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History

Whatcom County Established in 1854

Whatcom County was established on March 9, 1854, by the Washington territorial government from a portion of Island County..

Home Rule Charter

There are thirty-nine counties in Washington. Hovander barn, photo by Kalyn GabrielBy virtue of its  "Home Rule Charter" adopted in 1978, Whatcom County is one of only four counties  in the state that have a "county constitution." This constitution or  "Charter" gives control of county affairs to the people of the county rather  than the state legislature.

As a charter county, there are two primary factors that make Whatcom County different from other counties. The first is a separation between  legislative and administrative functions. This is accomplished through an elected  nonpartisan seven-member, part-time county council (legislative) and a full-time elected  county executive (administrative). The second difference is the right of initiative and  referendum provided to county citizens by the Charter. The county charter defines duties  and responsibilities of the branches, elected officials and departments. The Whatcom County Home Rule Charter is available on our website, or a print copy may be obtained at the  Whatcom County Executive's Office or the Whatcom County Council Office.

Whatcom County's History

Long before it was "discovered" by Europeans, Whatcom  County was home to Northwest Coast Indians, the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish and Semiahmoo. The  area was claimed by the Spanish in 1775 and later by Russia, England and the United  States. Bellingham Bay was named by Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy during  his expedition into the waters of Puget Sound in 1792. Fur trappers and traders were the  first non-Indian residents to settle in and Hudson's Bay Company set up shop from 1825 to  1846.

In the early 1850's, a tremendous amount of building took place in California (after  the San Francisco fire) and lumber became scarce. Word of dense stands of Douglas fir  brought California miners Roeder and Peabody north, to Bellingham Bay. An impressive and  strategically located waterfall, referred to by the Lummi Indians as  "What-Coom," meaning "noisy, rumbling water" provided Roeder and  Peabody an ideal lumber mill site, and a name for the area's first permanent town. In  1854, its rapid settlement prompted territorial legislature to create the County of  Whatcom, an area that, at the time, took in all of present-day Skagit, Island and San Juan  counties.

In its early years, Whatcom County experienced many economic ups and  downs. When coal was discovered in 1853, another bay town, called Sehome, sprang up by the  mine shafts and the Bellingham Bay Coal Company became the area's largest employer. Gold  fever made a brief, though dramatic imprint on the county. In the summer of 1858, the  Fraser River gold rush brought over 75,000 people through Whatcom County. Roeder and  Peabody's lumber mill burned in 1873. Five years later, after many cave-ins, fires and  floods, the mine closed. Speculators vying to host the Northern Pacific Railroad's west  coast terminal brought communities on Bellingham Bay into rapid prosperity. Educational  opportunities grew as well. Northwest Normal School, the predecessor to present day's  Western Washington University was established in Lynden in 1886. The northwest's first  high school was built in Whatcom County in 1890.

In 1893, after dramatic growth, the county's boom stopped. A  national depression and unyielding mountains pushed local economy into hard times. The  railroad went elsewhere and population on the bay dropped to under fifty. By the turn of  the century though, Whatcom County was growing again. New lumber and shingle mills, salmon  canneries, shipyards and agriculture brought stability to the area. In 1903, the county's  four bayside towns, Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham and Fairhaven consolidated into the  present day county seat, Bellingham. Today, valuable natural resources continue to play an  important role in Whatcom County's economy.

The cities and towns in Whatcom County today  are Bellingham, Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, and Sumas, plus numerous  unincorporated communities.

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