Blaine’s pastime on display at Whatcom Museum
collection of historic photos of Blaine and Whatcom County
are now available for viewing at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham.
Bellingham resident Ray Bice, a nephew of the late Blaine resident and photographer Elias Breidford, donated more than 4,000 of Breidford’s historical images to the museum in September of 2006.
Since then, the museum has been working to identify, restore and archive the photos that had been stored in the U.S. Air Force base on Alderson Road near Birch Bay for several years.
The collection includes images of Blaine’s early days including the former Alaska Packers plant, the Pacific American Fisheries and the lighthouse on Semiahmoo spit, as well as commercial buildings, the Peace Arch monument, people and scenic shots.
“When we (photographers) leave, we leave stuff people will be looking at for years and years,” Breidford once told The Bellingham Herald in a 1984 article. “I have just a big enough ego to think that’s great.”
Breidford was born in 1900 to parents August and Margaret Breidford in the Canadian province of Manitoba and moved to Blaine in 1916.
At the early age of three months, Breidford was diagnosed with polio, an often fatal or crippling disease. But despite being paralyzed from the waist down, Breidford would go on to be an accomplished photographer, inventor, artist and humanist.
At about the age of 12, Breidford made his own camera. His ingenuity would follow him into his later years, when, at the age of 17, he would build a special three-wheeled bicycle from scrap bicycle parts that he could “pedal” with his arms. Breidford would use the bike to travel around town where he took pictures as a hobby and later befriended some local photographers.
A jeweler by trade, Breidford said he never much liked sitting in at a desk staring at tiny pieces of machinery for hours and eventually decided to leave the jewelry business to turn his hobby into a career, according to a July 1982 article in the then-Ferndale Westside Record-Journal.
“I suddenly decided photography was much more interesting than jewelry,” he said. “I used to hang out in a studio in Blaine. That’s really where I learned basic photography.”
In 1928, when Breidford opened his Blaine photography studio just before the Great Depression hit, he wrote to Eastman Kodak to ask for a $10-per-month credit account to keep his business running.
When $10 was not enough to cover the monthly expenses for his equipment, he built his own tripods, camera bodies and special darkroom equipment.
“I don’t believe I thought much about it, but I knew I had to make it or die,” Breidford later told the former Blaine Banner newspaper during an interview for his 80th birthday celebration. “I was bullheaded.”
agreed, adding that when his uncle’s bicycle was
later stolen during a trip to Bellingham,
he built a motorcycle with a side cart.
“He made everything,” he said. “He thought if you didn’t have the money, you’d have to make it yourself. That’s just the kind of person he was.”
Breidford died in 1986, at the age of 86. Just two years before, he had donated more than 100 photos to the Whatcom County Parks Department in what was to be installments of his collection of Blaine photographs that he had been saving for more than 60 years.
He had also recently won the Whatcom County Senior Citizen of the Year contest by a committee that included former Lynden Tribune publisher Bill Lewis, columnist Jack Carver, then-Whatcom County Council member Will Roehl.
After his death, Marjorie Reichhardt, a Whatcom County parks curator and personal friend of Breidford, retrieved items from his darkroom and office in the basement of the Blaine Unitarian Church where he had served as choir director for 51 years.
Reichhardt was part of a coordinated effort by the county parks and the city of Blaine to create the Semiahmoo Park interpretive center where the photos would be displayed, the idea of which Breidford had supported.
Unfortunately, the county underwent budget cuts to the point where the center was closed and the bulk of his photo archives were warehoused at the county-owned Bay Horizon Park, in a building on the former U.S. Air Force base where the county kept many artifacts.
Because the building lacked proper controls for humidity and temperature, the photos were eventually moved to the county parks office on Mount Baker Highway as an interim measure until a final destination could be determined.
But it was because of the efforts of his nephew Ray Bice that the photos were eventually moved to the Whatcom Museum.
“Ray took it upon himself to find a proper place for his family’s photos,” said Richard Sturgill, a friend and former volunteer of the Semiahmoo museum. “Ray was able to broker negotiations with the museum and helped identify the photos. It was really because of his effort and his connection to the family that it was able to happen.
Jeff Jewell, a photo historian for the museum, agreed.
“Ray took the bull by the horns to make sure those photographs would be available to the public,” he said. “He did the work to ensure those photographs would be stored in a climate-controlled archive.”
With help from Blaine residents and students from the Western Washington University’s anthropology department, the museum has identified and archived more than 2,000 images from the collection. Whatcom Museum photo archivist Toni Nagel, however, said many of those images still need to be identified.
“It’s an ongoing project,” Nagel said. “So the collection is accessible but not yet fully accessible.”
The Whatcom Museum is located at 121 Prospect Street in Bellingham. The museum’s photo archival room is open from 1 to 4:45 p.m. Wednesday through Friday or by appointment. For more information, call 676-6981 or visit www.whatcommuseum.org.