Bellingham: Four Towns that Became One

By: Evan Scoboria, Last updated: November 23, 2023

Early map of Bellingham Bay

Bellingham, a bustling city in Washington State, was originally four distinct towns. This article unpacks the history and characteristics of these original towns and how they merged to form today's Bellingham.

The Four Original Towns

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bellingham Bay was not known as one central town but rather a collection of separate, thriving settlements: Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham, and Fairhaven. Each held its unique identity, strengths, and culture.

Whatcom: The First Settlement

Early Whatcom Photo

Whatcom is the earliest settlement among the four towns that eventually merged to form Bellingham. Established in 1852 near the mouth of Whatcom Creek, the town was primarily founded to tap into the region's coal resources. The discovery of coal near Lake Whatcom drew settlers and investors, positioning the area as an important hub for economic activity.

In the late 1850s, the Bellingham Bay Coal Company commenced operations, signaling the inception of a significant industrial era for Whatcom. The mine provided employment and catalyzed infrastructure construction like railroads and shipping facilities. This infrastructure, in turn, stimulated the development of other industries and services in the area, such as lumber mills and trading posts.

The early economic activities in Whatcom were foundational for the growth and prosperity of the area. As more investors and workers arrived, the town became increasingly attractive for further development and investment. Its primary industries, including coal mining and shipping, set the economic tone for the region and laid the groundwork for the subsequent growth of Sehome, Bellingham, and Fairhaven.

Sehome: The Harbor Town

Sehome early photo

Sehome emerged shortly after Whatcom, taking shape in the late 1850s and further establishing the Bellingham Bay area as a focal point for growth and development. Nestled on the hillside overlooking the bay, Sehome's position was advantageous.

The origin of the town's name pays tribute to Chief Sehome of the Clallam tribe.

Naturally sheltered and deep, the harbor quickly became a critical asset for the burgeoning town. With the Pacific Northwest's maritime industry growing rapidly, Sehome's harbor offered a strategic point for ships transporting coal, lumber, and other goods. This maritime advantage complemented the activities in nearby Whatcom, creating a synergy between the two towns.

Beyond its natural harbor, Sehome had another claim to fame: the Sehome Coal Mine. This mine, located on the hill that now bears the town's name, became operational in the late 1850s. While the mine's lifespan was relatively short-lived due to challenges in extraction and transportation, its presence drew workers and businesses to Sehome. This influx bolstered the town's population and commercial sector, laying the foundation for its eventual merger with its neighbors.

Bellingham: The Industrial Hub

Bellingham Early Photo

Bellingham's name was first ascribed to a stretch of land by the bay, situated strategically between Sehome to the north and Fairhaven to the south. 

The town of Bellingham was founded in 1853 and was formally plotted in 1871. This initiative was driven by proprietors A.A. Denny, David Phillips, and Dexter Horten, all hailing from Seattle. They built upon the donation land claim that William Prattle had staked just a year prior in 1854.

Despite its promising location and foundation, Bellingham grappled with challenges. Unlike its neighboring bay communities, Sehome and Fairhaven, which saw substantial growth, Bellingham faced stagnation. It remained unincorporated, missing the booming progress that characterized the Pacific Northwest during that era.

In a bid to reverse its fortunes, Bellingham found support from Nelson Bennett, a notable Fairhaven developer. With his assistance, in 1890, the town merged with Fairhaven, the first step toward creating the larger Bellingham we know today.

Fairhaven: "Fair Haven on Harris Bay"

Fairhaven Early Photo

Established by Dan Harris in the 1880s, Fairhaven was initially envisioned as a commerce hub due to its strategic location along the waterfront. Harris, an astute entrepreneur, recognized the area's potential and set about developing it with an eye on trade, transport, and industry. 

The name "Fairhaven" is said to have been inspired by Harris's christening of his newly platted land as "Fair Haven on Harris Bay."

Fairhaven's positioning along the waterfront made it particularly attractive for maritime activities. The natural harbor facilitated the movement of goods, leading to a surge in trade. This economic potential attracted settlers and businesses alike.

The Merger: Creating a Unified Bellingham

By the late 1890s, the individual townships felt the pressures of maintaining separate infrastructures and administrations. Additionally, a spirit of regional unity was beginning to emerge among the citizens.

The initial merger occurred in 1890 when Sehome, having rebranded itself as 'New Whatcom' a couple of years earlier, joined Whatcom. The newly formed city retained the name 'New Whatcom.' The designation 'New' was short-lived. By 1901, the term was officially dropped, and the city became simply known as Whatcom.

The final merger came in 1903 when Fairhaven and Whatcom decided to combine. Given the competitive history between Fairhaven and Whatcom, neither wanted to lose its identity to the other. Bellingham, a town that had been nestled between them but had not seen as much prosperity, became the unifying name for the newly consolidated city. This symbolic move allowed both towns to retain their history without overshadowing one another.

The Legacy of the Four Towns

Following the merger in 1903 that created the City of Bellingham, a series of notable developments marked the city's evolution and growth.

Infrastructure Expansion:
Unified as one city, efforts were intensified to establish essential infrastructures. Roads were expanded and improved, connecting previously separate neighborhoods and facilitating easier trade and movement.

Educational Growth:
The Normal School, established before the merger, evolved and expanded. It eventually became Western Washington University, playing a crucial role in Bellingham's status as an educational center.

Harbor Development:
Bellingham's waterfront, which had been pivotal for separate towns, saw massive development. Enhanced dock facilities and the constructing of new piers catered to the increasing maritime trade.

The early 1900s witnessed the electrification of Bellingham. The city benefited from the power plant built on the Nooksack River, which not only electrified local homes but also powered industries and the regional railroad.

Urban Planning:
With a larger, consolidated city to manage, urban planning became a focal point. Parks were established, city streets were laid out methodically, and architectural landmarks began to shape the skyline.


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