The buzz about Bellingham

Museums and culture in Washington's most northwesterly city

John Gottberg Anderson • For / The Bulletin /

Published Jul 24, 2011 at 05:00AM

BELLINGHAM, Wash. —

Don’t be shocked when I tell you that my most surprising discovery in this northwestern Washington city — the one that truly sparked my interest — was the American Museum of Radio and Electricity.

A university town of similar size (81,000) to Bend, fewer than 20 miles south of the Canadian border, Bellingham is better known as a minor port town and as the gateway to the North Cascades than it is for its cultural offerings.

Certainly, 15,000-student Western Washington University injects youthful vitality into the city. And Bellingham’s midway location between the metropolises of Seattle and Vancouver assures that a flow of art, music and cutting-edge thought is always present.

The city boasts several museums — art, history and railroads among them — but it’s the electricity museum that creates the biggest buzz.

Electric and eclectic

Bellingham was not the site of any major development or innovation in electrical technology. It was not the home of Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla or Alessandro Volta or any of the other giants of invention in this field. None of the pioneers of radio got their start here.

All it took was a pair of avid collectors, Jonathan Winter and John Jenkins, both of whom made their homes in Bellingham. Ten years ago, the retired pair — Winter had built satellite dishes, Jenkins was in marketing for Microsoft — joined forces to exhibit their lifetime collections.

The museum had actually started in the mid-1980s, when Winter established the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum. He set it up in such a way that it functioned as a community hub, like a radio shop of the 1930s, where townspeople gathered to listen to the broadcasts of music and news. And Winter encouraged visitors to play with his collection of more than 800 rare radios. They hooked them up, turned the knobs and made them work.

By the mid-’90s, Jenkins was actively involved. His own collection included thousands of rare artifacts illustrating the historic development of electricity and early technology, not vintage radio alone.

And so the radio museum morphed into an institution where visitors can learn about Sir William Gilbert’s experiments with static electricity in 1600, where they can relive Benjamin Franklin’s kite-induced 1749 study of atmospheric electricity, where they can view a full reproduction of the 1912 radio room of the Titanic with its original Marconi wireless set.

Current exhibits, pun intended, feature examples of the world’s first batteries, electrical motors, electric lights, telephones, telegraphs and medicinal devices. And historic broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio — up to about 1950, where the museum’s collections stop with the advent of television — provide background throughout the spacious museum.

Director of operations Tana Granack excitedly gave me a tour of the entire facility, including a basement storage area filled with more than 10,000 vacuum tubes and an archive of original recordings of popular music. Upstairs, we walked through a large ham radio studio and a classroom where children and youth are taught the fundamentals of electricity.

But the highlight of my visit occurred when Winter, 68, and the museum’s curator, started up a giant Tesla coil in the museum’s theater.

“We got this from the Cirque du Soleil,” he said, displaying an 8-foot, high-frequency resonant transformer of the sort that Nikola Tesla invented in 1891 to produce high-voltage, low-current electricity. “It had been built for a magician’s act, but when the magician got a severe shock from it, he refused to use it any longer, and the circus sold it to us.”

Winter turned out the lights and flipped the circuit that fed the Tesla coil. Moments later, low buzzing sounds dramatically erupted into plasma filaments. Like lightning without thunder, they arced from the mushroom-like crown of the device.

Outside the building, a crowd setting up for a midweek music and beer festival stared with awe through the windows.

Four towns in one

Bellingham is a conglomerate city. Historically four separate communities founded in the early 1850s, it was incorporated in 1903 as Bellingham — for Sir George Bellingham, after whom Capt. George Vancouver named its bay in the late 18th century. Of the original villages, only the southernmost, Fairhaven, truly retains a separate identity. Recently gentrified, the neighborhood is popular among college students. Its facilities include the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System, that state’s ferry network.

The bordering villages of Whatcom and Sehome constituted what is today downtown Bellingham. The names live on; Bellingham is now the seat of Whatcom County, the most northwesterly county in the lower 48 states, and Sehome Hill is the forested ridge upon which Western Washington University was built in 1899.

Downtown Bellingham has two significant landmarks, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Mount Baker Theatre, built in 1927 in classic Moorish style, is the Northwest’s largest performing-arts facility north of Seattle; it seats 1,500 and hosts a variety of shows, concerts and arts festivals.

Bellingham’s original, Victorian-era City Hall, dedicated in 1892 (and opened the following year), served Whatcom and Bellingham as the hub of municipal government until 1939, after which it became the Whatcom Museum of History and Art (now simply the Whatcom Museum). Constructed of red brick and local sandstone, the four-story building’s most notable features are its cupolas and a tall central tower — one that was destroyed by fire in 1962, but 12 years later was replaced after a city fundraising effort.

To the west, the old city hall overlooks Maritime Heritage Park, a small greensward that buffers downtown from the transitioning waterfront area. Bellingham is no longer the bustling 19th-century seaport whose economy was tied to coal mines and lumber mills; today its bayside is geared to recreation.

Scores of sailboats, pleasure craft and charter fishing boats are moored in Squalicum Harbor. From here, they voyage through the Salish Sea to the San Juan Islands, and via Canada’s Inside Passage all the way to Alaska.

Maritime stores and yacht brokerages serve the sailors in the harbor area, along with restaurants and the upscale Hotel Bellwether.

The Whatcom Museum

Historical photos of the bygone era of waterfront industry are prominent in the collections of the Whatcom Museum, which has expanded in the past two decades from one building to three.

The old City Hall remains the setting for history, although it seems more vital these days as an intimate space for lectures and chamber music. Collections of old newsreels and postcards are on display on the main level; on a mezzanine above the presentation hall, exhibits showcase turn-of-the-20th-century woodworking tools, children’s toys and clocks. “City Hall never had a working tower clock,” photo archivist Jeff Joyce told me. “We are trying to make up for lost time.”

Joyce’s photo archives are open for inspection to serious history buffs on the second floor of the Syre Education Center, immediately north of Old City Hall. Further history and natural-history exhibits — ornithology, native culture, Victorian lifestyle — may be found on the ground floor and viewed by appointment.

The Whatcom Museum’s principal exhibition facility is its newest. Nicknamed “The Lightcatcher,” this modern structure opened in November 2009, one block east of Old City Hall. Principally an art museum, it features a concave translucent wall, 37 feet high and 180 feet long, designed by Seattle architect Jim Olson to maximize available natural light within the galleries.

Through mid-September, the Lightcatcher is presenting a mixed-media exhibition called “Fate of the Forest,” in which more than 230 Pacific Northwest artists offer their interpretations of the region’s evergreen empire. Side-by-side with that exhibition is a one-person show of the work of early 20th-century Washington printmaker Elizabeth Colborne.

And then there is FIG, the Family Interactive Gallery. Not so much a children’s museum as an activity space that encourages visitors of all ages to participate, this Lightcatcher facility emphasizes artistic and environmental learning. That’s in tune with the function of the building itself, which earned a LEED green-building certification with the help of a vegetated roof planted to provide insulation and absorb rainwater runoff.

Another place that appeals to both children and grown-ups is the Bellingham Railway Museum. A labor of love and whimsy located in a prime downtown space just a couple of blocks from the Whatcom Museum, it boasts several hands-on electric train layouts as well as photos and memorabilia from the region’s rail history.

Parks and gardens

Residents with green thumbs have no problem getting things to grow here, as Bellingham is blessed — some might say cursed — by moderate year-round rainfall. Although Canada’s Vancouver Island, to its west, offers a bit of a rain shadow, the lofty summit of 10,775-foot Mount Baker, due east of the city, allows few clouds to pass.

Of several public gardens in the city, my favorite is Big Rock Garden Park, a 2.7-acre plot developed in the 1970s by university professor and community activist George W. Drake. A couple of dozen sculptures, as well as a memorial to Korean War children, are placed along trails through the lush Asian-themed garden, which has been owned by the city since 1993.

Big Rock Garden sits on a hillside near the northern end of 10-mile-long Lake Whatcom, which marks the eastern edge of Bellingham. Nearby, a five-mile trail through Whatcom Falls Park is one of numerous places to hike in the city, which has been designated by the National Park Service as a “Trail Town USA.”

Another favored urban hike is the South Bay Trail, which extends three miles from downtown Bellingham, through bayside Boulevard Park, to the Fairhaven district. Here it connects with the nine-mile Interurban Trail, which runs for another nine miles — along bluffs that line picturesque Chuckanut Drive — to Larrabee State Park, overlooking oyster-rich Samish Bay.

For serious birdwatchers, Whatcom County has several outstanding venues. John Stark, a veteran Bellingham newspaperman, said he particularly enjoys his nature walks along the saltwater shoreline at Birch Bay State Park, 15 miles northwest of Bellingham near Blaine. He said he also likes to visit the Tennant Lake Wildlife Area, a freshwater marsh that welcomes migrating trumpeter swans, seven miles north of Bellingham near Ferndale.

Out and about

Tennant Lake adjoins Hovander Homestead Park, where the circa-1900 farming heritage of Whatcom County has been preserved. A Swedish immigrant’s cedar manor and big red barn, built beside the Nooksack River, feature original furnishings and antique farming equipment, as well as a variety of gentle domestic farm animals.

Also in suburban Ferndale is Pioneer Park, featuring 11 original pioneer log structures and their contents, moved from various Whatcom County locations. Among the buildings are a church, a one-room schoolhouse, a granary, a general store and a post office. Photographs, farm tools and antique printing equipment are included in the exhibits. And every year since 1896, the Old Settlers Picnic brings descendants of early pioneers together in Pioneer Park.

Lynden is one of the most typically Dutch communities in the United States, and certainly in the Pacific Northwest. From its windmills to the stepped rooflines along Front Street, from the surrounding spring tulip fields to its European bakeries, it feels very much like a slice of Holland.

Located 13 miles north of Bellingham via Washington State Highway 539, Lynden was founded in 1874 and today has about 11,000 residents. It grew as a dairy-farming center in the early 20th century. That attracted immigrants from the Netherlands, many of whose children and grandchildren continue to speak Dutch in the community today.

A major attraction here is the Lynden Pioneer Museum, whose five galleries exhibit the largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles west of the Mississippi River. Also on display through October is a retrospective on “100 Years of the Bicycle.”

Batteries are not required.

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