At 10 p.m. on August 10, 1911, 14 young men gather outside the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce for the first-ever Mount Baker Marathon. The contestants are ready for a 120-mile round-trip race: They travel by car or train to the base of the mountain, then run up to the top and down again. Then the racers return to town the same way they came. The next day, Joe Galbraith will be the first to make it back to Bellingham (of only six who get up the mountain to begin with). He will manage to get from town to peak and back in 12 hours and 28 minutes.
A Mountain Wonderland
With this event, one local climber writes in the Bellingham Daily Herald:
“Mt. Baker is getting a formal introduction to the people of our republic. This mountain and its immediate environs are deserving of improvement and development for its scenic value. It is the object of the Mt. Baker Club to continue these marathons as long as they may be beneficial in stirring up active interest and co-operation in the building of roads and better trails which will aid in opening up the fascinating features of this wonderland” (August 6, 1911).
Mountaineering groups, explorers’ clubs, and Bellingham boosters disagreed on just how they should promote the region: Some wanted the federal government to make the mountain into a national park; some wanted to establish a grand Rainier-style resort on the mountainside; and some simply wanted to build a road that would ferry adventurers and tourists across the glacier. But everyone agreed that the majestic scenery of the North Cascades was a valuable local resource that could draw visitors from across the Northwest. So, the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce and the Mt. Baker Club sponsored the marathon, which they hoped would draw attention to the area while helping to find the best route to the top of the mountain.
Rocks and Ice and Snow
Racers had two choices: They could take a special train from Bellingham to the town of Glacier, 44 miles up the Nooksack River, where they would get off the train and run 14 miles to the summit and 14 miles back; or, they could drive a newfangled automobile 26 miles to Heisler’s Ranch on the river’s Middle Fork and run 32 miles in all, up and down the Deming Trail. The routes had roughly the same elevation gain -- about 9,700 feet, according to the local newspaper, “with the advantage, if any, in favor of Deming, in a slightly shorter snow climb” (Bellingham Daily Herald, August 6, 1911). Either way, the newspaper reported, “This is not over some ideal race course but over rocks and ice and snow, with an element of risk to chance.”
All the publicity paid off: when the race began, thousands of men, women, and children lined the streets and crowded the rooftops of Bellingham to watch. The cars that would carry the Deming runners idled at the starting line, while the specially chartered train puffed smoke behind the Chamber of Commerce building. At 10, the paper reported, “The word is given. Like a regiment on charge, forward sweep the contestants, clambering helter skelter into the already moving machines, while the balance swings out for the special train. The race is on” (Koert and Biery, 304).
The first to reach the mountain’s peak was Harvey Haggard, a 20-year-old packer for a mining company, who took the train to Glacier and made it to the top at 5:18 a.m. Nineteen minutes later, Joe Galbraith, who’d taken the Deming trail in a Model T Ford driven by his friend Hugh Diehl, arrived at the summit.
Haggard was still in the lead as the racers headed down the mountain. The first-place train was ready to leave when he arrived at Glacier station; he climbed aboard and took off all of his clothes for a massage as the train careened back to Bellingham. But as it rounded a corner near Maple Falls, local rancher Dan J. Loop’s 1,800-pound bull tore out of the shrubbery along the track. Train and animal collided. The train derailed; Haggard’s coach flipped over; the naked marathoner and his entourage spilled into the underbrush. As Haggard climbed out of the wreckage, he announced, “I am all right, but I am afraid I’ve lost the race.”
He dressed and flagged down a passing buggy, which took him to a waiting horse, which carried him to a waiting car -- but when the agitated horse spotted the automobile, he stopped short. Haggard sailed over the horse’s head and landed on the ground. His driver, wasting no time, stuffed him into the car’s backseat, where the racer fainted twice on the way back to town.
Galbraith Wins, Haggard Is Crowned
Still, Joe Galbraith made it back to Bellingham first. He and Diehl arrived at the Chamber of Commerce building at 10:28 in the morning, 12 hours and 12 minutes after the race began. He won $100 cash and a buffalo robe. Haggard arrived 32 minutes later, winning second place and the adoration of the spectators, who passed the hat and raised a $50 prize. The Chamber threw in an additional $30; Glacier and Maple Falls gave him $100, and Glacier citizens elected him King of Glacier.
For their part, the people of Deming barbecued the bull that had hit Haggard’s train at a gala banquet in the young man’s honor.
Harvey Haggard won the next year’s race. The year after that, Joe Galbraith’s cousin Victor fell into a 40-foot crevasse while running up the mountain in the middle of the night. He was miraculously unhurt, but race organizers began to worry that something very bad could happen to one of the competitors as they ran 30 miles up and down a glacier in the dark. They’d already gained plenty of publicity, so they next year they cancelled the event for good.
In 1972, a new race began on Mt. Baker: the Ski to Sea Relay. Ski to Sea racers begin at the top of the mountain. One at a time, relay team members ski downhill and cross country, ride mountain and road bikes, and canoe and kayak to the finish line on Puget Sound. In all, the race covers 82.5 miles, and thousands of people participate each year.