Whitehorn (Whatcom County) was home for more than half a century to a small but thriving community which was swept away when a large oil refinery opened on the site in 1971. In 2009, the Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve opened along Whitehorn’s shoreline with the Strait of Georgia, providing a tranquil respite with spectacular views.
The area around Point Whitehorn, immediately below Birch Bay (the point itself marks the southernmost entrance to Birch Bay), was home to both Semiahmoo and Lummi bands of Native Americans in the years leading up to the nineteenth century; Point Whitehorn was both the northern reach of Lummi territory and the southern fringe of Semiahmoo territory. When the 1841 naval expedition of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) passed through the Strait of Georgia off of northern Whatcom County, it named the spot Point Whitehorn in honor of Daniel Whitehorn, a quarter gunner who accompanied the expedition.
Whitehorn’s first documented settlers, Peter Lee, wife Gudny, and two young sons, Andrew and Ole, arrived early in 1889 and settled on what would later be known as Brown Road, about half a mile east of Jackson Road. (Gudny Thorleifsdottir Lee is believed to be the second Icelander to settle in northwestern Whatcom County. Hundreds would follow.) But the community’s growth was slow (more like infinitesimal) during its first decade. The area was heavily wooded, and local roads that exist today -- Jackson and Grandview, for example -- were simply trails or, perhaps in one or two cases, single-wagon roads. Given the primitive conditions, it took most early settlers a year or two just to build a home. In the meantime, they either lived with others or lived in tents, rough shacks, or cabins, and eked out a living farming or logging. To obtain supplies, they usually walked to Custer (a 14 mile round trip) or Blaine (closer to 20).
A Scandinavian Community
In 1900 Whitehorn’s population was nine: two married couples, one child, and four single men. Then a real population boom came. A community rose up, made up largely of Scandinavians (including more Icelanders) with surnames like Bjarnason, Pilskog, Slaatebrek, and Sveinson. Whitehorn's boundaries were located approximately from Point Whitehorn east along a line near today’s (2011) Grandview Road to Blaine Road (State Route 548), then south to Cherry Point (south of the intersection of Jackson and Henry roads). In its heyday the community had a population of perhaps 100. But it was never platted, and never even had its own post office; still, to the people who lived there -- some for more than 60 years -- it was home.
As the community grew, a church and school followed. The Golgotha Lutheran Free Church was established in Whitehorn in 1908. Services were held in the Lee (later Whitehorn) School for a decade, until a church building opened on the southeast corner of Jackson and Aldergrove roads in 1919. Likewise, a small school that taught the first eight grades (later reduced to six, then three) opened on the southeast corner of Jackson and Brown roads in 1909. At its peak, the school had 40 students enrolled. In 1915 a three-room teacher’s cottage was built behind the school, which also served as a handy temporary home to newcomers until they could establish more permanent digs.
In 1902 a fish camp was built near Cherry Point on land leased by Pacific American Fisheries (PAF). It consisted of a cookhouse and dining hall (serving three hot meals a day in season, which usually ran April to November), and a bunkhouse. As many as 10 fish traps were set up just off the adjacent shoreline to harvest salmon as they migrated through the Strait of Georgia. However, the camp was too small and rudimentary for any processing equipment, and fish caught were quickly towed to the PAF plant in Bellingham for processing. It operated until 1934, when Washington voters passed Initiative 77, outlawing the use of fish traps in the state and spelling the end for the little fish camp. Lumber and shingle mills also provided local employment, and dairy farming was a big mainstay for Whitehorn residents.
Repurposing a Blasting Powder Plant
Whitehorn had both a shot at glory and a whiff of scandal in the 1930s. In 1928 the Washington Safety Powder Company purchased 80 acres of land south of Aldergrove Road off what became Powder Plant Road. The company had big plans for a blasting powder plant, and finished building its 11 buildings by the spring of 1930, just after the beginning of the Great Depression. People eagerly awaited the start of production. Time passed, but nothing happened. Then several years passed and still -- nothing. It turned out that the company didn’t have the funds to buy materials needed to start operations, or for that matter, even to make payments for the land itself. To add insult to injury, Whatcom County residents who bought stock in the company lost their shirts.
The county eventually seized the property, but it didn’t go entirely to waste. Later in the 1930s the WPA (Works Progress Administration) sponsored dances in the buildings (the property’s caretaker sometimes joining in with his fiddle), and boxing matches were also held there. The buildings were dismantled in the 1940s, but the deserted plant site served as a convenient parking spot for local lovers for decades to come.
Mennonites to Whitehorn
Dozens of Mennonites immigrated to Whitehorn in the 1930s and 1940s and made their own mark on the community. In his book, Whitehorn, author Robert Ogmundson explains that a Mennonite teacher and missionary, Reverend Nicholas Hiebert (1874-1957), visited Whatcom County during the 1930s seeking a haven for Mennonites, especially families who had lost their homes because of the Depression or the effects of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest.
Impressed with Whitehorn’s fertile soil and long growing season, he approached wealthy Bellingham realtor Charles F. Larrabee, who owned land near Jackson and Grandview roads, and inquired if he wanted to “become wealthy with friends” (Whitehorn, p. 45). Larrabee agreed and sold parcels of land at reasonable terms to the new settlers. The Mennonites also established their own church on the west side of Jackson just north of Grandview, which in its first years offered services both in English and German.
The Refineries Arrive
By the 1960s the little community was beginning to slowly fade away. The Whitehorn School closed in 1956, and the Golgotha Church held its final service in the autumn of 1967. But it was the arrival of the refineries that brought the 80-year history of Whitehorn to a more abrupt close. In 1954 General Petroleum completed its Mobil Oil refinery (now known as the Conoco Phillips Ferndale Refinery) four miles southeast of Whitehorn, and in 1966 the Intalco aluminum smelter (today the nation’s largest) began operation just a mile north of the Mobil refinery.
In 1968 Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), announced plans to build a crude-oil refinery at Whitehorn, instead of in Snohomish County as had been originally planned. This was the death knell for the community. Its remaining landowners were bought out and their homes and barns moved or leveled for the $150 million ($815 million in 2011 dollars) ARCO refinery. It began operation late in 1971.
The 3,300-acre refinery -- now owned by British Petroleum (BP) and known as the Cherry Point Refinery -- covers much of the land where Whitehorn once stood. It’s the largest oil refinery in Washington state, processing approximately 225,000 barrels of oil a day. The plant primarily manufactures transportation fuels, and is the largest marketer of gasoline and jet fuel on the West Coast. With more than 800 employees, it’s one of Whatcom County’s major employers.
Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve
A visitor today will find little trace of Whitehorn, with the exception of the Mennonite church, now known as the Birch Bay Bible Community Church (and its days there are numbered -- a new facility is under construction near Birch Bay). Some newer homes, unrelated to the original community, have been built above Point Whitehorn’s shoreline. Many of the old roads are still there, but a lot of them have become roads to nowhere. Alders have reclaimed parts of the land that have not been developed for the Cherry Point Refinery, and the refinery itself dominates the otherwise pristine setting. Yet not all of today’s Whitehorn is about industrial development.
The Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve opened in 2009 on the Strait of Georgia, about a mile south of the tip of Point Whitehorn. The 54-acre reserve was acquired in 2007 by the Whatcom Land Trust, then transferred to Whatcom County Parks and Recreation. Fines from the 1999 Olympic Pipe Line explosion in Bellingham helped fund its construction. A three-quarter mile trail from a small parking lot takes you to overlooks and then 75 feet down to the beach. The beach itself is rocky and tricky to walk on -- it’s almost like walking on loose cobblestones -- but if the weather is good the views of the strait and the San Juan and Canada’s Gulf islands are worth it. To the south along the shore is the Cherry Point Refinery dock; on some days you might spot a ship loading oil there.
Offshore, the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve stretches from the southern edge of Birch Bay south almost to Lummi Bay. Established in 2000, this reserve seeks to protect marine life, including herring spawning grounds.