Bellingham is the largest city in, and the county seat of, Whatcom County in the State of Washington. It is the twelfth-largest city in the state, with 80,885 residents at the 2010 Census, or fifth-largest by metropolitan area after Seattle-Tacoma, the northern side of the Portland metropolitan area, Spokane metro area, and the Tri-Cities. The boundaries of the city encompass the former towns of Fairhaven, Whatcom, Sehome, and Bellingham.
Bellingham is acclaimed for its small-city flavor, easy access to outdoor opportunities in the San Juan Islands and North Cascades Mountains as well as proximity to the cosmopolitan cities of Vancouver, in British Columbia, and Seattle.
The name of Bellingham is derived from the bay on which the city is situated. George Vancouver, who visited the area in June 1792, named the bay for Sir William Bellingham, the controller of the storekeeper's account of the Royal Navy.
Prior to Euro-American settlement, Bellingham was in the homeland of Coast Salish peoples of the Lummi and neighboring tribes. The first Caucasian settlers reached the area in 1854. In 1858, the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush caused thousands of miners, storekeepers, and scalawags to head north from California. Whatcom (Bellingham's original name) grew overnight from a small northwest mill town to a bustling seaport, the basetown for the Whatcom Trail, which led to the Fraser Canyon goldfields, used in open defiance of colonial Governor James Douglas's edict that all entry to the gold colony be made via Victoria, British Columbia.
Coal was mined in the Bellingham area from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. It was Henry Roeder who had discovered coal off the northeastern shore of Bellingham Bay, and in 1854 a group of San Francisco investors established the Bellingham Bay Coal Company. The mine extended to hundreds of miles of tunnels as deep as 1200 feet. It ran southwest to Bellingham Bay, on both sides of Squalicum Creek, an area of about one square mile. At its peak in the 1920s, the mine employed some 250 miners digging over 200,000 tons of coal annually. It was closed in 1955.
Bellingham was officially incorporated on November 4, 1903 as a result of the incremental consolidation of four towns initially situated around Bellingham Bay during the final decades of the 19th Century. Whatcom is today's "Old Town" area and was founded in 1852. Sehome was an area downtown founded in 1854. Bellingham was further south near Boulevard Park, founded in 1853; while Fairhaven was a large commercial district with its own harbor, also founded in 1853.
In 1890, Fairhaven developers bought Bellingham. Whatcom and Sehome had adjacent borders and both towns wanted to merge; thus they formed New Whatcom. Later on October 27, 1903, the word "New" was dropped from the name, because the Washington State legislature outlawed the word "NEW" from city names, making it into simply "Whatcom". At first, attempts to combine Fairhaven and Whatcom failed, and there was controversy over the name of the proposed new city. Whatcom citizens wouldn't support a city named "Fairhaven", and Fairhaven residents wouldn't support a city named "Whatcom". They eventually decided to use the name "Bellingham", which remains today. Voting a second time for a final merger of the four towns into a single city, the resolution passed by 2163 votes "for" and 596 "against".
In the early 1890s, three railroad lines arrived, connecting the bay cities to a nationwide market of builders. The foothills around Bellingham were clearcut after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to help provide the lumber for the rebuilding of San Francisco. In time, lumber and shingle mills sprang up all over the county to accommodate the byproduct of their work.
In 1889, Pierre Cornwall and an association of investors formed the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company (BBIC). The BBIC invested in several diverse enterprises such as shipping, coal, mining, railroad construction, real estate sales and utilities. Even though their dreams of turning Bellingham into a Pacific Northwest metropolis never came to fruition, the BBIC made an immense contribution to the economic development of Bellingham.
BBIC was not the only outside firm with an interest in Bellingham utilities. The General Electric Company of New York purchased Bellingham's Fairhaven Line and New Whatcom street rail line in 1897. In 1898 the utility merged into the Northern Railway and Improvement Company which prompted the Electric Corporation of Boston to purchase a large block of shares.
Bellingham was also the site of the Bellingham riots against East Indian (Sikh) immigrant workers in 1907.
Bellingham's proximity to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and to the Inside Passage to Alaska helped keep some cannery operations here. P.A.F., for example, shipped empty cans to Alaska, where they were packed with fish and shipped back for storage.