How Bellingham Went from a City to Flee to a City to See


When I was growing up in northwest Washington, my hometown would find its self-image sullied each spring when the Bellingham Herald asked local girls vying to become Blossom Time festival queen to describe their ambitions in life. Inevitably, one or more candidates would respond: “To get out of Bellingham.”

The memory came to mind on the last day of May. I was back in town visiting a sparkling waterfront, transformed with a park created at site of the pulp mill that once caused waters of Bellingham Bay to look like tobacco spit. A mile or so north, old high school friend Drew Pettus took me to the harborside office complex where he practices law, to show off the path where he takes a midday run with views out to Lummi Island and the San Juans.

I capped the day dining on black cod at Carnal, one of several topnotch restaurants in town. Cheap food once meant Bunk’s drive-in north of the high school. My friends now rave about the tacos at Black Sheep. My Bellingham High School class gathered for one recent reunion at the elegant bayfront Bellwether Hotel.  

“Bellywash,” my mother’s nickname for the town, has begun to pop up on lists of America’s best places to live, learn, work, and retire.  Activities from its summer music festival to a hot (now closed) Lummi Island restaurant to the Ski to Sea race have attracted national attention. Western Washington University has gained the reputation as a topnotch public college.

The population of Bellingham was stagnant when I was a kid.  But in recent years, Bellywash has become a retirement haven for Northwest journalists, as well as one of the region’s top young photographers. Seattle Times alumnus Ron Judd has Cascadia Daily News breaking stories. A talented member of my family, with her choice of colleges, has picked Western.  Wealthy folk are finding scenic spots to settle: Two friends of mine live just outside the entrance to a gated community just off Chuckanut Drive.

Small city bigshots of yesteryear had big dreams, in Bellingham and elsewhere. Bad dreams. Glenn Lee, nuclear boosting publisher of the Tri-City Herald, touted Phoenix as a model for his mid-Columbia River metropolis.  Visiting our home in Bellingham, the head of Whatcom County’s economic development council would tell my folks: “This town has the potential of becoming a Pittsburgh.”

Slowly at first, folks began to conjure different dreams. Topping the list was keeping our environment from being wrecked. The “fourth corner” of America became site of preservation struggles of national consequence.

Grassroots activists fought the timber industry to create a North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness. An aluminum smelter, planned for Guemes Island, was turned back with aide of two lawyers who later served as Nixon’s enablers, John Ehrlichman and Egil “Bud” Krogh. Gov. Dixy Lee Ray was hot to locate a tanker port and pipeline terminus that would receive for transshipment oil from the North Slope of Alaska. Sen. Magnuson kept out the supertankers.

I carry memories from those battles. There was the U.S. Forest Service hearing at Happy Valley School. A pulp mill guy derided park and wilderness advocates as “birdwatchers,” to which the local Explorer Scout leader shot back: “You’re the birdwatcher. The bird you’re watching is the eagle on the dollar bill.” A Bellingham Chamber of Commerce nabob was forced to acknowledge that his statement was drafted by the Puget Sound Pulp & Timber Co.

In more recent times, developers of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, lined up support from local business leaders and construction unions. They were overwhelmed, however, by the crowd of opponents who showed up when the Bellingham City Club hosted a debate on the coal port. Opposition from the Lummi Indian Nation would ultimately kill the project.

The coal terminal battle followed a pattern. It pitted liberal, “green” Bellingham against the pro-development surrounding county. The conflict has shaped politics in the fourth corner of the “lower 48” states.  In 2016, Donald Trump brought his presidential campaign to the Northwest Washington fairgrounds in Lynden. On the picket lines outside were Alex Ramel, a Bellingham housing and environmental activist. Ramel has since been elected to the Legislature from the 40th District. In the 42nd District, part county and part city, a swing district has swung to the Democrats. They have flipped all three legislative seats.

Downtown Bellingham is very different from the town in which I grew up. The department stores decamped to the big Bellis Fair Mall north of the city. Downtown has storefronts vacant in what was the heart of local commerce. But on the south side, in Fairhaven’s historic buildings, grungy taverns have been supplanted by specialty shops and trendy restaurants. Fairhaven has what downtown Seattle no longer has, a quality bookstore.

I settled in the Emerald City after college, not looking back at Bellywash. Seattle was embarking on its lengthy most-livable-city phase: People magazine profiled a trendy young architect and family at the Pike Place Market. Transplanted Washington, D.C., media bigfoot Michael Kinsley would grace the cover of Newsweek, clutching a salmon. Asia-Pacific leaders convened a summit in the city and dined on salmon in the longhouse on Blake Island.

Such heady times are behind us.  Seattle is pricey and short of housing, fumbling with the crisis of homelessness, seeing its cops quit, and watching Amazon employees demonstrate against being required to come back to work downtown. Small cities, such as my birthplace, are becoming desirable places to settle.

Who would have thought myself and schoolmates would live to witness the prime of Bellingham, Washington?

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. B’ham now has very attractive characteristics for people wanting to live a healthy lifestyle and raise families. Seattle does not, primarily because much of Seattle was ruined by the wrong kinds of development.

    When Joel arrived in Seattle the ascendant political leadership was young and Ivy League-educated. Those guys knew their classmates were getting rich in Manhattan office buildings, so they decided to copy what NYC’s mayor John Lindsay was doing. Those grandiose – and ultimately wrongheaded – urban development ideals have prevailed in and around Seattle since. Unfortunately the current political leadership is proving incapable of changing course so the “livability quotient” of these two cities will continue diverging.

  2. Sorry Mr. Joel–an oldie here:

    Q: What does one call residents of Bellingham?

    A: Bellinghamsters!

    Hardi har har har……

    (Couldn’t resist–sorry for such a dumb one.)

  3. Liked the article. My husband and I grew up in Bellingham…..notice I didn’t use “myself” as you did in your final paragraph .

  4. Nice summary of the course of Bellingham’s history over the last few decades Joel. As a “Bellinghamster” myself I have watched the transformation with both hope and trepidation. The town has gone from a potential Bopal with a chlorine laden trains traversing the waterfront from a plant by the heart of downtown to a mecca for mountain biking and retirement. But all is not entirely rosy. Our homeless population numbers are breaking records, rocketing housing prices push young families toward the small cities and a great deal of work remains to restore dwindling salmon runs. Still, it’s a small enough community that good folks can get involved and make a measurable difference.

  5. Alas, Bellywash’s best days may already be behind it. Its status as a “destination city” with more recreation opportunities than could be imagined predictably attracted the same narcissistic and self-actualizing cohort which has previously ruined places like Bend, Boulder, and Bozeman. Decidedly not greenies, they in fact “mine” and degrade the landscape relentlessly for their near-term rec thrills and social media advancement, most often on the wheels of mountain bikes. They then repair to a fully (overly) saturated craft brewery market to congratulate themselves.

    Last year, the U.S. Forest Service OK’d nearly 3,000 acres of new logging, translating to many years of industrialization, in the upper North Fork Nooksack River basin of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The first such logging there in decades. Bellingham mostly slept through the long public comment period, in part because one of the most well-known enviro groups, RE Sources, heartily supported the project and encouraged their members to do the same. With friends like these….

    Bellywash green? Perhaps the defeat of the Cherry Point coal dump was the last gasp of an enlightened era that’s now quietly and regrettably departed. We’re now seeing parking lots expanded into genuine old growth forest at Mt. Baker ski area and into stately mature forest at Lake Padden city park, expressly to serve industrial strength recreation. And to the extent anyone has noticed these atrocities, they’ve produced mainly cheers from local movers and shakers, with their laser focus on that beleaguered eagle inhabiting the backside of those dollar bills.

  6. My father took me with him to find Modle T Ford parts at old farmsteads in Bow, Alger, Acme and Van Zandt in the early 60s. We drove into Bellingham and I was astonished to find a real city in what seemed the middle of nowhere. I had heard about it in 4th grade but didn’t know that it really existed.

    As time passed I made other visits. Friends and I looked for Permian molluscan fossils at Nooksack Falls and Eocene fossils at Chuckanut Drive. Later, married and with little kids, we played minigolf in Lynden and found a wonderful Korean store in NE Bellingham that sold the best Kim Chee. When they were older we discovered Village Books in Fairhaven and we fell in love with it, making many return trips and purchases. Students of mine who graduated and went to Western invited me to speak on Everett’s Housing Hope coopertive. When I go back to look for more Permian fossils, another student and her husband have asked me to visit and stay with them. I have followed the progress of its port and believe that city residents fended off the capitalists and preserved what was wonderful and beautiful.
    Bellingham has always seemed brighter, colder, much greener, more exotic and intoxicatingly romantic to me, a place distant and different enough to be vividly memorable to a child, a parent and an old man.
    So Bellingham has always seemed exotic and romantic to me.

  7. A few years ago, at the height of the daily news stories in the local papers (namely the Seattle Times) on the high cost of housing in Seattle proper and the surrounding suburbs and its broad impact on people, it was very common in the Comments sections of these stories for people to lament the loss of “old Seattle.” Occasionally, I read a comment where someone replied, in effect ‘If you want the old Seattle, you should consider moving to Bellingham. That’s the old Seattle today.’ I always thought that was a clever observation, if not perhaps 100% accurate. I’ve always liked the Bellingham area and this idea gave me a new (and fresh) perspective on it.

    I’m not a native Seattleite. I only moved here in early 1984. I suppose ‘old Seattle’ – whatever it was – was already moving on by that point. But I had and still have an idea of what people meant because remnants of it were still around everywhere in the people I met who grew up here. I still see glimpses of it occasionally, but not as often. The world changes over time, anyway. Last month, I visited the Midwestern (Great Lakes region) city I grew up in before leaving in late summer, 1978. There was a family wedding to attend, and I was due for a visit anyway. It had been five years (a pandemic and several unrelated health issues ago) since I last visited, the longest stretch between visits since I left 45 years ago. For the first time, that city felt alien to me, no longer like “home.” Since returning to Seattle, I’m still trying to process those feelings. It didn’t help that I stayed in a suburb that didn’t exist when I lived there.


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