A+ A A-

Mike Vouri: The Little Saw Mill That Could

  • Written by Mike Vouri

It is not difficult to find historical links between San Juan Island and Bellingham Bay, from the Lummi Nation, whose ancestors wintered here over thousands of years, to the Spanish, British and finally American explorers who named (and changed the names) of every physical feature not enveloped by rain and fog.


The U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Active (right) and H.M.S. Satellite in Bellingham Bay during the joint boundary survey in 1858. (Bancroft Library, University of California)

However, the connection with which I am the most intimately familiar has to do with a humble, water-powered sawmill, clinging to an embankment at the mouth of Whatcom Creek. This stream meanders four miles through the City of Bellingham tumbling down from a foothill lake bearing the same name as the creek, the county and the first Euro-American community on the bay.

By the way, Whatcom ( Xwotʼqom) in Northern Coast Salish means "noisy water.”

San Juan County was broken off from Whatcom in 1873, about a year after Kaiser Wilhelm I settled the boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain. It was this ruckus, better known as the “Pig War,” that first brought lumber from that mill to the southern end of the island in the form of military structures—a few of which (that we know of) still stand. Most importantly to historians, the mill’s blade pattern bears a forensic stamp that would solve the mystery of the origins of a long-time Friday Harbor landmark.

I was researching historical images a few years back as part of my job as historian for San Juan Island National Historical Park when I stumbled on a couple of c. 1854 views of nascent Whatcom in Yale’s Beinecke Library. These included the elusive Roeder Mill, sketched by the landscape painter James Madison Alden, then in his twenties. Alden was an acting ensign and assistant artist aboard the U.S. Coast Survey Ship Active, which had begun the West Coast survey in the Pacific Northwest two years before. A 170-foot side wheeler, the Active ritually called at the Columbia River, the Northern Straits and Puget Sound in July to conduct the hydrographic survey until the weather turned in October.

The nephew of Lieutenant Commanding James Alden, Jr., the Active’s captain, “Madison” joined the ship in April 1854 as a back-up to William Birch McMurtrie, the official artist for the survey. The Aldens were in the direct male line of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Mayflower fame, James first making history in this region in 1841 as a lieutenant with the U.S. Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes. Madison is also famed here for his Northwest Boundary Survey paintings that include Belle Vue Sheep Farm (1858) and the only known images of San Juan Village (1859), the island’s first town.

This how American Camp appeared when the first army buildings arrived from Fort Bellingham in July 1859. (San Juan Island NHP)

The Active had arrived at Whatcom on August 10 after beating up the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Neah Bay. During the passage Madison noted in his journal that as many as 100 killer whales had accompanied the ship through the Haro Strait, occasionally bumping the hull. Were these the ancestors of our beloved residents, who, when together, are known as the “Super Pod?”

Whatcom then was only 18 months old, having been founded by a couple of failed mining entrepreneurs late of California and the Columbia River, Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody. The duo had come by way of Hood Canal and Port Townsend to harness the cheap energy of Whatcom Falls for a drop sawmill. They hoped to ship lumber to San Francisco and realize their elusive dreams, but by the time they were up and running a dozen other mills had opened in the territories and there was a glut on the market.

The partnership’s declining fortunes enjoyed a temporary reprieve when in August 1856 Captain George E. Pickett, commander of Company D, Ninth Infantry, built Fort Bellingham at the mouth of the Nooksack River utilizing lumber from the mill. Most of the structures were barged over to San Juan three years later when Pickett was ordered to occupy the island, which resulted in a standoff against British naval forces amassed in Griffin Bay. Following the crisis, the buildings remained in place during the 12-year joint military occupation.

The army in 1875 auctioned the structures at both camps with the stipulation that buyers had 60 days to remove their property to clear the way for pre-emption claims under the Homestead Act. This was a boon to local settlers, as then as now dimension lumber was a valuable commodity. With the exception of a few structures—among them the officers’ quarters at American Camp and barracks, blockhouse and commissary at English Camp—the respective buildings were scattered about the island. One of these ended up at the corner of First and West streets and eventually came into the possession of one Adam C. Brown, who did some blacksmithing and ran the steam sawmill in town.

  The Roeder-Peabody mill in Whatcom’s earliest days. This drawing was done in August 1854 by Ensign James Madison Alden of the U.S. Coast Survey. (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

Most contemporary islanders know this building as the old Neil’s Images art gallery, which became especially distinctive when the owner applied paint to its fake log exterior that more resembled the contents of a diaper than any color wheel known to humankind. When the Friday Harbor House acquired the property the house became surplus. Knowing the structure had earlier been the subject of a fruitless NPS research project, the hotel owners offered it to the park free of charge. All we had to do was pay for the move. If we did not accept the deal it would be torn down.

But before we could even begin to consider it, we had to verify the pedigree. The speculation from the earlier study was that the box-framed Brown House (as it came to be known) was typical of those erected at American Camp and was either part of the hospital complex or an officers’ quarters. We combed federal and county records in hopes of tying the building to a bill of sale or town lot. No luck. I next visited the National Archive in College Park, MD, but the only paper I found on the auction transactions was a deposit slip for $1,900 from a bank in Portland, OR.

That’s when the saw blade pattern came into play. A chance meeting at the dedication of the old county courthouse in Bellingham brought me in contact with Michael Sullivan, a historian who is a partner in the historical preservation firm, Artifacts Consulting. Sullivan in no time at all was crawling in and around the Brown House, the officers’ quarters at American Camp and the Pickett House in Bellingham, examining sawmill fingerprints. Bingo! The blade patterns of both San Juan Island structures matched those of the Pickett House, which was built in 1856 with lumber from Roeder’s and Peabody’s mill. The deal was done.

The park spent $30,000 to move the building from town to American Camp, where it is now identified as Historic Structure 10 (HS-10), which corresponds to the old army numbering scheme. Are we truly sure it is this building and not the hospital? It is not 100 percent. The Brown House had been remodeled so many times it is hard to tell how it looked below the attic. It certainly bears no resemblance to the HS-10 shown in the one historic photo of the camp taken in 1868. But it is roughly the same dimensions and it is most assuredly a military structure. Thus it now contributes to at least a fraction of officers’ row in the old parade ground.


The little drop sawmill on Whatcom Creek lives on.

For more on my and Active and Coast Survey work visit these links: https://www.historylink.org/File/11230 and https://www.historylink.org/File/11236

Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.

Last modified onSaturday, 05 September 2020 16:52

Related items