were 35,819 people living in the city, 120 miles of water mains, 78 miles of sewer and 312 fire hydrants. As the infrastructure improved, so did the overall physical characteristics of the city.

Donna Sands' father, Jim Macy, moved here in 1911 and paved many of the roads in the city, including Forest Street, his first job in 1913.

"It used to be, wherever you went, you'd see J.W. Macy or Macy Brothers on the sidewalk," she said.

Piece by piece, pavement replaced the dirt, planked and elevated roads of Bellingham.

"The streetcar system paid for paving the roads," explained Vanderway. "In a sense, they paved themselves right out of business."

In 1903, however, there was only one automobile in the county. Many residents relied on the streetcars of Whatcom County Railway and Light Co. to get around.

The four streetcar lines were the Main Line, from Squalicum Creek to Harris Avenue; the Lake Line, from Holly Street to Silver Beach; the Sixteenth and Garden Line, from 11th Street and Harris to Garden Street; and the Court House Line, from Holly Street to Broadway. They ran until 1938.

The Skagit County Interurban Line, from Bellingham to Mount Vernon and from Burlington to Sedro-Woolley, opened in 1912, providing transportation to neighboring cities until 1930.

In 1912, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged Whatcom Creek Waterway and filled a large expanse of neighboring tidelands, thinking that the distant opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 would boost nautical business here. The site, originally used for railroads, eventually became home to Georgia-Pacific West Inc.

During the same period, landfills began to sop up a number of city wetlands as well.

"Where City Hall sits today, it used to be a garbage dump," said Jeanie Bond, an archivist with the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. "People would drive along the street in front of City Hall and dump the garbage in the mill pond to fill it."