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History of Bellingham, Washington

Bellingham Bay was named by Captain George Vancouver when he charted the waters of northwestern Washington state in 1792. The bay was named for Sir William Bellingham, the chief accountant of the British Navy who provided supplies to Vancouver for his explorations. The inland sea was named Puget Sound for Lieutenant Peter Puget, who served under Vancouver. When the third lieutenant, Joseph Baker, sighted a large, snow-capped mountain, Vancouver promptly named it Mount Baker. The original inhabitants of what is now Bellingham were the Lummi Indians who lived off the land harvesting fish, shellfish, plants, deer, and other game animals. Captain Vancouver found a community of about 3,000 people living there. Today’s Lummi, Semiahmoo, Nooksack, and other Coast Salish people are descendants of peoples who made a great trek over the land bridge that once connected Asia to North America as long as 12,000 years ago. About 60 years after Vancouver’s voyage, Henry Roeder and Russell V. Peabody from San Francisco came in 1852 looking for lumber to supply their town’s growing demands. They asked the Lummi chief if he knew of a place where water fell all the time from a high hill. The chief led them to Whatcom Falls where they built a saw mill and produced lumber until it burned in 1873. Roeder and his wife, Elizabeth, became the first white settlers in Whatcom County. Their son, Victor, founded Bellingham National Bank and in 1903, built a stately Craftsman-style home that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was donated to the county in 1971 for use as a cultural and social center. In 1856, Captain George E. Pickett was sent to the area with a company of infantry to protect settlers from the Haida Indians. He built Fort Bellingham, the town’s first bridge, and a wood-frame home for himself and his Indian wife. In 1859, Pickett stood fast against the British who were claiming the San Juan Islands during the “Pig War” boundary dispute with the United States. His home, one of the state’s oldest landmarks, is on the National Register of Historic Places. By 1889, four independent and vigorous towns had sprung up here — Whatcom, Bellingham, Fairhaven and Sehome. There was lively competition among them for shares of the local fishing and mineral assets, and on July 12, 1904, the communities merged to form the City of Bellingham. An ornate Victorian building, built as New Whatcom’s city hall in 1892, became the seat of the new city’s government. Since 1941, it has been home to the Whatcom Museum of History and Art. Two buildings feature contemporary art, historical exhibits and original installations. Today’s Bellingham with its population of 72,000-plus is an extraordinary blend of old and new with its superb shopping and charming historic districts, fine museums and stately Victorian homes. It has become a popular tourist attraction. Located on the south side of Bellingham, the Fairhaven District is noted for its colorful 19th century history, which includes 1880s developer and ex-rum-runner Daniel Harris, known as “Dirty Dan.” The district is home to distinctive shops, restaurants, pubs, art galleries, bookstores, a boutique hotel and destination inn and spa. The charm of Fairhaven includes a long history of folklore. One of the most well-known tales regards a colony of black cats that still roam the streets today. Another involves “Grandpa Clarence,” who was mayor of Fairhaven in 1895 and apparently collaborated with Mark Twain on the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer books. Bellingham is home to Western Washington University on Sehome Hill, which provides a sweeping view across the bay to the San Juan Islands. Bellingham is a transportation center with Bellingham International Airport, Amtrak train service, Greyhound and motorcoach shuttles, commuter flights, and foot-passenger ferries to the San Juan Islands and Victoria, British Columbia, and it is the southern port of the Alaska Ferry.