Washington Governor John McGraw approves charter for New Whatcom Normal School on February 24, 1893.

  • By Emily Lieb
  • Posted 1/05/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8040
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On February 24, 1893, Washington Governor John McGraw (1850-1910) approves the charter for the state's third public teacher-training school, the New Whatcom Normal School. Over the years, the school will change its name many times -- it will become the Western Washington State College of Education in 1937 and the Western Washington State College in 1961. In 1977 it will get the name it has today: Western Washington University.

Whatcom County's School

The governor created Whatcom County's normal school, but he didn't offer state money to build or run it. For that, county boosters had to raise their own funds. They got the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company, the Fairhaven Land Company, and a few prominent local families to donate land for the school's campus, and by 1896 they'd found the money to start building Old Main, the Normal School's first building, on Sehome Hill.

But they ran out of cash the next year, and the structure stood unfinished until 1899, when the state legislature finally voted to pay for it. The New Whatcom Normal School welcomed its first 88 students that fall. By spring, Old Main was finished and the school enrolled more than 200 students.

Teachers in Training

These students, mostly young women, came to the Bellingham Bay area from all over the state to learn to be teachers in tiny towns and one-room schoolhouses on Washington's frontier. They attended classes, ate their meals, socialized, and studied in Old Main. They lived in private boardinghouses near campus, where housemothers and school officials kept a close eye on them. According to one early catalog, the students took courses in "algebra, grammar, physiology, drawing and vocal music, reading, orthography [spelling] and physical culture." They joined literary societies, wrote for the Normal Messenger (the school paper, which later became the Northwest Viking (1928), the Collegian (1939), the Straight News (1966), and the Western Front (1967), auditioned for plays, and tried out for sports teams. They hiked and skied in the Cascades.

As the student body grew, so did the campus. Old Main had to be expanded three times, in 1902, 1907, and 1914. In 1921, construction crews finished work on a brand-new Edens Hall, which became the women's dormitory. The impressive Library of the College (renamed the Mabel Zoe Wilson Library in 1964, after its first librarian) was completed in 1928, and had more than 40,000 books. These new facilities helped the New Whatcom Normal School to become a full-fledged college. Until 1933, graduating students had simply received diplomas, but that year the school offered its first bachelor's degree in education. In 1937, the school became the Western Washington State College of Education.

Changing Times

After World War II, hundreds of young men used the GI Bill to continue their educations at Western Washington. For the first time, more male than female students attended the college. Students could major in subjects other than education, too. For example, the college created a Department of Science in the 1940s, and by the 1960s, when the Haggard Hall of Science opened its doors, students could concentrate in Biology, Geology, Science Education, or Chemistry and Physics (these became separate departments in 1962).

In 1947, the school's graduate division granted its first master's degree. In 1961, the year the Washington State Legislature changed the school's name to Western Washington State College, there were 2,800 students on the Bellingham campus; eight years later, there were 8,600.

The 1960s hit the campus hard: Students participated in campus protests about civil rights and Vietnam, and they demanded changes in the way the college was run. In 1968, the tiny Fairhaven College, which had self-designed majors and an interdisciplinary curriculum, opened in Edens Hall. Two years later, the college created the Huxley College of Environmental Studies. The College of Arts and Sciences was established in 1973, followed two years later by the College of Fine & Performing Arts and the next year by the College of Business & Economics.

In 1977, the former New Whatcom Normal School became Western Washington University. The last of the university's colleges, the Woodring College of Education, was established in 1989.


Western Washington University: 100 Years (Harmony House, 1999); Chemistry Department at Western Washington University website accessed on December 14, 2006 (http://www.chem.wwu.edu/dept/dept/history.shtml); Western Washington University Institutional Profile 2006-2007, University Communications at Western Washington University website accessed January 6. 2007 (http://www.wwu.edu/ucomm/about/glance.shtml).

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