Blaine: forged by fish and timber

Published on Thu, Aug 2, 2001 by Jan Hrutfiord

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Blaine: forged by fish and timber

By Jan Hrutfiord

Few people today remember that Marine Drive and the entire harbor area of Blaine is not a natural formation. Rather, it is man-made, and has evolved from a three-quarter mile long wharf, jutting out across the mud flats, to reach the channel where large ships could come in to the mills and canneries along that dock. There was also a railroad track extending along much of the wharf to service the mills and take the lumber from there to its final destinations.

I am going to give you a short history lesson on Blaine and its surrounding area, showing the chronology of events leading up to modern times.

There were Spanish and English explorers here in the mid-1700s, charting the area and writing about it. The most important one, though, was in 1792-93, when Captain George Vancouver explored and charted this area with detailed surveys of harbors and coastal features. In Whatcom County a number of places were given names including Mt. Baker, Birch Bay, Bellingham Bay, Point Roberts, Point Frances and the Strait of Georgia.

There were other expeditions in the years to come, mapping this entire area, and then in 1858 surveying the 49th parallel for the division between the U.S. and Britain.

About 1858, Blaine started as the two communities of Semiahmoo, one on the spit of that name, and the other across the bay on the mainland.

Farming, logging and lumber, and fishing were the main industries at that time. The area around Semiahmoo and Point Roberts were favorite fishing grounds for the Semiahmoo Indians, and the abundant fishing helped attract many of the settlers. The first fishery industry on Puget Sound – Georgia Straits was a salmon barreling plant at Semiahmoo in the early 1870s which lasted for two years.

There were no docks, and those settlers and visitors who came were rowed to shore, their animals having to be pushed into the water to swim ashore.

The first cannery in Whatcom County was built at Semiahmoo in 1881. The first modern cannery in Whatcom County was built by D. Drysdale at Semiahmoo in 1892, with a second built in 1893 at Point Roberts. In 1894 both canneries were sold to Alaska Packers Association, which then built the largest cannery in the world at that time at Semiahmoo.

In 1884 the town of Concord, on the mainland, was renamed Blaine, for then Republican candidate for president, (who did not win, but had been a big favorite of voters from this area). It was a very good area for trade, being about 15 miles from both New Westminster and Ferndale. In 1885, sawmills were established in Blaine and Semiahmoo. By 1888 there were several sawmills and a sardine cannery established in Blaine. Also, in 1888 the first wharf was completed, which was three-quarters of a mile long. The Blaine Wharf Company was formed in 1890, and two other wharves were also built that year. The combination of fisheries, shingle and lumber mills, the farms and the railroad made Blaine the most prosperous point in Whatcom County during the late 1890s. By 1897 there were three salmon canneries in Blaine. In June, 1897, the Journal said of Blaine, “We have six miles of good plank roads and sidewalks, rail and water transportation, water works, four mills, three canneries with capacity of 150,000 cans per day, four churches, three brick schoolhouses, 200 school children, and more expected.”

In the early 1900s fires decimated several mills and wharves, but there was steady growth from such industries as Alaska Packers, Campbell River Lumber Company, and the Morrison Mill Company. The population was reported at one point to be as much as 18,000 people, many living in a tent city.

My favorite picture of Blaine is a huge photograph of the waterfront taken around 1900, which used to hang on the north wall of the Red Apple (former Thriftway) store, and is now hanging in the main hallway of the Blaine City Hall. This clearly shows the wharves and mills as well as ships, the railroad and town buildings.

As the forests were cut back away from the shoreline, the sawmills moved away. The fish canneries closed down, being replaced by larger and more modern ones in other areas. The wharf, which was the beginning of Marine Drive, is the only one remaining, and was filled in with rocks, dredging and other rubble in 1935. A city dump landfill was at the site of the old Morrison Mill, and is now under the present day Marine Park. Much of the landfill which forms the parking lots and webhouse areas came from dredging the boat harbor.

The next time you bump along down Marine Drive, remember that there are old pilings still embedded in the filled roadway, which are rotting away, leaving an uneven surface, ghostly reminders of the beginnings of Blaine’s harbor area.

Research for this article included the books The History of Whatcom County, Vol. I, by Roth; Blaine’s 75th Anniversary booklet and Centennial History booklet; and Whatcom County in Maps, 1832-1937, by Scott & Turbeville III. I also want to thank my son David for his help in finding maps and geological information and for the Blaine librarians of 1994, who were also helpful in finding information on the history of Blaine..

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