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Lauren Kramer | 08/01/2016 | Insider Blogs |   

Steps into the Past: Bellingham’s Downtown Historic Walking Tour

Bellingham is a city with a colorful, rich history. To learn about its past, all you need are a good pair of walking shoes, a strong sense of curiosity and either a Smartphone or a copy of the Downtown Historic Walking Tour guide book. The city launched the historic walking tour in 2015 with 45 sites all within a two-mile radius. The locations contain fascinating historical nuggets that deliver insight and perspective on this great city and how it has grown and changed over the past 125 years.

In 2016, free guided historic tours of Downtown Bellingham are also offered on Saturdays, July 9 through Sept. 24. Meet at 1 p.m. at 311 E. Holly Street, on the sidewalk in front of the massive Chuckanut sandstone building (northwest corner of N. State and E. Holly streets). Tours cover about a half mile and last about an hour, ending down by Whatcom Creek.

The self-guided tour can be enjoyed on any day, to reveal the history of downtown at your own pace. Take the Spokane Building, for example, at 1322 Railroad Avenue. Built in 1903, it’s only ever been a feed store and continues to be one to this day. Its second floor was a lodging house between 1904 and 1924 but also served as a brothel until 1948. A legal brothel, that is, as these ‘houses of ill repute’ were above board in the city until 1948.



You might know the cacophony of vibrant color and aroma that is the Bellingham Farmers Market, a favorite fixture inside Depot Market Square at 1100 Railroad Ave on Saturdays. Back in 1916 its equivalent was the Bellingham Public Market at 1400 Cornwall, site of today’s Rite Aid building. The building had lift-up overhead bay doors and a streetcar stop on the corner so customers could easily peruse the wares of the 23 vendors – including a soda fountain operator, a watchmaker and wood and coal dealers. The original Bellingham Public Market closed in 1957 and it would be another 35 years before a couple of Western Washington University students would inspire the farmers’ market that exists today, determined to have locally grown produce sold in a downtown urban location. The rest, as they say, is history.

You might know the cacophony of vibrant color and aroma that is the Bellingham Farmers Market, a favorite fixture inside Depot Market Square at 1100 Railroad Ave on Saturdays. Back in 1916 its equivalent was the Bellingham Public Market at 1400 Cornwall, site of today’s Rite Aid building. The building had lift-up overhead bay doors and a streetcar stop on the corner so customers could easily peruse the wares of the 23 vendors – including a soda fountain operator, a watchmaker and wood and coal dealers. The original Bellingham Public Market closed in 1957 and it would be another 35 years before a couple of Western Washington University students would inspire the farmers’ market that exists today, determined to have locally grown produce sold in a downtown urban location. The rest, as they say, is history.



The city’s first skyscraper was known as the Flatiron Building, erected in 1907 at 1313 Bay Street, at the corner of Prospect street. Built as a warehouse for the Bellingham Bay Furniture Company, it was constructed entirely of reinforced concrete as a preventative measure against fire. That fire its builders hoped to prevent arrived in April 1924 – but the building was salvageable. Today its ground floor is Woods Coffee and its upper floors serve as office space. It would hold the city’s tallest building title for 19 years, until 1926.

The handsome building at 1412 Cornwall Ave. remains as beautiful as it was in 1912, when it was built as the clubhouse for the fraternal society the “Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, one of the city’s most prestigious social organizations. Inside Elks members played pool, cards ad bowling in a three-lane alley and the large ballroom was a good place for social events. Architect William Cox would surely be thrilled to know that his buff-colored bricks have stood the test of time and that architecturally, his building has remained unscathed by time.

Not all the sites on the walking tour were as fortunate. Visit Maritime Heritage Park and it’s unrecognizable from its 1890s picture in the walking tour guide book. At that time tents and canoes belonging to the Lummi and Nooksack tribes  were parked on Whatcom Beach. For both tribes the beach was a seasonal fishing camp. The grand steps of what was Carnegie Library at 109 W. Champion Street are now a parking lot, but back in 1906 book lovers had to climb 45 steps to its front door, on the peak of a rocky hill. Maybe it was the steps that led to Carnegie Library’s demise, because a new site was found in 1951 and the building was razed to the ground and the hill excavated to street grade in 1953.

If you have a couple of hours to spare, the Downtown Bellingham Historic Walking Tour will not disappoint. Download the audio/mobile tour for Smartphones at http://www.cob.org/services/planning/historic/Pages/historic-tours.aspx, print the book from the website or buy a bound copy locally at The Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism Office (1306 Commercial St.), the Whatcom Museum Gift Shop or the Bureau of Historical Investigation.


Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism
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