The earliest exploration of this part of the northwest coast was by Francisco Eliza, who in 1791 sent a small ship into the bay and, according to Spanish charts, named it Seno de Gaston. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver, who was exploring the Straits of Georgia, sent a small party under Joseph Whidbey to chart the southern shoreline. Upon receiving the report of the surveying party, Vancouver named the large protected body of water Bellingham Bay, in honor of Sir William Bellingham.
More than 50 years passed before white men again turned their attention to this immediate area, for during the first half of the nineteenth century the United States and Great Britain centered the struggle for possession along the Columbia River, and largely in the diplomatic field. The settlement of the boundary question in 1846, fixing the line at 49° North latitude, served to release colonizing energies. On December 15, 1852, Captain Henry Roeder, son of a German immigrant and formerly a captain on a Great Lakes schooner, and Russell V. Peabody left California and made their way northward, planning to start a salmon cannery or a sawmill. Finding that Henry Yesler's mill adequately supplied the little settlement on the Duwamish, Roeder and Peabody continued to Port Townsend, where they embarked in an Indian canoe for Bellingham Bay.
Circumstances were propitious; the market was booming, the San Francisco fire having skyrocketed lumber prices to $1,000 a thousand board feet. All that was needed was a mill. Roeder and Peabody looked upon the virgin wilderness and pronounced it good -- at least for lumbermen. Sweeping back from the sheer bluffs at tide line was an unbroken forest, with scarcely a foot of open ground. Along the creek were giant cedars, while on higher ground were Douglas fir and hemlock. Here, below the falls of Whatcom Creekss, (creek with the rumbling noise, as the Indians called it), they built a crude, temporary shelter. At once they established friendly relations with the Indians and obtained permission from Cha-wit-zit, chief of the Lummi, to appropriate a place near the falls as a site for the mill.
At once they started to build, laboriously hewing the logs and cedar shakes with their far from adequate tools. Not being able to get sufficient help or supplies from Budd Inlet or Victoria, Roeder sailed for San Francisco early in 1853, returning in a few months with a small party including Captain Edward Eldridge, his wife and baby daughter, William Brown, Henry Hewitt, and William Utter, a millwright. He also brought back necessary supplies and equipment, although the high prices and his small finances severely limited the quantity he could buy. By the summer of 1853, the little mill on Whatcom Creek was whining and snorting away, while the friendly Nooksack and Lummi watched with mingled awe and pleasure.
This was the first industrial development on Bellingham Bay; and although the dreams of quickly accumulating profits faded when the bottom dropped out of the lumber market and the price fell to $20 a thousand, this little water-power mill pointed the way to what was to be one of the area's major industries.
In the meantime, while Roeder was in California, the second industry in the region had been started by William R. Pattle, who discovered outcroppings of coal on his donation claim. Roeder and his associates were not at once distracted from the sawmill; later in the same year, however, when Hewitt and Brown stumbled upon a richer vein at the base of all uprooted cedar tree, the vision of a new industry glowed so brightly that Brown was sent to San Francisco with power to dispose of the claims in order to finance development of the mine. San Francisco was ripe for any kind of promotion, and Brown succeeded in selling the claim for $17,000, but, unable to resist the pull of Colorado and the new mining developments there, he went to Denver and, with the nest egg from the sale of the claim, started a career which included the building of the famous Brown's Palace Hotel.
During the next few years, the little settlement met a succession of reverses and disappointments with a faith and dogged perseverance that would not give way. The sawmill proving to be unprofitable, Captain Roeder in 1854 built a small schooner, the H. C. Page, named for one of the settlers, and with this small boat established regular communication with the outside world. The mine began to operate on a small scale, and some coal was shipped to Puget Sound points and to San Francisco. Also in 1854 Whatcom County was organized, and Whatcorn, as the settlement was called, was made the county seat. Within two years, regular governmental procedures had been instituted, and the little town of 30 persons had come to look upon itself as permanently established.
Indian unrest, widespread throughout the Territory in 1855-6, alarmed the settlers in the Whatcom area, especially so because of the feud between the Indians of the north (British Columbia and Alaska) and the Bellingham Bay Indians. The settlers built a small blockhouse and manned it as well as they could, but this slight protection did not allay their fears, and they sent an urgent appeal for aid to the Federal Government. In response to their request, re-enforcements were sent under the command of Captain George E. Pickett, who eight years later was to lead the famous Confederate charge at Gettysburg. Fort Bellingham was built, Whatcom Creek was bridged, and a road was cleared between the fort and the village. Life in Whatcom soon resumed its monotonous if none too easy pace. In addition to the infrequent trips of Roeder's little steamer, connection with the outside world was maintained by a mail service furnished at irregular intervals by "Blanket Bill" Jarman, in a canoe paddled by nine Indians. (Jarman had received his nickname after being ransomed for 52 blankets by Governor Douglas of Vancouver Island).
In 1857 the magic cry "Gold!" drifted down from the Fraser River, gathering volume as it traveled; by April 20, 1858, the San Francisco Examiner could report a rush comparable to that of forty-nine. Early in the summer, fewer than 100 men were going about their tasks along Bellingham Bay. A few log cabins fringed the shore, and the only sounds of industry were the drone of the little sawmill and the echoes of pick and shovel at the Sehome mine. Then a small boat, its deck black with passengers, moved slowly into the bay. The rush was on, and within a few days a tent city had sprung up and blazed with the lights of campfires. The editor of the first newspaper, the Northern Light, reported that the boat on which he arrived carried a load of 1,000 to 1,300 passengers. For a few short weeks there was feverish activity: buildings were hastily erected, a new wharf was built, pilings were driven. It is reported that some lots sold for $500. More persons thronged into Whatcom to make their way to Canada by trail, boat, or canoe than were to be found in all the rest of the Territory. Then, an order came that all those going to the gold fields must get licenses at Victoria. This order, coupled with the failure to find rich strikes, led to an almost instantaneous collapse of the boom, and by the end of the year 1858 population had dropped from some 15,000 to a few hundred.
Among the goldseekers who settled on Bellingham Bay was John Bennett, who came in 1858, bringing with him a chest filled with roots and bulbs and seed of flowers and grasses that he had gathered in his wanderings. He worked in the mine at Sehome, until in 1860 he had saved sufficient money to buy a piece of land where he could cultivate his many choice varieties of fruit. In the course of years, his claim became the show place of the county. Credited to his endeavors are the Bennett pear, Bennett's Champion plum, and several varieties of apples and flowers.
The dreams of fortune faded with the decline of real-estate values and the exodus of miners and adventurers, but some optimism survived. The Sehome mine, which had imported experienced English miners from Nanaimo, continued to ship some coal, and the little sawmill still whined and sputtered beside the creek. A telegraph line was strung, and boats continued to call occasionally. Hope rose with land values again in 1870, when the Northern Pacific bought land for a proposed water-front terminal. The town of Sehome was platted and filed in 1871, and mining operations were accelerated again.
Then came 1873 and the Nation-wide panic. Jay Cooke's empire tottered and fell, and the force of its crash put an end to the short-lived boom along Bellingham Bay. Then the mill burned, and a few more settlers drifted away in search of work. The final blow was the closing and dismantling of the Sehome mine in 1878 as a result of slow markets, diminishing deposits, water seepage into the tunnels, and financial difficulties. Gloom settled over the two little towns; the few remaining settlers -- some 20 in all -- doggedly stuck to their land and waited for a change of fortune.
This change began with the arrival in 1880 of 600 Kansans. Meeting what they felt to be an inhospitable reception from the local land-owners, the newcomers founded New Whatcom, across the creek from the older town. Three years later Dan Harris, who had succeeded to the claim of John Thomas, recorded "Fair Haven on Harris Bay." Four small towns now fringed the bay: Whatcom, New Whatcom, Sehome, and Fairhaven.
The Bellingham Bay settlements, having tried two industries, now ventured upon a third -- the canning of fish. For years salmon and herring had been shipped, slightly cured, in barrels and boxes to San Francisco and even to the east coast. It was not until 1881, however, that a cannery was built and put into operation. For a few years the plant struggled along, but the evidence of failure was so obvious that the plant was closed; the fish-canning industry had to wait for development in technology and science.
The nineties marked the beginning of growth and prosperity for the Bellingham Bay area. A number of salmon canneries began successful operation. As transportation facilities were improved and the demand for lumber increased, new sawmills and shingle mills were built, and the dense forests that had separated the four small towns disappeared. Whatcom and New Whatcom consolidated.
Tulip cultivation spread to the mainland from Orcas Island, dairy cattle were introduced, and general agriculture began to develop. In September 1899, the normal school awarded to the Bellingham Bay area was opened with 6 instructors and an enrollment of Some 200 students.
In 1900, Fairhaven merged with New Whatcom, and, in 1903, the addition of Sehome brought the population of the united city of New Whatcom to 13,236. At the first city election the name was changed to Bellingham.
Expansion continued throughout the early years of the twentieth century. New railroad connections were secured, sawmills and shingle mills increased in number and size and improved their technique; canneries sent hundreds of thousands of cases of salmon by steamship and rail to eastern United States and Europe. Docks and piers were constructed, coal mines were extended, streets were paved, and scores of small industries were established. An experimental bulb farm was established in the vicinity in 1907, and diversified farming, dairying, and poultry raising became increasingly important as logged-off land was cleared, at a cost of hundreds of dollars an acre, and put into cultivation. Cultural interests began to assume greater importance, new churches and schools were built, and the normal school rapidly increased its enrollment. The 1910 census gave to Bellingham over 24,000 population, an increase of almost 100 per cent.
Succeeding years were marked by less spectacular changes. Sawmills and shingle mills continued to hum as the lumberjacks cut their way deeper into the forests to get the necessary supply of logs. Canneries increased their output, but whispers were already being heard of the day when steadily decreasing runs would force the curtailment of the industry. The Port of Bellingham Commission (which directs the affairs of the port district, co-extensive with Whatcom County) was organized in 1911. Shipments of canned salmon and other fish were for a long time an important part of port traffic, but lumber was (and remains) the leading commodity.