The early 1870s saw the residents of Bellingham Bay, like most communities in the western
territories, eagerly anticipating railroad construction. The promise of a railroad meant that once isolated towns would
enjoy a cultural and economic link to the broader, burgeoning nation. More importantly, a railroad would attract needed
investment and ensure long-term economic progress that eluded many upstart communities. The nationwide depression of 1873
delayed the railroad construction along Bellingham Bay for another ten years. In 1882, once again, rumors of a potential
railroad encouraged investment and speculation in the county and marked the beginning of a concerted effort to exploit the
region's considerable natural resources.
During the Railroad boom of 1882-1891, three major attempts were made to develop regional
railroads by entrepreneurs and other interests outside of Bellingham. Much of this effort was expended in the hopes of
making one of the towns of the Bay area the terminus of a transcontinental railroad. The first railroad project was
incorporated in 1883 as the Bellingham Bay Railway and Navigation Company (B.B.R.& N) with Senator Eugene Canfield as
president. The company, funded by a group of San Francisco investors, aimed to build a steam railroad from Seattle to
the Canadian Pacific Railway via Bellingham Bay. This line was ultimately never completed despite congressional action
which guaranteed the company a monopoly in the region. By 1891, the New Westminster Line was acquired by the Great
Northern Railroad Company, which had also acquired a line running through Whatcom County to Blaine. The Great Northern
connection to Canada mitigated the need for the Canfield line.
The same year Canfield began his project, the California proprietors of the Bellingham Bay
Coal Company established the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad Company. The company was headed by Pierre B.
Cornwall, who, like Canfield, intended to construct a line to connect with the Canadian Pacific Railway to the north at
Burrand Inlet. The announcement of the BB&BC line, raised economic hopes and generated a new round of speculation along
Bellingham Bay, and led to the re-zoning and renaming of the town of Sehome to New Whatcom in 1884. The completed
railroad was built diagonally across the Nooksack Valley to Sumas where a connection was made with the Canadian Pacific in 1891.
The third railroad, the Fairhaven and Southern, was headed by Nelson Bennett who previously
supervised Cascade section of the Northern Pacific line. Bennett chose local businessman, J.J. Donovan as his chief engineer.
Incorporated in 1888 and completed in 1891, the company proceeded rapidly with construction and acccomplished more in a few
months than the other two railroads had over the course of many years. Initially hoping to connect the Skagit coal mines with
Bellingham Bay at Fairhaven, the Fairhaven and Southern almost immediately became
a key link in the Great Northern Railroad
chain. Following the collapse of Canfield's line in 1887, Bennett acquired the rights to build a line along the western edge
of Whatcom County. With the Fairhaven and Southern connection, the Great Northern was able to reach from Canada into the Puget
Sound. It had also been hoped that this line would establish Fairhaven as the western headquarters and terminus of the Great
Northern but this hope was dashed when it was announced in 1891 that Seattle would enjoy that honor. Had the railroad interests
chosen Fairhaven, the communities of Seattle and Bellingham would be very different today.
By the 1890s, Bellingham Bay was served by a number of small railroads which shipped the
county's products all over the United States and offered the potential for future economic development. While the county had
been unable to acquire a transcontinental railway of its own the lines that served the area would prove
critical to the economic progress of the next few decades.
For more information on Railroads see the finding aids to the following collections available at the Center for Pacific NW Studies: