In 1883, the first docks were built in Bellingham, including the nearly one-mile long Colony Wharf. The Colony Wharf was built by a group of community utopians from Kansas calling themselves “Washington Colony." The group sought to open a profitable logging mill to sustain their new community. Because of the lengthy tide flats along Bellingham Bay, the dock stretched nearly a mile to reach deep water. Dredging had not yet begun on the shoreline.
1889 The 15th Article of the Washington State Constitution prohibited the state “from giving any private person, corporation, or association” sole proprietary rights to navigable harbors and waters, ensuring that the waterfront areas so important to transportation would be open for use by the public.
Industrial development on the Bellingham waterfront included a number of large, private businesses, including Siemens Mill, Whatcom Falls (Loggie) Mill, Morrison Mill, Bloedel-Donovan Mill, E.K. Wood Mill, Puget Sound Saw Mill and Shingle Co., and the Pacific American Fisheries Cannery in Fairhaven.
1911 Washington passed a law allowing citizens to designate port districts and elect commissioners.
The cooperatively owned Citizen’s Dock was constructed on Whatcom Creek waterway.
The public, business owners, and Bellingham Chamber of Commerce began a push to create the Port of Bellingham. The measure passed September 14, 1920. The Bellingham Herald declared it “the most stupendous victory for any project ever launched in Whatcom County.” Three port commissioners took office.
The port constructed a ferry landing for the Canadian Pacific automobile ferry, “The Motor Princess." Greeted by cheering crowds, the ferry docked on May 21 at Central Avenue in the Whatcom Creek Waterway.
The Port of Bellingham bought the Municipal Dock, originally built by the City of Bellingham in 1918. Shipping of cargo from this dock and others became key to area growth. Shipping grew from 11,640 tons in 1921 to an astounding 60,983 tons by the dawn of the Great Depression. Total shipping from private docks around the bay grew as well, from 534,014 in 1920 to 1.84 million tons by 1926.
With voter approval, the port took over the Squalicum Creek dredging project from businessman Edward W. Purdy to expand shipping across Bellingham Bay. The Bellingham waterfront had always been well-known for its swaths of shallow tidelands. As such, dredging projects had been running almost continuously since the late 19th century; although Whatcom Creek Waterway was dredged in 1904 and 1912, the Squalicum Creek Waterway remained undeveloped. By 1931, the Squalicum Creek dredging project had created 22 acres of fill-land for industrial development, a breakwater, a web house, and moorage for fishing boats.
The Great Depression brought a profound economic lull that lasted from 1930 through the early 1960s. As the local timber supply dwindled and the demand for coal died, numerous Bellingham businesses closed, including most of the major mills in Bellingham. Only about 10,900 tons of cargo were handled in 1956, an all-time low. Docks and warehouses went into disrepair.
The port began to acquire significant waterfront parcels in Fairhaven, including the former property of the Puget Sound Sawmill and the Shingle Company on Padden Creek Lagoon. The port also spearheaded the dredging of Blaine Harbor for a small boat marina, a breakwater, and a roadway.
The port and Works Progress Administration (WPA) deepened the waters of Squalicum Harbor and constructed a 1,400-foot protective rock breakwater.
Whatcom County bought 200 acres of land from Charles F. Larrabee for $50 per acre to build an airport.
1937 The area around Fairhaven’s Padden Creek Lagoon became a small boat harbor for the local fishing fleet.
The Whatcom County Airport opened to “out of control” local plane and car traffic. In 1941, the army seized the airport the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, changing its name to the Bellingham Army Air Field.
Shipping at the port dock was boosted by World War II, and numerous aid ships headed to Russia carrying Jeeps, lard, steel, canned meat, and milk. Throughout the 1940s, the Pacific American Fisheries in Fairhaven became the world’s largest salmon cannery in the world, providing 4,500 jobs for local residents at its peak. The PAF closed in 1966, as fresh salmon became more expensive due to dams on the Columbia River and fish trap bans in Alaska. Tuna was the cheap canned fish of choice, leading to the salmon cannery’s demise. In 1946, Bellingham Cold Storage expanded warehouses into Squalicum Harbor.
On January 30, a storm destroyed the marina in Fairhaven, leaving Squalicum Harbor the main marina for the city of Bellingham. The storm completely disintegrated the log breakwater, washing log booms onto the shores and damaging or displacing almost all of the 200 pleasure and fishing boats moored in Fairhaven. Fairhaven became a home for boat builders.
Shipping slowly increased; the first items to leave the port dock were Darigold cans of milk bound for the South Pacific on two to three ships per month. Whatcom County, unable to make necessary upkeep repairs, sold the airport to the Port of Bellingham for $1.
In 1962, the port approached voters to secure a tax levy for an ambitious array of harbor improvements. With its passage, the early 1960s saw drastic improvements to port facilities. Improvements included filling in the dock with six acres of fill-land for a larger unloading area, extending the main pier from 850 to 1,375 feet with ship berths on both sides, adding a six-ton capacity gantry crane servicing Berth A and a 50-ton capacity crane for Berth B, and installing a 30,000-ton salt storage pad and conveyor system as well as a rail-barge transfer facility and chemical barge.
Late 1960s By the late 1960s, shipping was booming, much of it due to the success of the Georgia Pacific plant in downtown Bellingham and the Intalco Aluminum plant in Ferndale. Shipping increased from 14,000 tons of cargo traffic in 1950 to 36,000 tons by 1960. An astounding 506,179 tons were moved in 1970. Annual figures in excess of 600,000 tons of cargo were not unknown throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1966, the port purchased the former PAF cannery properties, operating a can-labeling factory until the early 1980s.
1970s In the late 1960s and early 1970s, sales from port-related industries represented somewhere from 30-40 percent of total Whatcom County sales, with 3,469 local employees in either port-related or port-dependent employment, accounting for 20 percent of the county’s payroll.
In 1977, the port teamed up with the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce to research and write a report entitled “Scenario One: a look at Whatcom County in 1990-2000" to serve as a planning tool for local agencies to help craft their own long-range plans and guide their short range decision making. The study tried to forecast what areas of Whatcom County would grow as well as where, when, and most importantly, how agencies should respond.
Thinking ahead, the 1970s and 1980s showed the port working to attract new airlines to the airport, expanding Squalicum Harbor, creating a Foreign Trade Zone in Sumas to facilitate easier international trade, and successfully lobbying the Alaska Marine Highway System to move its southern ferry terminal to Bellingham.
Georgia-Pacific began to slow operations, a prelude to closure of the pulp mill in 2001 and the entire operation in 2007. The port began work on a shallow section of water behind Squalicum Marina, creating nearly 51 acres of new moorage space and 48 acres of an upland spit from the dredge spoils. Originally named Tom Glenn Spit for a longtime port manager, the name was changed in 2002 to Bellwether on the Bay after the Bellwether Hotel was built on the property.
A 2,800-ton capacity dry dock was purchased from government surplus and placed in Fairhaven, attracting shipbuilding companies. On September 7, 1988, after significant lobbying, the Alaska Marine Highway System announced Bellingham as its new southern terminus. The port began construction of the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.
1990s In 1995, the port converted the old PAF office headquarters in Fairhaven into Bellingham’s first multimodal transportation facility, linking the Bellingham Cruise Terminal with a new Amtrak, Greyhound bus, and public transit station. A new $2.3 million control tower was opened in 1996 at the Bellingham International Airport. From 1998-2000, an ambitious $12 million improvement project expanded Blaine Harbor. In 1999, a memorial to Bellingham’s fishermen titled “Safe Return” was dedicated at Zuanich Point Park across from the Bellwether spit.
1995 In 1995, with the maritime economy beginning to contract, local economists from Western Washington University concluded that port activity directly enables 14 percent of total industry output for Whatcom County, having an impact on 7,755 workers, and constituting 10.9 percent of total Whatcom County employment compensation.
1996 In 1996, the port was selected as co-manager for the Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot, a cooperative partnership of 14 federal, state, local, and tribal agencies brought together for the purpose of strategic environmental planning for the future of Bellingham’s waters. Since then, the pilot program has developed a comprehensive strategy identifying contaminants, sources of pollution, and potential solutions.
1998-2000 From 1998 to 2000, a $12 million "re-berth” project in Blaine increased boat slips to 629, with the dredged mud creating an underwater island habitat for fish, plants, and waterfowl.
2000s In 2001, Intalco Aluminum closed their plant for six months at the behest of the Bonneville Power Administration simply to ensure electricity for other local users. Since then, the plant has run under capacity, no longer shipping overseas but supplying local demand. Georgia-Pacific closed the pulp mill in 2001 and the entire operation in 2007. Between the loss of cargo from Intalco and Georgia-Pacific, shipping out of the Whatcom International Shipping Terminal was all but halted.
2002 The port granted a ground lease to the Bellwether Hotel, a 68-room European-style luxury facility. A 1.6-acre park known as Tom Glenn Common was built adjacent to the hotel. In subsequent years, office and retail buildings have sprouted on the property, along with several restaurants, including Anthony’s Home Port and Anthony’s Hearthfire.
2005 The Port of Bellingham acquired the massive 137-acre former Georgia-Pacific property. In the heart of downtown Bellingham, this project will create people-friendly access to the waterfront while offering housing, small business, and new park opportunities. Expected to take many years, development is being carefully planned with citizen input.
Cleanup of the Whatcom Waterway has begun with the removal of contaminated materials and will transform the area into a Clean Ocean Marina complete with new salmon habitats and nearly a mile of public access around the water. The port’s environmental role in the county is very much a history in the making. Since the inauguration of the Bellingham Bay Pilot Project and its original charge of cleaning up 13 contaminated sites around Whatcom County, two have been completed and all are underway.
2008 The port entered into a long-term capital lease with local builder Dave Ebenal to build the Bellwether Gate project, four buildings that would add 137,000 square feet of office, residential, and mixed use on the waterfront.
2010 & Beyond The complete Bellwether Gate project offered waterfront office and retail spaces, the first building immediately rented by Giuseppe’s Restaurant and CH2M Hill, and engineering firm.
2010 Bellingham International Airport (BLI) closed for three weeks in September for major construction, which included improvements and resurfacing of the current runway and taxiway to accommodate larger aircraft for longer-range flights. Also to be improved by the $26.3 million project are lighting, signage, and drainage. Plans to renovate the terminal are in the works.