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Lessons from the Past: Miners, loggers fill earliest Bellingham schools

In four decades, the settlements on Bellingham Bay grew from a promising coal seam and a lumber mill into two cities with more than 8,000 residents, including speculators hoping to attract a major railroad hub.

An early priority of the white settlers, who first arrived in 1852, was to find a means to educate their children. As soon as Whatcom County was established, in 1854, its commissioners levied a school tax. Seven years later, the first public school opened in Whatcom County.

This often unruly school next to a coal mine in a frontier town bears little, if any, resemblance to the school system in place today in Bellingham. But it was a start, and in another generation or so, the town of New Whatcom — part of what would eventually become Bellingham — would see its first class of high school graduates. By the time the Class of 1892 was feted at a ceremony in a waterfront opera house, the earliest elements of Bellingham Public Schools were in place.


The first public schoolhouse

The first publicly funded school on Bellingham Bay was built in 1861 in Sehome, an original settlement that would eventually become part of Bellingham. Lumber for the school’s walls came from the first mill in the area, built on Whatcom Creek. The one-room school sat on a bluff overlooking the bay, not far from the county’s first coal mine.




Students crowded on benches around the coal-fueled stove in the middle of the school. They drank from a pail with a common drinking dipper, as Lelah Jackson Edson recounts in her essential and lively history of early Bellingham.

Funding for the school was scarce, so the first year of study was only three months. Subsequent terms were not on a set schedule; rather, they started as funds allowed. Some years, teachers would wait months before being paid.

Edson’s history, titled “The Fourth Corner: Highlights from the Early Northwest,” describes a few pranks students would never get away with today. (Clearly, the position of assistant principal hadn’t been invented yet.) Students would torment unpopular teachers by nailing shut the door and windows, or even “rounding up … the wild wood-hogs and locking them in the schoolhouse.”


“Whatcom” gets its own school

That first schoolhouse served students from all four municipalities on Bellingham Bay — Sehome, Whatcom, Bellingham and Fairhaven — in addition to Lummi Island. After the school district split in two, a second school, not much bigger than the first, was built in the town of Whatcom at the site of a former blockhouse (small fortress-like building) at what is now the corner of D and Clinton streets. The playground was enclosed by the original stockade. Edson tells us the Whatcom students were partial to croquet on their school grounds, which makes them sound a little more civilized than the hog-herders down at Sehome.

Times were tough in the 1870s, after the original lumber mill on Whatcom Creek burned in 1874 and the Sehome mine flooded and closed permanently in 1878. But fortunes on Bellingham Bay rebounded by the early 1880s, when speculators moved into the area promoting Fairhaven as the western headquarters of the Great Northern Railroad. Fairhaven eventually lost out to Seattle, but in the meantime the towns around the bay were booming, and the town of Whatcom saw its first multi-room school buildings, built where the school district offices are today.


Whatcom’s twin schoolhouses

After the city of Whatcom was incorporated in 1883, and the new city was established as School District No. 1 in 1884, district leaders immediately built another school: a two-story, white frame building at the corner of I and 17th streets (17th is now Dupont). Elementary-level classes started in January 1885. City of Whatcom voters approved a special school tax in 1886 to ensure that students would get the full, nine-month school year.

A second two-story white school building was constructed in 1889 next to the first one. Still, the schools were overcrowded, and by 1891 two new brick school buildings were built: a school on Logan Street called Washington Elementary School, and one on Utter called Columbia — a familiar school name and site today. The twin buildings on what is now Dupont — the eventual site of Roeder Elementary School and now the school district offices — became New Whatcom High School, the first high school in Whatcom County. (The city of Whatcom’s name was changed to “New Whatcom” in 1890.)

The first class to graduate on Bellingham Bay, the Class of 1892, had three members. The graduates celebrated 40 years after white settlers first arrived, and by this time several school buildings were already in place or were in the works in New Whatcom and Fairhaven. The city of Bellingham wouldn’t be created from the merger of these two municipalities until 1903, but Bellingham Public Schools as we know it today was born.


Sources:Bellingham — Thumbnail History,” Emily Lieb; and “Whatcom County — Thumbnail History,” Janet Oakley at HistoryLink.Org; and “The Fourth Corner: Highlights from the Early Northwest,” by Lelah Jackson Edson, Bellingham: Cox Brothers, 1951 

Photos: (1) Whatcom County’s first public schoolhouse, in the town of Sehome at Cornwall and Maple. The school opened in 1861. (2) Twin school buildings were constructed in the 1880s on the site of old Roeder School and the current district office, on 17th Street (now Dupont) in the town of Whatcom. The two buildings housed the county’s first high school. (3) A page from the 1900 New Whatcom High School yearbook describing the school’s first graduates, the Class of 1892. Photo credit for (1) and (2): Galen Biery Papers and Photographs, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Libraries Heritage Resources, Western Washington University

“Lessons from the Past” is an occasional series of history features that will appear on the Bellingham Public Schools website.

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