Roeder and Peabody's Mill: Pioneering Lumber Production

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

Remnants of the Roeder-Peabody Mill on Whatcom Creek

In December 1852, two visionary figures, Captain Henry Roeder and Captain Russell V. Peabody, ventured to the shores of Bellingham Bay to establish the Whatcom Mill. This initiative marked one of the earliest European settlements in the area, eventually becoming the city of Bellingham.

Roeder, a German immigrant and Peabody from the eastern United States, had meticulously scouted locations throughout Puget Sound, seeking a site for a sawmill. They aimed to tap into the dense, lush Northwest Douglas fir stands and then market their lumber to a San Francisco in recovery mode after being ravaged by fires. Chief Cha-wit-zit of the Lummi Tribe pointed them toward a location the native people called "What-coom." Translating to "noisy, rumbling water," this spot was uniquely suited for their endeavor. The ceaseless rumbling waters would provide the force to power the mill wheel, which, in turn, would propel the lumber-cutting machinery.

Demand for Lumber in the 1850s

Initially, Roeder and Peabody intended to supply lumber to San Francisco rapidly. However, various setbacks, including delayed mill start-ups, meant they missed the prime window of opportunity. Once willing to pay up to $1,000 per thousand feet of lumber post-fire, the San Francisco market shifted. By the time the Whatcom Mill was fully operational, prices had dropped to a mere $20 per thousand feet due to other mills fulfilling San Francisco's immediate needs. The discovery of gold in 1858 along British Columbia's Fraser River offered a glimmer of hope for the mill, but this boom was fleeting.

The Whatcom Mill's Operation

Over two decades, from 1853 to 1873, the Whatcom Mill's operations remained inconsistent. Much of its production supplied construction needs in Victoria, British Columbia. Some notable projects included the Royal Navy barracks, Esquimalt's hospital, and the Church of England in Victoria. Yet, in 1873, disaster struck; a fire ravaged the mill. Roeder had already shifted his focus back to sailing, while Peabody had passed away in California in 1868.

PNW Logging Crew Standing on a Stump

Legacy in Bellingham

After the fire, legal wrangles over Peabody's inheritance meant the mill lay dormant until 1881. A fresh chapter began when a group of settlers, known as the Washington Colony from Kansas, resettled in Bellingham Bay and resurrected the mill. By 1883, they achieved what Roeder and Peabody initially dreamt of—exporting lumber to California. However, this resurgence was brief. Legal disputes and accumulating debts plagued the Colony, leading to the mill's abandonment by 1885.

Visiting the Site of the Mill Today

Nature and human development have reclaimed much of the area, but the "noisy, rumbling water" that once powered the mill still cascades into the gently lapping waves of Bellingham Bay at the Maritime Heritage Park. Walk the paths through a regrown stand of fir and alder and cross a bridge that spans the creek seen in the photo above. 

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