On September 14, 1920, the Port of Bellingham is established. From a beginning focused mainly on increasing shipping at the Bellingham waterfront, the Port has expanded into a multi-purpose entity with operations in both Bellingham and Blaine. The economic opportunities the Port has created throughout Whatcom County include shipping, an airport, and selling and leasing land for commercial use. In recent decades the Port has taken an aggressive role in cleaning and restoring Bellingham's waterfront so it can be enjoyed by all.
The Port’s Creation
By the time the city of Bellingham was formed in 1903, its waterfront along Bellingham Bay was already developed. Logging operations and mills arrived first, including the Puget Sound Sawmill and Shingle Company, which became the world's largest shingle mill. Canneries followed and the Pacific American Fisheries cannery also became the world's largest facility of its kind. The new city grew quickly, but at the end of World War I in 1918, its economy slowed as did the rest of the country’s.
In 1911 the Washington Legislature authorized local voters to create publicly owned and managed port districts, which could raise revenues and implement waterfront improvements, and a few such districts had been established by the end of the 1910s. Thus as the 1920s dawned local businessmen and the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce aggressively pushed for the creation of a port district in Bellingham, arguing that it would energize the city’s economy. A measure to create a port district was put on the ballot, and on September 14, 1920, 77 percent of voters approved it.
In 1920 Bellingham’s waterfront was an active trade center, but growth had not been coordinated. The waterfront was crowded with a confusing jumble of docks, including the Ocean Dock, the G Street Wharf, and the cooperatively owned Citizens Dock. Thus the first order of business for the Port was to purchase and organize waterfront property.
Bellingham Shipping Terminal
One of the Port’s first projects was to build a ferry landing on the Whatcom Creek Waterway. The first ferry landed there on May 21, 1923, to considerable fanfare. Late the following year, the Port bought the City of Bellingham’s Municipal Dock. The Port took ownership of the 345-foot-long dock on January 1, 1925, and soon expanded it to 500 feet in length. Shipping grew rapidly at the dock, although not at the expense of adjacent privately owned docks, which also saw a shipping boom in the 1920s. But during the Great Depression of the 1930s shipping went into decline, a hiatus that lasted for 30 years (except for a brief uptick during World War II). To give a glimpse of how sharp the downturn was, in 1956 the Municipal Dock handled 10,900 tons of cargo, about one-sixth of its total in 1929.
In the early 1960s the Port began a new phase to renovate and redevelop the dock. The main pier was extended from 850 to 1,375 feet, and ship berths were added on both sides. Six acres of fill were added to the dock area to create a larger unloading area for ships, and cranes and a rail-barge transfer facility were added. As a result, shipping boomed. In 1964 the dock handled 88,000 tons of cargo, finally passing its 1929 total, but this was only the beginning. In 1970 the dock handled more than half a million tons of cargo, a nearly 50-fold increase in 15 years.
The dock -- by this time renamed the Whatcom International Shipping Terminal -- continued to thrive during the 1980s and 1990s. Two of its biggest users were Georgia-Pacific, which shipped out paper and pulp products from its Bellingham plant, and Amax, a large aluminum smelter located west of Ferndale. (The smelter is now  owned by Alcoa, and is known as Alcoa Intalco Works or Intalco for short.) But around the turn of the twenty-first century shipping slowed at the terminal when Georgia-Pacific closed and Intalco curtailed its operations. Today the terminal -- now known as the Bellingham Shipping Terminal -- is once again seeking new ways to reinvent itself.
Squalicum Harbor, located just north and west of the Bellingham Shipping Terminal, has played a major role in the Port’s history since the 1920s. Historically Bellingham’s waterfront was known for its shallow tidelands, and dredging projects to eliminate them had operated almost non-stop since the late nineteenth century. In 1927 the Port took over a private dredging project along Squalicum Creek, and by 1931 this project had created 22 acres of landfill available for industrial development. In 1934 the Port took it a step further and dredged the harbor and built a 1,400-foot-long rock breakwater.
In 1936 the Port built a pile breakwater at Squalicum Harbor to serve as a moorage for about 180 boats, though it was second fiddle to Fairhaven’s marina for its first 10 years. But after a severe storm destroyed the Fairhaven marina in January 1947, Squalicum Harbor’s marina became Bellingham’s principal marina. In order to accommodate the increased boat traffic, the Port spent $1.2 million during the 1950s to expand the harbor’s marina. The projects brought the number of boat slips to about 600, deepened the harbor's waters, and added an additional breakwater. By the end of the decade, Squalicum Harbor could boast that it offered year-round protection from all types of weather.
During the early 1980s Squalicum Harbor underwent yet another major expansion. The “inner basin,” a small section of water behind the Squalicum Marina, was dredged extensively, creating a man-made peninsula that was for a couple of decades informally known as Tom Glenn Spit, after longtime Port manager Tom Glenn. Nearly 51 new acres of moorage space came out of the project, which created an additional 800 boat slips, and brought the total number of slips in Squalicum Harbor to 1,417. In 1999 the Port began an aggressive project to revitalize Tom Glenn Spit, and in the early 2000s granted a lease on the site to the Peter Paulsen Company, which financed the building of a luxury hotel there. A restaurant, office building, and spa soon followed on the peninsula, which was renamed Bellwether on the Bay in 2002.
Fairhaven had seen significant waterfront development during the 1890s with the arrival of the canneries, particularly Pacific American Fisheries (PAF) in 1899, which went on to become the largest salmon cannery in the world. Shipbuilding also played a role, one that would become more pronounced in the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1936 a Port-sponsored bond measure financed a new harbor and marina in Fairhaven. The marina lasted barely 10 years before the 1947 storm destroyed it.
The Fairhaven marina never returned, and by the 1960s business at the PAF plant was declining. When it closed in 1966, the Port bought the property and operated the plant’s can-labeling factory into the early 1980s. Once the factory closed, the Port found itself with a unique opportunity. For nearly 20 years it had lobbied the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) to move its southern terminus from Seattle to Bellingham. Now in the 1980s it had the location and infrastructure to support the AMHS terminus in Bellingham.
The Port stepped up its lobbying efforts, and in 1988 the AMHS announced that Bellingham would become the new southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway. The Port promptly began construction of the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, and on October 3, 1989, officially opened the terminal with weekly sailings to Ketchikan, Alaska. In 1995 the Port converted the former PAF office headquarters into Bellingham’s first multimodal transportation facility, linking the cruise terminal with a new Amtrak, Greyhound, and public transit station.
Farther north, in 1886 and 1887 the community of Blaine built its first wharf, the E Street Wharf, at the edge of Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay. The Port took over the site in 1920, but it remained essentially unchanged for the next 15 years. In 1935 a growing demand by fishermen for more harbor space in Blaine led to a two-year project in which the harbor was dredged and a small boat marina was built. A 3,500-foot roadway (today’s Marine Drive) to access the harbor was also built. Additional projects through the 1940s led to the harbor being further expanded, and by 1950 more than 300,000 square feet of the harbor had been dredged. As a result, the number of boats using Blaine’s harbor during the fishing season jumped from 60 in 1944 to 300 in 1949.
And yet it wasn’t enough. Blaine’s small harbor was still so crowded with fishing boats that boats risked colliding and sparking a fire. In the 1950s the Port of Bellingham and the City of Blaine successfully lobbied the federal government into dredging the harbor further and expanding the marina and its breakwaters. Once the project was completed, the Blaine marina had 325 boat slips.
This project solved the problem of overcrowding in Blaine’s harbor for the next 40 years. But an increase in recreational boating by the 1990s once again led to the need to expand the harbor. The Port responded by embarking on a $12 million harbor improvement project between 1998 and 2000, dredging it further, adding new moorage, and nearly doubling the number of available boat slips from 325 to 629. In an interesting change from prior projects (and in a nod to the Port’s increasing environmental awareness), the dredged mud and clay were not used to form more land but were instead used to form an underwater island to create a home for eelgrass, waterfowl, and juvenile salmon. A new harbor office and 65-person meeting room also came out of the project.
Bellingham International Airport
Bellingham’s first airport, located just northwest of the city, was dedicated on June 1, 1940, but there wasn’t much to it -- just one gravel runway 3,600 feet long. This turned out to be only temporary. By 1940 the U.S. government recognized that America’s involvement in World War II (which had begun a year earlier) was becoming more likely, and Bellingham’s location in the northwest corner of the lower 48 states made it a useful location indeed.
Thus in little more than a year the Army Corps of Engineers dramatically expanded the airport. The original 3,600-foot runway was paved and extended to 5,000 feet; two other paved runways, 5,000 and 4,400 feet long, were also built. The airport site itself grew from 200 to 350 acres. As it turned out, the project was completed just in time: The new airport opened for public inspection at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, and as the early visitors drove the airport runways, they listened on their car radios to breaking news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Within three days the Army had taken control of the airport and renamed it Bellingham Army Air Field. Over the next four years the Army expanded the airport acreage to 910 acres, added a number of buildings (including 13 bomb-storage buildings), and built a dormitory. The Army returned the airport to Whatcom County in October 1946, and 1957 the County sold it to the Port for one dollar.
The airport was in considerable disrepair when the Port bought it in 1957. The Port made some improvements, but the airport remained a small one into the 1980s, offering service only to Western Washington locations. In 1980 the Port built a new terminal and commercial airline traffic increased during the decade, but since the 1980s airline service to what is now the Bellingham International Airport has been rather sporadic, with various airlines providing and then dropping service. In an effort to attract more airlines the Port has made further improvements such as a new control tower in 1996, and an expansion and remodeling of the terminal completed in 2006.
The Port’s Economic Impact
As we have seen, the Port focused in the early years on developing Bellingham's waterfront. Shipping thrived during the 1920s, but plummeted during the Great Depression and didn’t recover to pre-Depression levels for more than 30 years. Thus the Port’s focus shifted in the 1930s to emphasize working with state and federal agencies (the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, for example) on building projects, which created opportunities for Whatcom County’s economy and jobs for the unemployed. Such projects included construction at Fairhaven, Squalicum Harbor, and Blaine. In the 1940s the Port built two warehouses at Squalicum Harbor which became part of Bellingham Cold Storage, a full-service public refrigerated warehousing company that in its 60-plus years of operation has served both big-name clients such as Stokely-Van Camp and Whatcom County fishermen and women and farmers.
One of the Port’s notable ventures occurred in the early 1960s when, as part of an agreement with the Great Northern Railway Company, it purchased 600 acres of land on the Strait of Georgia west of Ferndale. (The Great Northern simultaneously bought an adjoining 600 acres.) Soon after, Amax, an aluminum manufacturer, announced plans to build a large aluminum smelter in the United States, and the Port offered to sell its 600-acre tract at cost to Amax. Amax accepted, and the new smelter began operation in 1966. At its peak the plant employed 1,200 Whatcom County workers. Today the plant, now known as Intalco, still employs some 640 people.
The Port’s economic role in Whatcom County continued to expand in the final decades of the twentieth century. In 1970 there were more than 3,400 local employees in Port-related or Port-dependent employment, and this number more than doubled by 1995. The Port continued to acquire and rehabilitate property which it then leased to small businesses. The revitalization of the Tom Glenn Spit (now known as Bellwether on the Bay) at Squalicum Harbor, completed in 2002, led to the creation of a luxury hotel, a restaurant, and office space, resulting in further economic growth and opportunity for Bellingham.
The Port and the Environment
Increasing environmental awareness in the last decades of the twentieth century resulted in the Port confronting a number of environmental problems in Whatcom County. One of the first such efforts came after the construction of Squalicum Harbor’s inner basin in the early 1980s. The Port set aside space for coho (salmon) enhancement pens, and additional pens have since been added at a number of locations. They are staffed by volunteers.
In 1996 the Port was named co-manager for the Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot, a partnership of federal, local, state, and tribal agencies created to plan the environmental future of Bellingham’s waters. Since then two sites have been cleaned as part of the project’s goals: the old Holly Street Landfill and the former Weldcraft Steel and Marine boatyard. For the boatyard project, the Port used the mud dredged to create a “habitat bench,” two acres of mudflats created to provide a sanctuary to fish and marine life. This continued the Port's direction begun with the creation of the underwater island in Blaine’s harbor during the 1998-2000 improvement project there.
In 2005 the Port purchased 137 acres along the Whatcom Creek Waterway, the former site of the Georgia-Pacific paper and pulp mill. Between 1965 and 1971 the Georgia-Pacific chlor-alkali plant discharged mercury into Bellingham Bay; the land where the plant was located is also contaminated. In 2007 the Port received approval from the Washington State Department of Ecology to launch one of the state’s largest cleanup projects to date. The project calls for the removal of more than half a million cubic yards of contaminated material from the Whatcom Creek Waterway and adjacent waterfront, the creation of two miles of enhanced near-shore habitat, and the creation of a new marina. The $44 million, eight-year project has the potential to significantly transform Bellingham’s waterfront along the Whatcom Creek Waterway.
Port of Bellingham Today
The Port continues to play an active role in redeveloping Bellingham’s waterfront, especially in the area around Squalicum Harbor. In 2008 the Port began a second phase of development at Bellwether on the Bay. Named the Bellwether Gate project, this additional mixed-use development is scheduled to add four new buildings by 2012, including the first residential units built on the Bellwether peninsula. Farther north, the Port is currently working with the City of Blaine to redevelop Blaine’s waterfront as a mixed-use commercial and residential zone.
At the Bellingham airport, the Port is presently in the early stages of an estimated $26 million runway expansion project to accommodate larger planes capable of holding more than 200 passengers. It’s the largest project ever undertaken by the Port, and will be the first runway expansion at the airport since 1941. After the runway work is completed, the Port plans to begin a $3.1 million expansion of the airport terminal’s lobby.
The Port also continues to work on cleaning up Bellingham’s waterfront. In addition to projects presently underway, the Port and other local agencies are creating plans to clean up the Cornwall Avenue Landfill (a former municipal garbage dump) and transform it into a large public park, with the potential development of mixed-use retail and residential units along the adjacent bluff. Another planned project includes cleaning up Bellingham’s central waterfront.
In 2008 the Port retained Martin Associates, an accounting and business analysis firm, to evaluate the Port’s overall economic impact in Whatcom County. The firm’s report revealed that the Port is responsible for 7,371 local jobs, with a direct payroll of $168 million. These are not Port employees per se -- the Port itself in 2008 had fewer than 100 full-time employees -- but includes jobs created by the Port and its tenants from the properties the Port leases as well as indirect jobs related to the its local business purchases.
In 2009 the Port reported total operating revenues of $19.7 million. It is governed by three commissioners elected to serve four-year terms.