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 39 counties in Washington. By virtue of its Home Rule Charter adopted in 1978, Whatcom County is one of only 4 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 2 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 7-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.
Economic Ups & Downs
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 50. 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 4 bay side 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.
Present Day Whatcom County
The cities and towns in Whatcom County today are Bellingham, Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, and Sumas, plus numerous unincorporated communities.