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Railroads of Whatcom County Washington

Updated on September 17, 2016


Whatcom County situated in the far northern reaches of Washington State, and just south of the Canadian Border has one of the most interesting railroad histories for a rural county I have come across. At one time there were three transcontinental railroads, a streetcar line, and an interurban railroad all serving the county and its largest city of Bellingham. Read enjoy and if you have any questions please ask.

The Beginning- Fairhaven & Southern

The first railroad of Whatcom County was Fairhaven Southern, which started in Fairhaven in 1888. The purpose of this railroad was to bring coal from the Sehome coal mine to the state mental hospital furnaces in Cokesdale, east of Sedro Woolley in Skagit County. This railroad went south from Fairhaven on what is now Interstate 5 southbound lanes then east to the point where in Skagit County F and S Rd. goes southeast from I -5, this is the old Fairhaven Southern Railway grade. If you were to find the old state mental hospital and trace the grade back Northwest you would find yourself on F and S Road which stands for Fairhaven and Southern. There is even a story about a ghost train along the right-of-way just outside of Fairhaven. The story goes that there was a southbound freight leaving Fairhaven headed towards Sedro Woolley, it had been a stormy night and there was a bridge that was in danger of being taken out by flood waters of the river below. The foreman told the engineer that the bridge was safe and he was to cross it, the engineer was hesitant to do so and the foreman took control of the train slowly made its way across, halfway across the bridge gave way killing everyone aboard the locomotive. Ever since that fateful night it is been said you could hear the wail of the whistle of that fateful train on stormy nights.

The Fairhaven Southern, was met by a railroad coming from Everett Washington. This railroad was the Seattle and Montana a subsidiary of James J Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The Seattle and Montana met the rails of the Fairhaven and Southern south of Fairhaven after it had built from Everett through Burlington up to Fairhaven. The Great Northern Railroad owned the subsidiaries and in the late 1890s combined them under the Great Northern name. The original route was the old grade of the Fairhaven and Southern but because of the hilly terrain, the Great Northern decided to build a water level route between Burlington and Fairhaven. They continued to build north through the town of New Whatcom which later became the town of Bellingham, to the city of Blaine Washington. This was the end of the Great Northern and Whatcom County Washington, but the line was met by the New Westminster and Southern when they came down from Vancouver British Columbia.They met at the US/Canada border at Blaine.

Fairhaven & Southern Route

Harris Street Bellingham WA:
Harris Ave, Bellingham, WA, USA

get directions

Near the area where the Fairhaven and Southern started.

Sehome Hill Park:
Sehome Hill Park, Bellingham, WA 98225, USA

get directions

First Coal mine in Whatcom County.

F&S Grade Road Burlington WA:
F And S Grade Rd, Burlington, WA 98233, USA

get directions

Old Right of Way leading to Sedro Wholley and then Cokesdale WA

The Second Railroad - Bellingham Bay& British Columbia Railroad

The second railroad which started two years later in Whatcom County was the Bellingham Bay and British Colombia hereby known as the BB&BC. This little railroad was created by a group of businessmen in the town of New Whatcom, its main purpose was to provide service within Whatcom County to its many industries; these industries included lumber, coal and its many canneries along the Bellingham Bay waterfront. This railroad being entirely and walking County gained the nickname Whatcom County's own railway. The railroad started at the foot of Railroad Avenue in downtown Bellingham and worked its way out across what is now Interstate 5 then angled northeast with the branch to the Bloedel Donovan lumber mill on Lake Whatcom. A second line of the BB& BC went along the waterfront and the Great Northern yard through what is now Bellingham Cold Storage, then swings east underneath the Great Northern again, and follows Squalicum gulch along Squalicum Parkway. The line drifts through the county on a diagonal tangent through place names like Wahl, Strandell, Everson, Hampton and Sumas. There is a branch line from Sumas to Lynden it is still owned and operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The line then continued from Sumas to Kendall, Maple Falls and Glacier. The line provided passenger service with the unique McKeen gas powered passenger car. It also provided freight service under steam and the freight was limestone, coal and lumber were the three main commodities. The BB&BC became part of the Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific in 1908; Milwaukee Road renamed the BB & BC, Bellingham & Northern. The Bellingham and Northern only survive for 10 years when in 1918 Milwaukee Rd. the Bellingham and Northern into itself and thus the BB & BC moved on to its third chapter of life is Milwaukee Road. Milwaukee Road served Whatcom County from 1918 until 1980 when due to bankruptcy it pulled out of the Northwest and became a regional Midwest railroad. In the years between 1918 & 1980 Milwaukee Road served the county much like the BB & BC did during its lifetime. During Milwaukee Road years, there was much timber and growing limestone coming out of the Kendall area, at Limestone Junction there was limestone mine which still exists today. There is no limestone coming out of this mine today, but you can still see very visibly the right-of-way off Kendall Road, which itself is on the right-of-way at this point. Today there are still few points where you can see the right-of-way in the County. Maps will show this right-of-way as the proposed Bay to Baker Trail, however there are many places where the right-of-way have become private property and are driveways, or even property lines. When the Milwaukee Road pulled out of Whatcom County in 1980, they sold all Whatcom County trackage to the Burlington Northern. The Burlington Northern operates the trackage between Milwaukee Road yard and Bellingham Cold Storage on the waterfront. The Squalicum gulch line has been abandoned since 2004, Bellingham Cold Storage had leased this line in 1999 from the Burlington Northern, renaming it Bellingham International. The Bellingham Railway Museum has started work on the line from Orchard Place to James Street underneath I-5, and plans to operate two speeders on this three-quarter mile stretch. The only other operational piece of the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia Railroad is the branch line between Sumas and Lynden. The BNSF operates on an as needed basis, roughly once a week during the slow season and more often during the berry picking time of year. There are three businesses and Lynden that have trackage on their property, however only two actually have rail service. The two companies that have rail cars brought into them are Whatcom Farmers Co-op and Versa Cold. The speed limit is 10 miles an hour and so it is fairly easy to chase the train, if one is on the line.

Bellingham Railway Museum is now operating speeders over portion of the former BB & BC railroad right-of-way in Bellingham. They operate from the railroad Crossing Orchard Pl., East underneath I-5 To James St., Road. The Museum received permission from Bellingham Cold Storage to operate on this property and bring a piece of 100-year-old trackage back to life. This stretch along with another 5 miles.was built to go around the original Railroad Avenue trackage built in 1888. The line we operate over last saw train in 1980, even though it's not a full-fledged train these little speeder cars did operate over this line.if you're interested on taking a ride on a speeders check out the link I have the Bellingham Railway Museum at the beginning of this paragraph, it will take you to my blog about Railway Museum reviews and has all information about Bellingham Railway Museum.

*Note: Due to the City of Bellingham purchasing the right-of-way and intending to turn it into a trail, the museum is no longer operating speeders at this time, we are currently looking for another location.

Please stop by the museum as we are still in operation.

Milwaukee Road Bellingham Roundhouse

Milw rd switcher at the original BB&BC Roundhouse
Milw rd switcher at the original BB&BC Roundhouse | Source

The Electrics

There were two electric railways serving Bellingham. The first was the local trolley system, and the other was the interurban that extended south to Mt Vernon. The local Trolley System extended from Bellingham to Fairhaven (also known as South Bellingham). It utilized the Interurban trackage in Bellingham. The building that housed the station still stands and still has UNION DEPOT on the front of it. Out of Bellingham the trolley line follows S State Street Into Fairhaven then swinging onto 11th Street, while the Interurban stayed followed what is now the interurban bike path. There are still some tracks in the street where south state turns into 12th and 11th split off. Harris Street and 11th was a hotspot for electrics as the interurban had come onto the street as well as the local trolleys. Harris Street also had a line to the waterfront, (terminating near the present Amtrak Station) all the way up the hill. The interurban at this point headed south along Route 11 or Chuckanut Dr. to Mt Vernon.

Now there is a bit of history on RT 11 in Skagit. If you are southbound and are over the mountain coming into the flat lands, slow down and look off to your right. Right where the rode straightens out and it looks like you could take off, look to your right and you will see a little mound of dirt about 8 feet wide and comes right to the road. That is where the interurban comes onto the Skagit Flats. RT 11 at this point pretty much to I-5 is on the old interurban right of way. There are stories that the interurban cars reached 90 plus miles per hour.

The Interurban ran passenger service for only 30 years from roughly 1896 to 1926, after that the line was freight only but that was only until the early 30s. The Great Northern provided the competition and at one point the interurban was forced to build out in the bay because the Great Northern would not allow it on land. This particular stretch is just at Larrabee State Park.

BN on the former NP

The daily freight from Sumas WA to Seattle with a perfectly matched ABA set of Power.
The daily freight from Sumas WA to Seattle with a perfectly matched ABA set of Power. | Source

Bellingham Bay and Eastern Railroad

The Bellingham Bay and Eastern Railroad (BB&E) was built in 1891 to Blue Canyon from Bellingham to bring coal to the docks . Before this railroad was built a barge would bring the coal over from blue canyon to a place presumably at the Blodel Donavon Lumber mill, then trans-loaded into gondolas that would be sent down the trolley tracks on Alabama Hill to the waterfront.

Once the BB&E was built in 1891 from Bellingham to Wickersham to connect with the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern, that was building north from Seattle. The Bellingham Bay and Eastern was a timber an coal hauler, and even had passenger service from Wickersham to Bellingham.

The Northern Pacific Railroad bought the SLS&E to reach Canada and an interchange with the Canadian Pacific that had built west from Montreal and BB&E to reach Bellingham, and it's port and Canneries that lined the Bay.

The Northern Pacific operated a daily except Sunday mixed from Auburn to Bellingham. It also operated a regular freight over the line. In 1972 the Burlington Northern was in the middle of tearing up the line, when the father of Frank and Bob Culp purchased the remaining 4 miles that had yet to be pulled up. The segment is from Wickersham to Park on the south end of Lake Whatcom.

There was a 40 year court battle due to the fact that some landowners had easements given to the railroad over their property and when the last revenue train operated they were under the assumption they receive the land the back. But what the contract actually read, was train, what this meant was that the Burlington Northern could operate any kind of train; maintenance or revenue every 18 months and it would still keep the easement. The resulting court battle that lasted 40 years, went all away to the Washington Supreme Court and in 2011 they handed down a ruling that stated that Frank Culp's Lake Whatcom Railway could operate over the line without restriction, but the landowners could cross over his tracks to reach the lake. There was one landowner, during the court battle, that was so bitter she was going to rip up the track itself for scrap. Frank did the ripping up himself, saving the track and ties for future relaying of that section. As of June 2012 this is yet to happen as a landowner had sold it to the City of Bellingham and so now Lake Whatcom Railway has to obtain permission from the city to build over their land. He operates both sections, one with his train from Wickersham to milepost 3.5 and with a speeder over the last .25 miles to the end of track.

Even though the Lake Whatcom Railway operates only over 4 miles of the original BB&E, if you follow the original alignment along the east side of Lake Whatcom you're still able to see where the line used to run. On Northshore Drive, the original right-of-way is hugging the Lake and there is no wooden trestle crossing a small creek. The only other way can tell sold railroad grade, is that it's flat. In Bellingham, the Northern Pacific ran down the alley between Railroad Avenue and State Street, for 3 blocks their still rails in the alley and even switch that could be thrown.

The Railroad Trail walking path policy old alignment of both the Milwaukee Road former BB&BC branch to the Blodel Donovan Mill, and the BB&E mainline though Whatcom Falls Park. 1/4 mile east of the Barkley Haggen grocery store, you can see the remnants of a trestle that carried a branch of the Milwaukee into the mill. In Whatcom falls Park itself, and walking paths are on both railroads. There is a trestle that crosses Whatcom Falls creek, that is ex Milwaukee. All of these locations can be seen from Google earth.

The former Milwaukee Road bridge in Whatcom Falls Park

Yard Power

local power idling next to Depot in Bellingham WA
local power idling next to Depot in Bellingham WA | Source

Railroads in Whatcom County Today

The railroads in Whatcom County have definitely changed over the years. Instead of the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Milwaukee Road, which all or parts were taken over by the Burlington Northern and operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. There are two trails that are on former rail beds, the Interurban trail and the Railroad Trail. The interurban Trail is not on the old interurban right-of-way but is on the old Fairhaven southern right-of-way that one from Fairhaven to Sedro Woolley. Railroad Trail starts out on Milwaukee Road branch that was headed towards Bloedel Donovan lumber mill that is now Whatcom Falls Park. In the neighborhood immediately east of I 5 trail switches to the former Northern Pacific which it follows all the way and Whatcom Falls Park. So there are a few places you can still see the old right-of-way and imagine ghost trains going through the night. If you ever get up to Whatcom County stop by the Bellingham Railway Museum and find out more information about our local railroads.

The BP and Phillip 66 refineries are cashing in on the Dakota oil boom. Both refineries are building loop tracks to accommodate oil trains, What does this mean? Well more trains over existing track and the possible expansion and output. .

Refineries ant Cherry Point WA

Bellingham Railway Museum Location

Bellingham Railway Museum:
1320 Commercial St, Bellingham, WA 98225, USA

get directions

This is a local Museum that focuses on the Railroad history in the Northwest. Find us on facebook.

Bellingham WA Depot

Bellingham WA GN Depot still used by BN Crews
Bellingham WA GN Depot still used by BN Crews | Source

BNSF Lynden Branch

The Milwaukee Road built a branch from Hampton on to Lynden Washington in the late 1800s to serve the highly active agricultural area, filled with Dairies and farms. This branch line has been producing roughly 12-18 cars per week in recent times, While in years past the bulk of the traffic was dairy, that freight has dried up a bit, Dairygold has a plant in Lynden, that used to ship milk and other dairy products out by rail, but has now switched to trucks. There are two cold storage plants that are served by rail in town, and are very busy in the Fall. There are many berry farms in the area. There is also a grain trans loader that gets a handful of cars twice a week.

This little branchline is the last operating remnant of the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad, and is quite a neat operation. Starting in Sumas where it connects with the BNSF former NP line to Seattle the line meanders southwest to Hampton. Hampton was where the BB&BC line from Bellingham came north. Part of the wye is still in place and used to store MOW equipment at times. and the northern portion is still used to get to Lynden. Ambling through farm fields to another three miles to Lynden, and when I say ambling I mean it, it is a 10 mph on the line, easy to rail fan.

Switching Lynden

Local Switching Lynden
Local Switching Lynden | Source

Historical Railroad Items

© 2010 Clayton Hartford


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    • profile image

      Eddie F Whirley III from the "Pacific Northwest Railfans" Facebook Group. 

      15 months ago

      Fantastic information, Clayton!

      I have an update regarding the Lynden Branch. Martin's Feed, the main revenue on that line has moved it's operations to Sumas leaving AmeriCold/ VersaCold as the only remaining industry. They only require service in the late winter/ early spring so expect to see maybe five to eight yearly trains on the line.

      Also, the BNSF local from Sumas goes from Sumas to Everett, not Seattle. Just a quick correction there.

      I'm working on a program for Bellingham Public Television regarding the railroads of Whatcom County combining the history of the area with modern day train action. It will broadcast as part of the "Access: Bellingham" block on Sunday nights. This is in my opinion, the greatest source of info regarding the area. I'll be sure to use this site for information and to put your name in the end credits.

      Warm regards,

      Eddie F Whirley III

    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      2 years ago from Alger WA

      Very true, because the business folks wanted to make Bellingham a port town, and they needed goods to ship so they built to areas, that would bring in the goods to the port.

    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      2 years ago from Alger WA

      This was the Chicago Milwaukee St Paul and Pacific. It bought the BB&BC railroad.

    • profile image

      Dave King 

      3 years ago

      There was another railroad, as I remember the name Chicago Minnesoto then it's a blank, but was a local name. The line terminated in Glacier Wa. There is still a sign from the old station there.

    • profile image

      Brian Rommel 

      3 years ago

      The one thing I've realized about Bellingham's railroads is that they were all built OUT from the city. Most cities in Washington state had their railroads built TO them. Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, ect. were destinations. Bellingham was the starting point.

    • profile image

      What is this 

      4 years ago

      Concerning the Lake Whatcom Railway you rolled two separate lawsuits in to one. The two were decades apart. One involved Park and the othe one the most recent one was at Blue Canyon.

    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      6 years ago from Alger WA

      Nole, thanks for the heads up, correction has been made.

    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      6 years ago from Alger WA

      F Moreau-The best guess I have is if that that bridge was a one or two lane road bridge, not a railroad bridge. The only railroads out that far were logging railroads and they never built covered bridges, only rough timber bridges that were rough but sturdy construction. `I apologize for delay in repling to your question.

    • profile image

      Nole Buddy 

      6 years ago

      Watch out for (walking County)! I bet you meant Whatcom. :-)

    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      7 years ago from Alger WA

      I did a search now and there isn't much information at all on the BB&E online. I'll be heading to the museum this week.

    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      7 years ago from Alger WA

      I haven't forgotten, I just haven't had enough time to research it properly. I need to get to the Bellingham Railway Museum and talk to the historian. Thank you for commenting. This is the last piece of the puzzle and I'll be working on that last part this week.

    • profile image

      Richard Loop 

      7 years ago

      You seem to have totally forgotten the Bellingham Bay and Eastern RR - built to Blue Canyon on Lake Whatcom to haul coal to the waterfront. This was subsequently acquired by the Northern Pacific and extended to Wickersham where it connected with the NP Auburn-Sumas line (formerly the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern).


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