Bellingham, whose official slogan is “A Refreshing Change” but, “The City of Subdued Excitement” as it was nicknamed by Stephen Stimson, Previous owner of Lone Wolf Antiques, also known as “Mr Peanut” because he had a proclivity for sporting a Mr. Peanut costume – top hat and all – for some reason, seems to be a better fit. Legend has it Mr. Stimson was inspired by the subtle things Bellingham offers, spectacular sunsets, beautiful trails, views of the water, and city parks.
After an all-too-brief visit, we’d have to agree with Mr. Stimson. Bellingham is a beautiful spot, and it does have an air of “subdued excitement.” Everyone seems happy to be there, residents seem to enjoy an above-average fitness level, business is good, and everyone there is proud of their beautiful little city.
There is a unique feeling in Bellingham, last stop before Canada, due perhaps to fact that the city sits at sea level, in the shadow of Mt. Baker, one of the snowiest places in the world (in 1999 Mt. Baker set the world record for snowfall in a single season — 1,140 inches!). So it’s an alpine ski town, on the beach. Not something you see everyday. Ski in the morning, surf in the afternoon; bring a wetsuit.
Back in “gold rush days,” before the Panama Canal was completed, ships sailing to the Western United States, around Cape Horn (the bottom of South America), had to stop in Bellingham to re-supply with coal to complete the trip to Alaska for the promise of Gold. When the ships were docked, the sailors would spend time in Downtown Bellingham, doing what sailors do. As a result, the little town was quite a wild west scene for years, one where bars and brothels lined the streets. Today, those establishments have become respectful business’ or housing for college students who come to attend the northernmost university in the contiguous United States, Western Washington University. Side note: the current president of “Western” is Sabah Randhawa — former provost of Oregon State University, go Beavs! Even though they have become more “subdued” the old buildings still have their beautiful wood-plank floors, high ceilings and some of the wavy glass from way back when. You can almost feel the not-so-subdued excitement of the gold seekers headed north.
The population of Bellingham is 87,574, as of 2015, and it’s growing — construction is going on all over the city. So it’s a college town bigger than Corvallis, and smaller than Eugene. When you’re there it kind of does seem like Corvallis with more “stuff.” The geography contributes to the interest of the area. Roads wind in and out along the coastline and inlets, making it seem more complicated than it is.
Bellingham was at one time Whatcom City, Sehome, and Fairhaven. In the 1800’s, Fairhaven’s leaders had notions that their town would become a bigger city on the scale of Tacoma or Seattle. They vied for the honor of becoming the terminus of the Great Northern Railroad, but lost out to Seattle. After that, residents of all three little towns voted to consolidate and become Bellingham. Today, Fairhaven is a historic district of Bellingham and is home to the Alaska Ferry Terminal, great restaurants and shopping, and is a favorite of visitors. Sehome, a neighborhood of Bellingham originally named after Chief Sehome was owned by the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia Railroad Company and was also known at one point as the Sehome Coal Mine. Yes, coal mining in Bellingham! We’re not sure what became of Whatcom City, but Whatcom is now the name of the county, and is derived from the Lummi word meaning “noisy water.”
Bellingham is not so much a tourist town as it is just a busy hub of activity. The college, of course, accounts for a lot of activity. Canadians like to come to Bellingham and shop. And there are weekenders escaping the Seattle craziness to unwind. But no Hawaiian shirts, cheap sunglasses and point-and-shoot cameras, for the most part it’s locals, or semi-locals.
After our quick impression of Bellingham, we are looking forward to a more in-depth exploration of the area, and suggest you carve out some time to visit too, you’ll love it. There are a ton of activities, definitely more than can be explored in one trip, great food (the seafood is to die for), and chic shops abound.
From the Heart of the Willamette Valley, Bellingham is about a six hour car ride up I-5. You definitely want to plan so you miss Portland and Seattle rush hour traffic, or else your time may vary (read, “be way longer”). Amtrak also offers service to Bellingham from Eugene, Albany, Salem, Portland and other stops in Oregon. The Amtrak Cascades Route allows passengers to board the train, and be in Bellingham in about 8 hours via connecting bus. It’s a little longer than driving, but hassle (and parking) free!
Visit Amtrak.com for details.