Exploring Bellingham’s history on foot with a self-guided tour is a fun way to connect kids (or any of us!) to our city as well as get everybody out of the house.
According to the city’s website, Bellingham has eight designated areas on the National Register of Historic Places. Each of these neighborhoods or districts can provide us with a glimpse back in time – if you know where to look. The city also has an interactive “story” map listing on the state and local historic registers as well, to help you on your search.
For instance, in the Columbia neighborhood and on South Hill many homes themselves are on the historic National Register. Look for a plaque, usually near the front door, designating the original owner as well as when the home was built.
The Gamwell House on South Hill is one outstanding example of a historic home. Built in 1892, its Victorian wow factor hasn’t changed a bit in over a century. The Roeder Home on Broadway in central Bellingham, now designated as a county park, was built in 1910. While the building is currently closed to the public (tours set to resume in fall of 2020), the grounds are beautiful to tour, especially in the spring.
And, just for fun, while you’re spying historical plaques, be on the lookout for teddy bears in windows. Many homes are participating in a “bear hunt” to delight younger walkers during the pandemic.
Take a self-guided tour
The City of Bellingham has made it easy to discover three of its more urban districts: Downtown, Fairhaven and Old Sehome with self-guided walking tours. A fourth guide, for Old Highway 99, isn’t designed as a walking tour, but many of the points of interest intersect with the other tours. (Locals, raise your hand if you remember when the WECU on Holly Street was a grocery store!) The wealth of information in these guides is an excellent starting point for doing your own historic walkabout of Bellingham.
The guidebooks are available for $5 from the Visitors Information Center, the Whatcom Museum Store or the Bay to Baker Trading Co. (stop #1 on the Fairhaven tour). At this time, you’ll need to call ahead to arrange pick up or to have them mailed. Or you, can access the tour online through the city’s website, including audio tours of Downtown and Old Sehome.
History is all around Fairhaven: Stand on any street corner and you can see a historic building. The walking tour leads you past all the significant structures and locations with roots back to Dirty Dan’s day.
Tour past historic buildings that seem virtually unchanged since they were built more than a century ago, such as the Morgan Block, the Waldron Building and the Fairhaven Library.
This Carnegie Library was built in 1904 and is a treasured feature of the neighborhood. It’s also rumored to be haunted! A great place to read more about the library’s spooky history is the book “Haunted Fairhaven.”
Then imagine how things used to look. For example, the shops and restaurant on the southwest corner of 12th Street and Harris Avenue are located in what was once a car dealership. Look closely, and you’ll notice the garage bay doors for the autos. Where Village Books now stands used to be a grocery.
A renaissance is underway across 12th and Harris at the site of the former Fairhaven Hotel, noted for its ornate facade and grand tower. The building was destroyed by a fire in the 1950s, and after decades of the property being underutilized, a new building is now under construction. With a nod to its history, the new mixed-use construction will include a tower.
These are but a few of highlights of the Fairhaven walking tour. In all, the tour should take no more than an hour.
Exploring Old Sehome
Between Fairhaven and Bellingham is the location of what was once the town of Sehome, which became enveloped into the Bellingham when the city incorporated in 1904.
Locals, if you’ve ever wondered about the history of the “Karate Church,” you’ll find it in the Old Sehome tour. Then travel along Garden Street to view numerous homes on the historic register.
On North State Street, the B.B. Jones Block is built in the Queen Anne style and is the only commercial building remaining from the late 19th century. Although its original octagonal turret is no longer, the structure appears very much as it did in its early years.
Note this 1.5-mile tour does have one short, steep section.
Exploring Downtown Bellingham
The Downtown Bellingham tour provides two distance options, 1.25 miles or 2 miles, depending on how ambitious you are. Both start with the Old City Hall building, which is now part of the Whatcom Museum complex.
On this walking tour you’ll discover Pickett house, the oldest wooden building still on its own foundation in Washington state, and landmarks such as the Mount Baker Theatre, the Bellingham Hotel (today the Bellingham Towers), and the Bellingham Herald building. You’ll also discover lesser-known structures: What exactly was the “comfort station” on Champion Street? Take the tour to find out.
Stop by the Flat Iron building, notable for being shaped like a slice of pie, and check the tour book to point out other items of architectural interest you might not have known to look for. Before long, you’ll be able to tell a Beaux Arts style from a Gothic revival!
With lots to explore, these walks can be divvied up into several days’ worth of exploration. If you have time on your hands right now, why not take this crash course in the city’s history.
Healthy habits for your walkabout
As we continue to exercise caution because of the coronavirus, here are a few tips for making sure you keep yourself and others safe while you are enjoying Bellingham’s neighborhoods:
- Limit yourselves to no more than three or four in a group.
- Be sure to give other pedestrians room. If it makes sense, cross the street so everyone has adequate space.
- Think about times of day where there are likely to be fewer people, such as during the evening.
- Bring your mask. Currently, the Whatcom County Health Department is requesting we all wear masks when we can’t easily have adequate distance between ourselves and others. You might not need your mask if you can stay safely apart but be prepared to wear it if you happen upon an area with many other people nearby.
- Don’t plan for stops. With few public restrooms open, don’t expect you’ll be able to take bathroom breaks (especially import to remember with younger kids in tow). Time your walk to not last longer than you can tolerate without a restroom.
- Bring your own water or snacks to minimize unnecessary trips to a grocery store.
Travel Tip: Check out our blog “How to Safely Enjoy Bellingham and Whatcom County Parks” to learn more!