Tuesday, March 27th, 2018
7 Ways to Explore Railway Art and History in Bellingham and Whatcom County
Lorraine Wilde
Puget Sound Railway

Trains were integral to the coal mining and quarry industries in Western Washington and Puget Sound. Photo circa 1912. Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.

By air, sea, car or train, there are so many ways to get to and enjoy Bellingham and Whatcom County! The railway played an integral role in establishing our area as an economic center in the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. The area was historically mined for coal, functioned as a major timber port, and later was home to Georgia Pacific Paper. Trains kept business running and brought new people to this beautiful town.

My sons were obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and so, through them, I learned about the incredible railway history of this area. So that you can too, I put together this list of seven simple ways to appreciate the history, art and influence of the railway in our area.

1.  Bellingham Railway Museum

Bellingham is fortunate to have its own all-ages museum dedicated entirely to railway history conveniently located in Downtown Bellingham. My kids and I spent many hours driving the model trains and exploring historic photos, interactive history of the area, and antique communication devices and railway artifacts from the Golden Age to Amtrak.

Boy watches model train, Bellingham Railway Museum

Photo courtesy of Hilary Parker.

A play area for the very small means grown-ups can also appreciate a more in-depth look.¬†The gift shop and knowledgeable volunteers make this a great stop for any age. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Read more about¬†railway exploration with the kids in Hilary Parker’s Insider Blog.

Kids and Lionel train set, Bellingham Railway Museum

Photo courtesy of Hilary Parker.

Bellingham Railway Museum

1320 Commercial Street,

Bellingham, WA 98225

360-393-7540

2.  Ride the Amtrak at Fairhaven Station

Why not hop on board? Amtrak’s Fairhaven Station is right here, within walking distance to Historic¬†Fairhaven!

Whether you’re coming up for the day or weekend to explore this artsy small town with a big heart or staying longer, you can ride along on the trains our ancestors built! You can also take the train from Bellingham to Seattle or Portland and beyond with convenient departure and arrival times.

On the train, you can dine in the Bistro Car or hang out in the Lounge Car. My kids love looking out the window at the mountains and hills that roll by. Between May and September, you can take advantage of the light in the evenings and appreciate those Pacific Northwest sunsets.

Amtrak

401 Harris Avenue

Bellingham, WA 98225

3.  Ride Lake Whatcom Railway

Learning about trains is fascinating, but there’s nothing like actually riding a historic train to transport you back in time. Nearby Wickersham was once the largest city in Whatcom County, famous for its logging activity. The railway was vital in aiding the transport of logs for processing from the foothills in the eastern part of the county to Lake Whatcom and then Bellingham Bay. From there, the logs were shipped to hundreds of locations around the world.

You can take a ride on the authentic full-size, old-time Northern Pacific railroad at Lake Whatcom Railway.

 

The Railway hosts events several times a year. Show up for the Easter Egg Hunt in March and April, the Pumpkin Patch on Rails in October, or the Santa Train in November and December. You can purchase your tickets and board the passenger cars that have been in operation for over 100 years!

I’ve taken my kids on the Santa Train where Santa himself walked among the cars during the ride, letting kids (and adults) sit on his lap to whisper their Christmas gift wishes in his ear.

bellingham railway pumpkin patch on rails

Enjoy the Pumpkin Patch on Rails in October.

Trains leave from Wickersham, Washington, the beginning of the Northern Pacific Bellingham Branch, and the junction with the railroad traveling between Seattle and Sumas. Sit back, relax and live and breathe history on this train. You can learn more about the trains of the Lake Whatcom Railway and the rich history of this particular railway.

Lake Whatcom Railway

PO Box 91

Acme, WA  98220

Phone: (360) 441-0719

Get Directions

4.  Whatcom Museum Photo Archives

An easy and fascinating way to delve deep into our railway history is to go explore the Photo Archives at the Whatcom Museum. Each year thousands of researchers explore the archive for a variety of reasons. I’ve used the archive to find historic photos of my own home and neighborhood and also to give as gifts to friends. The archives are searchable and the knowledgeable staff will help you find exactly what interests you most.

passenger train puget sound

Passenger trains were the only way to get there quickly before the automobile. This one ran between Seattle and San Francisco. Photo circa 1912. Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.

Although exploring the archives is more of an adult activity, Whatcom Museum has a lot to explore with your kids as well so no one will be left out.

Whatcom Museum Photo Archive

Syre Education Center

201 Prospect Street

Bellingham, WA 98225

5.  Rail Trail Walking Guide

This is a great way to explore the area railway features by foot (or by bus) at your own pace and level of interest. The Rail Trail Walking Guide can be purchased at Village Books in Fairhaven, WA or Lynden, WA or from the Bellingham Railway Museum. Then you can experience a self-guided walking tour (or use the public bus system to cover more ground) that points out the key historic railway features of our area. With background history and stories, you can feel the bricks that are still in the streets of Fairhaven, visit downtown Bellingham’s Railroad Avenue, and see other historic buildings, stations and tracks that made our great city what it is today.
Bellingham railway

From the Internet Archive Book Images. In Bellingham circa 1915.

6. Explore Western Washington University’s Center for Pacific Northwest Studies

Western Washington University Library’s Heritage Resources Program includes a guide to the history of trains and railroads at their Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. In addition to extensive historical photo archives and records and papers from some of the earliest railway companies in the area, they have a vast collection of books and other historic collections to explore.

Built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1870 as ‘Black Diamond’ for Black Diamond Coal Company, California, the engine pictured above was shipped to the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia Railroad in 1889. Image from the Galen Biery Papers and Photographs, #2461, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies.

cpnws@wwu.edu
360-650-7534

7.  The Railway Cafe

This cafe is an original caboose brought to Blaine in the 1980’s. It has housed many small businesses including a cigar shop, a stained glass studio, and now a cafe. A deck and heated patio have been added to expand seating, and the patio features a view of the harbor towards beautiful Semiahmoo.

railway cafe blaine caboose

Photo courtesy of the Railway Cafe.

Children and those that are a child at heart are welcome to pull the train horn inside. The wheel still exists at the back entrance of the cafe. A conductor’s portrait is in an adjacent building. The trains pass and say hello via horn each day, several times a day. With breakfast, lunch, coffee and adult beverages, it‚Äôs a hang out worth stopping by in Blaine, Washington, north of Bellingham and just south of the Canadian border.

railway cafe blaine

Photo courtesy of the Railway Cafe.

The Railway Café

795 Peace Portal Drive

Blaine, Washington

360-332-2448

There is so much railway history and artifacts to learn and explore in Bellingham and Whatcom County. The tracks connected us to the east and Pacific Coast for generations and continue to impact transportation, the economy, and the people of our region. In the distance, sometimes you can hear the train horn blowing in the wind. Once you explore some of these fun options, you’ll have a greater appreciation of how the railway shaped the history of this magical place.

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About the Author:

Lorraine Wilde has immersed herself in so many of Whatcom County’s vibrant communities over the past 25 years. Owner and Publicity Strategist for Wilde World Communications, Lorraine has connected with locals as a writer, actor, scientist, teacher, filmmaker, singer, and mom. Lorraine has performed improv and staged works in several of Whatcom County’s theatres and she is active in the Bellingham Film community. She is also a big supporter of the local music community. When she has a spare second, its spent with her children outside exploring a new adventure.