Throwback Thursday: Whatcom County

A sailboat at sunset off Lummi Island in Whatcom County.

Whatcom CountyThis holiday edition of Throwback Thursday takes us to the Canadian border in the shadow of Mt. Baker.

Established on March 9, 1854, Whatcom County sprouted from a portion of Island County under the authority of the Washington territorial government. In the Nooksack language, Whatcom meant “noisy water;” it was also the name of a Nooksack chief. Other tribes that once called the area home include the Lummi, Samish, and Semiahmoo.

Noisy water isn’t the county’s only natural draw. From its breathtaking marine vistas, lakes, and rivers to its forested hills and mountains linking the majestic Mount Baker, the area now known as Whatcom County attracted explorers and pioneers to the edge of the American frontier.

Home to native peoples for millennia, this area bordering Canada first encountered Europeans in the 1700s. After establishing coal mines, a saw mill, and a military fort on Bellingham Bay in the 1850s, settlers soon lifted their new county to become an important economic and political player in the territory on its way to becoming the 42nd state in 1889.

With the expansion of logging, Whatcom County rapidly grew in importance for its lumber and agriculture industries. In 1903, the towns of Bellingham Bay merged to become Bellingham. Economic challenges reached the county during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Like much of the country, the county recovered after World War II.

During the 1980s, Whatcom County saw expanding recreational attractions, parks, cultural events, wood manufacturing, and colleges. It rapidly grew into one of the most sought-out areas in the country.

Whatcom County and the Law

As recorded in 1965, the history of the Whatcom County Bar starts with the very first courts of the northern Washington territory in Port Townsend before moving to La Conner in 1877. In 1883 the city of Whatcom hosted its first court proceedings under its first judge, John R. Winn.

In 1893, Judge Winn was charged with misconduct for issues related to a bank receivership, as well as “other actions as a judge,” the history states. His response was to move to Alaska. Judge Roger S. Green succeeded him and later became Justice Green, serving several terms on the state Supreme Court.

Alfred L. Black was mayor of Whatcom in 1884 before he moved to San Francisco and began a lucrative practice. Later, he moved back to Whatcom and again served as mayor in 1903. A few years later, the citizens of Bellingham elected Black to be their mayor. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles and practiced law with his son Alfred L. Black Jr.

Whatcom County attracted lawyers from everywhere. Harry Fairchild came from Canada and by some “quirk of the new law” was able to obtain bar admission. Jones and Carlyon were graduates of Cambridge Law in England. Attorneys McLennan and Reid formed a law firm of the same name; they were graduates of the University of Michigan who, in addition to law, worked in insurance and real estate. Counselor A. H. Morrison was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and S. L. Butler arrived from Arkansas.

Most members of the bar were prominent in community life. E. Leaming raced his yacht “Myth” and “won every race but one” in regattas at or near Victoria, B.C. E. S. McCord and L. H. Hadley were school directors of Fairhaven and New Whatcom respectively. Charles W. Dorr was the city attorney of Sehome in 1889; the position “faded away” when Sehome’s organization was declared illegal. In 1903, his law partner, Hiram E. Hadley joined the Supreme Court as a justice. J. J. Weisenburger was a city attorney and mayor in addition to serving as a major in the National Guard. He led troops in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

James Hamilton Lewis (called “dude” because of his immaculate dress) once defended a man named Long and “acquitted him of a murder charge by his eloquence.” In another cited example, Samuel Pyles (later a U.S. senator) defended an “Indian” who was also under a charge of murder and, in an eight-hour speech to the jury, gained an acquittal.

As of 1965, the history notes that “the bars of Skagit, San Juan and Whatcom counties join in annual reunions, usually honored by the presence of members of our Supreme Court, and these gatherings increase their mutual acquaintance and fellowship.” And 50 years later the tradition continues. In August 2015 the county bars of Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan held their annual golf tournament and dinner.

See the other counties featured in our Throwback Thursday series:
Clallam County
Pierce County
Chelan County
Yakima County
Lewis County
Kitsap County
Asotin County
Adams County