Blaine -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 9/07/2009
  • Essay 9148
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Blaine (Whatcom County) is located in extreme Northwestern Washington; the northern edge of its city limit is the Canadian border. The area was originally inhabited by a band of Native Americans known as the Semiahmoo. Caucasian settlers first arrived in 1858 during the Fraser River Gold Rush, when not one, but two communities named Semiahmoo were briefly established. Permanent settlement came in 1870, and eventually the two Semiahmoos became one Blaine. In the early twentieth century, Blaine was known for its canneries, including one of the largest in the country, the Alaska Packers Association, located on Semiahmoo Spit. Today (2009) the four-star Semiahmoo Resort sits on the spit, and on the northern outskirts of Blaine the Peace Arch and Peace Arch Park provide a unique and attractive gateway for those entering or leaving the United States. In 2008, the U.S. Census estimated Blaine's population at 4,975.

First Peoples

Native Americans lived in the area around Blaine and Semiahmoo Spit in the centuries before European explorers first passed through in the early 1790s, and in this part of Whatcom County the Semiahmoo -- culturally and linguistically a Straits Salish band -- were  predominant. In 1790 the Semiahmoo had a population of about 300.

There are different interpretations as to what the word “Semiahmoo” means. Jack Brown writes that, according to Chief James “Jimmy” Charles (1867-1952), chief of the Semiahmoo from 1909 to 1952, the word Semiahmoo means “half-moon,” and describes the shape of Semiahmoo Bay. But White Rock, B.C., historian Lorraine Ellenwood writes that “it translates, in one sense, as ‘water all around’ or ‘hole in the sky’” (Years of Promise, 28). The reader should also keep in mind that the name “Semiahmoo” is a derivative of a name given to this group of Native Americans in 1854 by U.S. Indian Agent E. C. Fitzhugh, based on his hearing of what they called themselves.

Before the 1790s, Semiahmoo villages were located at Birch Bay and at the entrance to Semiahmoo Spit. By the time of the European explorations in the early 1790s, the Semiahmoo had moved their principal village from Semiahmoo Spit to the shores of Drayton Harbor, between California and Dakota creeks. They were a peaceful group, not given to warfare unless necessary for defense.

The Semiahmoo lived off a smorgasbord of marine life from area waters, but salmon was the biggest staple in their diet. They fished for salmon with reef nets, which were anchored to a reef, with floats attached to the ends of the net to keep it on the surface. Fishermen in canoes attached a rope to the net, and when fish swam into it the fishermen drew the net up. On a good day, they could catch thousands of fish.

The first half of the nineteenth century was not kind to the Semiahmoo. Plagued by attacks from more aggressive Indians from the north, as well as by outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases, the band’s population declined markedly between 1800 and 1850. In the early 1850s, the Semiahmoo moved again, establishing a small village a few miles to the north near the mouth of the Campbell River on Semiahmoo Bay. This move of no more than five miles left the Semiahmoo on the Canadian side of the U.S.-Canadian border when the border was surveyed later that decade. It is now the location of the Semiahmoo Indian Reserve, in extreme southwestern British Columbia.

Drawing the Line

Spanish and British explorers both passed through the area in the early 1790s, landing at Point Roberts and Birch Bay. In April 1841, a naval expedition led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) of the United States Navy sailed around a thin, mile-and-a-half spit north of Birch Bay and into a small, nameless harbor. Wilkes named it Drayton Harbor, in honor of civilian artist Joseph Drayton, who had accompanied him on the expedition. Indians and fur traders called the spit Tongue Point; it is now known Semiahmoo Spit.

Five years later, in June 1846, the United States and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty, which made the 49th parallel the boundary between U.S. territory to the south and British territory to the north from the Rocky Mountains to the Georgia Strait (an exception was made for Vancouver Island, which became entirely British). As fate would have it, the 49th parallel ran right through Semiahmoo Bay.

It was then necessary to mark the boundary, and in 1856 the United States formed a boundary commission. Great Britain soon followed suit, and the two groups worked together in what was known as the International Boundary Commission. The Americans began work late in 1857 and were joined by the British the following summer. Working their way east from Point Roberts, surveyors took observations for latitude to determine the 49th parallel, and ax men cut a path approximately 40 feet wide (20 feet on either side of the border) through the dense forest that then predominated along the parallel.

For various reasons, the 49th parallel was not followed precisely when it was marked, though both countries later agreed to accept the boundary as identified by the joint commission. It is now known that the 49th parallel in Blaine is actually hundreds of feet south of what is officially recognized as the international border. (According to a Google Earth map, the 49th parallel goes right across the secondary lanes of the United States customs station at the Peace Arch crossing in Blaine, and tracks east just south of B Street through the city.)

The Two Semiahmoos

As work was getting underway marking the boundary, gold was discovered in 1858 on the Fraser and Thompson (a tributary of the Fraser) rivers in southern British Columbia. Thousands of eager prospectors made their way north in what became known as the Fraser River Gold Rush. Not one, but two Semiahmoos were born early that summer -- one on Semiahmoo Spit, and the second where the city of Blaine is today. An article in the September 11, 1858, issue of The Northern Light (Bellingham) -- Whatcom County’s first newspaper -- described the two towns as each having a population of about “eighteen or twenty souls.”

The town on the spit had a hotel, several residences, a number of tents, and a trading post. William King Lear (or Leer), perhaps the most enterprising resident of the town on the spit, operated the trading post. He also sold property lots, operated the hotel, and ferried men and supplies across Semiahmoo Bay to the American boundary commission camp at the mouth of the Campbell River (which happened to be on the British side of the border, though no one minded).

The Northern Light article described S. B. Boswell as the “moving spirit” of the Semiahmoo that was located on the mainland, which consisted of a couple of log houses, a few tents, and several large, substantial frame buildings, two identified as saloons. The mainland Semiahmoo also had a post office for two years, from September 1858 to October 1860.

The great Fraser River Gold Rush turned out to be a flash in the pan, and by 1860 it was over. By the early 1860s the work of the International Boundary Commission along the West Coast was also tapering off. The two Semiahmoos quickly faded away, although a handful of settlers, having married Native American women, stuck around in the general area.

Second Time Around

In 1870 settlers began returning to the two Semiahmoos. Semiahmoo on the spit developed somewhat more quickly. A store opened there in 1871, operated by Mason and Sylvester Clark. A post office (also at the store) opened in 1872, whereas the post office at Semiahmoo on the mainland did not reopen until 1885. James Murne, a colorful character, operated a store and a wharf on the spit, and also served as postmaster from 1874 to 1884.

There was also new settlement at the mainland Semiahmoo. The families of Edward Boblett, Daniel Richards, and Amos Dexter arrived there in the autumn of 1870. Other settlers followed, all coming by steamer or boat since there were as yet no roads. Some settled around California and Dakota creeks; others farther north, where Blaine is today. One of the more notable families that settled there was the Cain family, who arrived in July 1871. Brothers James (1839-1914), Cornelius, and George (1858-1942) were instrumental in the development of the community in its early years, clearing land and later platting the town. The brothers built Blaine’s first store in 1884, and James Cain was elected Blaine’s first mayor in 1890. But overall growth was slow in the 1870s. Several sawmills opened, and some fish marketing operations began, but Blaine’s real dawn would not come until the 1880s, and in particular, 1884.

Immigration to the mainland Semiahmoo began to increase in 1883, and late that year or early in 1884 the community was renamed Concord. But in June 1884, Concord changed its name to Blaine, in honor of James G. Blaine (1830-1893), a powerful Republican leader who served during the late nineteenth century in both houses of Congress and as Secretary of State. (He was also the Republican presidential candidate in 1884, but lost to Grover Cleveland.)

James Cain recorded the plat for the town of Blaine on September 13, 1884, and from there the little town grew rapidly. A newspaper, The Blaine Journal, published its inaugural edition in 1885; a large hotel was completed in the new town that year; and the first school opened in 1886. Shingle mills and sawmills opened, roads were built, new homes appeared by the dozens, and the community’s population mushroomed, from 153 in 1880 to 1,563 in 1890.

Blaine first incorporated on May 20, 1890, but early the next year the Whatcom County Superior Court dissolved the incorporation on the grounds that it had included too much territory. The city promptly reincorporated in the spring of 1891. Across Drayton Harbor, Semiahmoo soldiered on for a couple of decades, but its post office closed at the end of 1908 (a death knell for vanishing communities), and Semiahmoo became primarily known as the site of the Alaska Packers Association. In the 1980s, the City of Blaine annexed Semiahmoo Spit and some of the surrounding area.

Alaska Packers Association

Blaine had some fishing operations in the 1870s, but in those years fish was salted and barreled for storage, not canned. By 1880 canning was beginning to replace the barrel, and it was a big leap forward because canned fish could be stored for a much longer period of time. James Tarte and John Martin opened Whatcom County’s first cannery in August 1882 at Semiahmoo and operated under the name Tarte & Martin for several years. It was a small operation, but further advances in canning technology in the final two decades of the nineteenth century led to an eruption of canneries in Blaine. The Blaine Journal's April 1909 special “homeseeker’s edition” lists five: Ainsworth and Dunn, the Blaine Packing Company, J.W. & V. Cook Packing Company, West Coast Packing Company, and the granddaddy of them all, the Alaska Packers Association.

In 1891, Daniel Drysdale purchased the cannery at Semiahmoo, built several new buildings, and remodeled the docks. Drysdale named his new cannery the Point Roberts Canning Company and during the next three years his business rapidly grew. In 1894, a one-year-old company named the Alaska Packers Association bought Drysdale’s cannery and also assumed management operations at the Wadhams cannery, located at what is now Lily Point on the southeastern edge of Point Roberts.

The Alaska Packers Association turned the Semiahmoo location at the far end of the spit into one of its primary operations, enlarging the cannery and adding warehouses, a boat-repair yard, and bunkhouses. These had segregated quarters for men and women (who got dormitories) and Chinese and Indian laborers. Semiahmoo was also home to the Alaska Packers Association's star fleet of about 30 large ships, which transported men and supplies from San Francisco to Alaska until approximately 1930. 

The firm's Point Roberts facility closed in 1917, but the Semiahmoo location canned on for decades more, with operations continuing until 1964. The Alaska Packers Association continued making labels for packed salmon there until 1974, and maintained a regional office on the spit until 1974. The boat-repair yard remained operational until 1981.

Semiahmoo Spit changed dramatically during the 1980s. After the Alaska Packers Association closed its operations in 1981, the land was redeveloped for the Semiahmoo Resort, a four-star facility that opened in 1987. A few of the old cannery buildings and piers still (2009) remain near the resort, and the Semiahmoo Marina is a short walk away. At the other end of the spit, another of the former Alaska Packers Association buildings has become the Semiahmoo Park Maritime Museum, which features the history of the cannery. Nearby, one of the original bunkhouses has been converted into the Cannery Day Lodge, which can be rented for meetings or functions for up to 63 people.

The Semiahmoo Lighthouse

With increased shipping passing through the area in the late nineteenth century, prescient souls in Semiahmoo decided to petition the U.S. Lighthouse Board for a lighthouse and fog signal station. In September 1897, town postmaster Orison P. Carver sent a petition to the board requesting such a lighthouse. The board acknowledged his petition, but before anything happened the Spanish-American War intervened and harbor appropriations were postponed.

In April 1900 Carver tried again, and this time he was more successful. The board agreed to fund construction, and the $25,000 lighthouse and fog signal station became operational in June 1905. The lighthouse was located in Semiahmoo Bay, not far from the Alaska Packers Association cannery. It was a one-and-a-half story Victorian dwelling, with oak woodwork and polished brass, built on a platform supported by wooden piles. It had a round lantern house and balcony at the center of its peaked roof, and sported a third-class fog trumpet.

In 1911 Edward Durgan became lighthouse keeper, but not without some reluctance. His daughter later wrote that he initially referred to the lighthouse as “that little birdhouse perched up on stilts at Blaine, a mile in the sea from town” (Lighthouse Digest).  He threatened not to go, but did in the end, and he served until he died while on duty, in 1919. His widow, Estelle, replaced him briefly, and other lighthouse keepers followed, but the job was eliminated in 1939 when an automatic light and fog signal were installed. The house was dismantled in the late spring of 1944 and replaced with an 18-foot pyramid house, which was itself dismantled in 1971. Today a rather boring-looking but functional metal tower sits at the site in Semiahmoo Bay, easily visible from the Semiahmoo Resort. 

Border-town Blaine

Most Washingtonians know Blaine primarily as the place where they cross the border going to or returning from Canada, and its status as a border crossing has made its own mark on Blaine’s history. From its earliest years, Blaine has had to fight illegal traffic into the country -- human beings (Chinese in the earliest years), booze during Prohibition, narcotics from day one, even egret plumes. Early in the twentieth century, efforts to prevent the smuggling of those decorative feathers infuriated many fashionably dressed women of the day. 

Canada opened its first customs house north of Blaine in 1880. It was located about five miles from the border on the Nicomekl River, along the Semiahmoo Trail that ran from the border north of Semiahmoo (later Blaine) to New Westminster, B.C. By 1886 a customs agent was stationed sporadically in Semiahmoo, and a customs office opened in Blaine in January 1888. The customs office on the American side was located on the beach road leading south from the border into Blaine. Its officer would arbitrarily refuse entry into the United States between sunset and sunrise unless a traveler could somehow coax him otherwise.

By the early 1890s, Canada also had a customs office closer to the border. It was located just north of the boundary line about halfway between the present-day location of the Peace Arch and the Pacific Highway customs crossing.  A small community on the Canadian side where this customs office was located was, somewhat confusingly, known as Blaine, B.C., for 15 or 20 years before being renamed Douglas.

Enforcement of customs reporting requirements on both sides of the border, lax in the early years, became more aggressive in the 1890s. A July 1891 Blaine Journal article sarcastically complained about the increasing enforcement, and indignantly exclaimed “There is a wall [presumably across the road at the border] with a gate in it, sure now.”

In 1892 a larger customs office opened in Blaine on the Washington side, and in 1910 the office moved to the Del Monte Inn at 477 Peace Portal Drive. Later, in the early 1910s, a small guard station referred to as the “dog house” opened closer to the border. The dog house was located on the northwest corner of Marine Drive and Washington Avenue (later Peace Portal Drive), and it made sense in a time of increasing auto traffic, enabling a guard to determine whether to let someone simply pass, or to refer them to the customs office in Blaine. A larger station opened on the highway in 1924, but the main customs office remained in downtown Blaine. In 1931 the main customs office moved again, briefly to a station on the Pacific Highway a mile to the east, and then to its present location near the Peace Arch.

The Peace Arch 

The Pacific Highway was dedicated in a ceremony at the border north of Blaine in 1915. At the ceremony, J. J. Donovan, vice president of the Pacific Highway Association in Whatcom County, made a motion to the crowd (enthusiastically carried) that the American and Canadian governments be asked to build a marble “peace arch” at the site to commemorate both the dedication of the highway and 100 years of peace between Great Britain and the United States. But Samuel “Sam” Hill (1857-1931), founder of the Washington State Good Roads Association, was the real force behind the creation of the Peace Arch. The idea for an arch was not entirely new -- a wooden arch was built over the railroad tracks at the border just north of Blaine when the railroad border crossing was completed in 1891, and in 1911 Blaine had erected a temporary white arch on its main street to celebrate a fair -- but Hill’s arch was to be far more impressive.

In July 1920 work began on the 67-foot-tall concrete and steel structure that we now know as the Peace Arch. Built straddling the border between the United States and Canada, it features iron gates within the arch, permanently held open. Above the portal on the U.S. side of the arch is inscribed “Children Of A Common Mother,” while above the Canadian portal it reads “Brethren Dwelling Together In Unity.” Sam Hill dedicated the Peace Arch in a ceremony on September 6, 1921.

In the 1920s there was no park at the Peace Arch, but in 1931 both the United States and Canada set aside land immediately surrounding the arch that eventually led to such a park. A park opened on the American side of the arch in 1932 and on the Canadian side in 1939, and though these are actually two separate parks, they have long since been informally considered as one park, commonly known as Peace Arch Park. The park has expanded over the years and today covers approximately 43 acres, 20 on the American side, and 23 on the Canadian side. It features the Peace Arch as its centerpiece and has well-tended, attractive lawns and gardens. There is a floral U.S. stars and stripes south of the arch, and to the north a red and white flower garden depicts a Canadian maple leaf. A celebration called “Hands Across the Border” that often attracts thousands is held each year at the park to mark the dedication of the arch, though ceremonies were canceled in 2008 and 2009 due to ongoing construction at the border crossing.

The park has been the site of both ceremony and controversy. Singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976), banned by the United States from international travel during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s because of his political beliefs, gave four concerts at the park between 1952 and 1955. In 1964 U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Canadian Premier Lester Pearson signed the Columbia River Treaty in a ceremony just south of the arch.  In 1970 about 450 Canadian demonstrators, protesting the recent U.S. invasion of Cambodia, crossed the border at Peace Arch Park, tore down U.S. flags, and vandalized structures in Blaine before being driven back across the border by police and Blaine citizens in a hail of nightsticks and fists.

Blaine Today

Blaine’s population for its first 100 years fluctuated between 1,500 and 2,500, but it doubled between 1990 and 2008, growing from 2,489 in 1990 to a U.S. Census estimate of 4,975 in 2008. The city boasts not one, but two slogans: the “Peace Arch City” and “Where America Begins.”

Education, health, and social services were the dominant employers in Blaine in 2000, providing jobs for 15.2 percent of those 16 and older. Employment in local, state, and federal government was not far behind, accounting for 14.4 percent of Blaine’s workforce. Retailing was a close third, but Blaine lost a retail landmark in August 2009 with the closing of its longest-running business, Goff’s Department Store. It had been in operation on Peace Portal Drive since 1899, and owned by the Goff family since 1915.  

Today Blaine remains very much the border town, with its own mystique and intrigue, shaped by its proximity to the Canadian border, supplemented by its marine history, and blessed with a Peace Arch that provides an unparalleled portal into the place where America begins. 


Marie Arbuckle, Lillian Barnes-Hinds, Carol Ann Post, Marjorie Reichardt, A Symbol of Our Heritage, The Old Fir Tree: Blaine Centennial History, 1884-1984 (Lynden: Profile Publications, 1984), 10-15, 17-18; Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. I (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 400; Blaine’s Historic Homes, Buildings, and Churches (Blaine:  Blaine Neighborhood Association, 1996), 13; ; Richard E. Clark, Point Roberts USA:  The History of a Canadian Enclave (Bellingham:  Textype Publishing, 1980) 94;  Richard E. Clark, Sam Hill’s Peace Arch (Bloomington, Indiana:  AuthorHouse, 2006), 70-71, 165, 353; Ron Dowle, The Semiahmoo Trail: Myths, Makers, Memories (Surrey, B.C.: Surrey Historical Society, 2008), 29; Lorraine Ellenwood, Years Of Promise: White Rock 1858-1958 (White Rock, B.C.: White Rock Museum and Archives Society, 2004), 28; Neill D. Mullen, Whatcom County, Post Offices and Postmasters 1857-1985 (Bellingham: Neill D. Mullen, 1986), 21-22, 195, 203; Lottie Roeder Roth, History of Whatcom County Vol. I (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), 107-108, 215, 793-798; Pioneers of Peace: Diamond Jubilee of Blaine, WA, 1884-1959 (Bellingham: Whatcom Genealogical Society, [1959] 1976), 12-13, 17, 49, 57-58, 75; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Paul Robeson sings at the International Peace Arch on the border crossing between the United States and Canada at Blaine on May 18, 1952” (by Paula Becker), “Blaine Incorporates on May 20, 1890,” “The Columbia River Treaty is signed at the International Peace Arch on the border crossing between the United States and Canada at Blaine on September 16, 1964,”  “About 450 Canadians invade Blaine on May 9, 1970,” “The Semiahmoo People” (by Phil Dougherty), “Samuel Hill celebrates international peace and dedicates the Pacific Highway at Blaine on July 4, 1915” (by Richard Clark), “Sam Hill dedicates his Peace Arch at Blaine on September 6, 1921” (by David Wilma), “State Supreme Court declares on February 21, 2002, that Washington’s boundary extends north of the 49th parallel” (by Kit Oldham) (accessed August 2, 2009); “The Two Semiahmoos,” The Northern Light, September 11, 1858; The Blaine Journal, May 20, 1886, accessed on US Gen Web (; Ibid., January 26, 1888 accessed on US Gen Web  (; Ibid., July 16, 1891 accessed on US Gen Web (; The Blaine Journal Homeseeker’s Edition, April 1909, p. 3, 32, 33, 35; Lucile McDonald, “How They Marked Our Northern Border,” The Seattle Times, March 3, 1957;  Marjorie Reichardt and James Williamson, “History of the Semiahmoo Lighthouse,” The Northern Light, August 1-7, 1996; “Blaine’s Longest-run Business to Close August 31,” Ibid., June 3, 2009, Northern Light website accessed August 7, 2009 (;  “Alaska Packers Association records,” Center For Pacific Northwest Studies, website accessed August 2, 2009 (http://;  "George Cain” and “James Cain,” Find A Grave website accessed August 5, 2009 (;  Timothy Harrison, “The Lost History of Washington’s Semiahmoo Lighthouse,” Lighthouse Digest, November 2005, website accessed August 4, 2009 (;  “Blaine, Washington, Community Profile,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, website accessed June 21, 2009 (;  “The History of a Peace Park,” United States Canada Peace Anniversary Association website accessed August 8, 2009 (; “Peace Arch State Park,” Washington State Parks website accessed August 9, 2009 (; “Peace Arch Provincial Park,” British Columbia Parks website accessed August 9, 2009 (; “Semiahmoo Resort,” website accessed August 3, 2009 (; “Lily Point Marine Reserve” and “Semiahmoo Park,” Whatcom County Parks website accessed August 3, 2009 (;  “Blaine City, Washington," Population Finder, American Fact Finder, U.S. Census Bureau, website accessed August 8, 2009  (;  “Washington State Historical Decennial Populations for State, County, and City/Town: 1890 to 2000,” website accessed August 8, 2009 (; "Lighthouse Keeper At Blaine Called Suddenly,"  The Bellingham Herald, March 21, 1919, pp. 1, 3; "Patos Island Lighthouse Keeper Rescued From Death After Six Hours In Water," Ibid., November 3, 1922, p. 1; Larry Myhre, "Early Keepers of  Patos Island Light Station," Keepers of the Patos Light website accessed January 23, 2012 ( 
Note: This essay was corrected on May 25, 2017.

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