On February 20, 1877, an enormous log jam on the Nooksack River near Ferndale (Whatcom County) is reported to have been cleared. The three-quarters-of-a-mile-long jam had represented a serious impediment to travel on the Nooksack during the 1870s as Caucasian settlers began moving into the area, and its removal will lead to steamboat travel on the river, facilitating development of Ferndale and other communities along the Nooksack.
The Big Jam
With the exception of a few trails, the Nooksack River was the only means of transportation into parts of northern Whatcom County in the early 1870s. As non-Native settlers began moving along the Nooksack during these years, they encountered a log jam about three or four miles north of the river’s mouth at Bellingham Bay. This was no ordinary log jam. It stretched about three-quarters of a mile from a point west of Tennant Lake north into today’s (2011) downtown Ferndale, ending a little below the present location of the Main Street bridge. By 1870 it had been there for so long -- no one really knew how long -- that trees and shrubs were growing from the jam itself, making it hard to tell where the forest ended and the river began.
Early settlers traveling the river were forced to disembark and portage around the jam, dragging their canoes on small poles laid for this purpose. Early Lynden settlers Phoebe Judson (1831-1926) and Robert Emmet Hawley (1862-1946) both write about the jam in their autobiographies, and both say the portage around the jam took three hours when they made their first trip north, Judson in 1870 and Hawley in 1872. Author P. R. Jeffcott writes that there were actually two portages around the jam, one to the west and one to the east, and says that the eastern portage was favored, particularly since there was a slough on the east side that boats could navigate as far as Tennant Lake.
A settlement sprang up near the obstruction and was informally named “Jam,” irritating many settlers with its in-your-face reminder. The settlement was soon renamed Ferndale, but the jam itself remained firmly in place, retarding the development of the Upper Nooksack. People avoided traveling the river unless they had to. In 1875 the Washington Territorial Legislature petitioned Congress for financial aid to remove the jam, but the effort was not successful.
Aunt Phoebe and Judge Plaster
Enter Phoebe Judson, the “Mother of Lynden.” In the spring of 1876 she started a petition to raise funds from county settlers to remove the jam. Assisted by Mrs. M. D. Smith of Whatcom (now part of Bellingham), Judson raised $200 (about $4,150 in 2011 dollars) in just three weeks. She also suggested that the man who donated the most work on the jam be given votes for county office. Efforts were then briefly sidetracked by the U.S. centennial celebrations held in the county in the summer of 1876. But the jam remained topic number one all the same, with more solutions offered than you could shake a stick at. Some promoted grand schemes to get rid of it, but quickly disappeared when they were called to the task. Other said the jam was just too big and complicated to remove.
By the end of the summer talk was finally turning into action. A meeting of interested citizens held in late August in Ferndale led to a committee being formed to hire someone to clear the jam. Ferndale resident and probate judge John Plaster (1832-1898) contracted to remove it for $450 (more than $9,300 in 2011 dollars), and by September 1876 was hard at work. Assisted by Jim Lynch and occasionally others, Plaster tackled the jam at its lower end and simply sawed and pried the logs loose, piece by piece, day after day, and let the current carry the pieces downstream to Bellingham Bay. Autumn rains raised the river level and helped speed the process along, and by mid-December, much of the jam had been cleared. By early February 1877 the last of the jam had floated off into history, and on February 20, 1877, it was announced that Plaster’s work had been accepted and the Big Jam was no more.
Clearing the Big Jam was a pivotal moment in Whatcom County’s early history. The Nooksack River was the lifeline to the upper reaches of the county until the 1890s, and clearing the river was imperative for this area to fully develop. Two smaller jams upstream (one a few miles southwest of Lynden and one in Lynden) were cleared by the spring of 1879, and by 1882 regular steamer traffic was beginning to run along the river, leading the way for the settlement of the Upper Nooksack.