Gift Transforms Lumber Mill Into Park
Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the April 2001 issue of Whatcom Watch.
Editor’s Note: This was the ninth in a series examining Bellingham’s parks. It is based on the book “A History of Bellingham’s Parks,” (1999) by Aaron Joy.
by Aaron Joy
Bloedel Donovan Park
Area: 12 acres
“Rough or Dressed Fir and Cedar Lumber, Shingles, Sash and Doors, Box Shooks and Lath.” This phrase highlighted an ad in the “lumber department” of the Bellingham City Directory of 1920 for Bloedel Donovan Lumber Mills, one of the largest shippers of lumber in the Pacific Northwest. The prosperous Bloedel Donovan Lumber Mills had its roots in three early industrialists and a modest lumber and logging camp.
In 1898, industrialist J. H. Bloedel of Wisconsin met up with J. J. Donovan of New Hampshire. Both of these men where occupied at the time with hauling logs for timber needs from Lake Whatcom.
Donovan (1858-1937) was formally employed as the chief engineer of the Fairhaven & Southern Railroad, when he met Bloedel (1864-1957), manager of the Samish Lake Lumber & Mill Company and developer of Lake Whatcom’s Blue Canyon Coal Mine.
Joined by Scandinavian railroad man Peter Larson (?-1907) the trio formed the Lake Whatcom Logging Company on August 11, 1898, after buying 160 acres of timber on land formerly occupied by the Blue Canyon Coal Mines. The new logging company had only 18 men and a horse.
Lake Whatcom Lumber Mill
Discovering that it was more profitable to sell timber in the form of lumber, the Larson Lumber Mill was established on Lake Whatcom in 1901. Though a silent partner, Larson was its president until his death, with Donovan as vice-president and Bloedel as manager and secretary. The company quickly became the largest all-rail shipper of lumber products in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1913, the Larson Lumber Mill, the original Lake Whatcom Logging Camp (now greatly expanded beyond its 18 men and a horse days) and a cargo mill on Dock Street (Cornwall Avenue) were merged together as the Bloedel Donovan Lumber Mills, with Bloedel and Donovan at its head.
One of the first cargoes of West Coast lumber shipped through the Panama Canal was by the Bloedel Donovan Lumber Mills. This company was much larger than its Bellingham site, owning and logging acreage across the state and into Oregon and Idaho.
The company always had a good reputation, priding itself on repaying all loans on time. But, this changed with the Great Depression. In 1932, for the first time, the company failed to repay a debit by the deadline, which marked the beginning of the end. The next year the company was given its first loan by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation under the National Recovery Act. In 1944 liquidation proceedings were started.
In September 1946, Bloedel and his wife Mina donated a 12-acre tract on Lake Whatcom, formerly the site of the Larson Lumber Mill, to the city of Bellingham for use as a park and bathing beach, with around $100,000 for its development. Original plans called for an ice area, but not enough funding was available for the addition.
On August 11, 1948, the anniversary of the forming of the Lake Whatcom Lumber Company, the new Bloedel Donovan Park was dedicated. More than 1,000 spectators were present, including the 84-year-old Bloedel, as guest of honor, who formally gave the park to the city’s residents.
In the 1960s, the Bloedel Foundation gave numerous financial contributions to the park board for improvements to the park, including an improved swimming area, a new permanent float, a diving board and a public boat-launch ramp. The 1960s was also when the Permanente Cement Company donated “Old Number 7” as a monument in the park. This is a 1918 steam switching engine that would have been very familiar to Bloedel, Donovan and Larson.
In 1980, the community building was renovated and the former caretaker’s residence turned into a classroom. In 1983, there was significant interest in building a fire station on the southern corner of the park. After much “heated” controversy the proposed Silver Beach Fire Station was not constructed.