Ferndale -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kathleen Moles
  • Posted 7/20/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10806
Ferndale is located in western Whatcom County approximately six miles northwest of Bellingham; the Nooksack River runs through the city. At a juncture where the Lummi Nation, Nooksack Indian Tribe, and the Semiahmoo fished, hunted, and foraged, the area that became Ferndale began to take shape when non-Indian settlers made their way upriver -- toward the Fraser River in search of gold; away from the economic bust after the sawmill on Bellingham Bay burned and the coal mines closed in Sehome; and around a monolithic, ancient logjam in the Nooksack River. The enterprising pioneer spirit and intermarriage with local Indian tribeswomen created a community that thrived by the early 1880s, and Ferndale today (2014) continues to embody the values of industry and social and civic engagement, while respecting and preserving its Indian and early settler heritage. 

Early Settlements 

The area encompassing present-day Ferndale experienced seasonal occupation by local Indian bands from the third millennium BCE (before the common era) through about 100 CE, as an old trail crossed here from Semiahmoo to Bellingham Bay, and the surroundings provided abundant food. Modern Tennant Lake, Indian name Sil-ats-its (translation unknown) was the traditional fishing and hunting grounds of the Lummi Nation, Nooksack Indian Tribe, and the Semiahmoo. This shallow lake fed by an underwater spring never entirely froze, and provided a dependable winter source of waterfowl.

Near the center of present-day Ferndale, the river crossing was known as Tiytásem ("above us," a Lummi name, possibly denoting the farthest the Lummi Nation ventured upriver). This was also the site of a Nooksack Indian Tribe fishing weir as late as 1870, according to tribal elders. Nearby, on the northwest bank of the Nooksack River, Xwxách'tem ("always-fireweed-place-to-get," from the Nooksack translation referring to the peeled fireweed shoots eaten raw in spring) described both this place as well as a camp and house 1.5 miles upriver on the same side. An Indian smokehouse and a house used by elk hunters and those on their way to Bellingham Bay were located at the place on the river where travelers switched from shovel-nosed river canoes to high-bow saltwater canoes.

On the east bank in this area, a Lummi settlement on the adjacent prairie provided a secluded place protected from Haida raids from the north; it was also a habitat of camas and wild carrot. 

By 1857, local Indian populations had plummeted due to Haida raids and deaths from new diseases. The Lummi Nation numbered 500 to 600, and the Semiahmoo were down to about 100. By 1864, the combined Lummi, Nooksack, and Samish population was 900. 

Pioneer and Indian Marriages 

Several of future-Ferndale's earliest settlers married into local Indian tribes, demonstrating not only the dearth of white women pioneers, but also the willingness on the part of the First Peoples to join the newcomers. 

In 1859, John A. Tennant (1829-1893) moved to the area from Sehome with his wife Clara, a niece of Lummi Chief Chowitzit (some sources name her as the chief's daughter). Clara's treaty allotment one mile southeast of what would become Ferndale settled them on the Lower Nooksack. 

John Plaster (1832-1898) arrived in 1860 with his wife Louise, who was from the Lummi Nation. Plaster was a probate judge. Phoebe Judson, "Mother of Lynden," contracted him to clear the Big Jam blocking the Nooksack River near Ferndale.

In 1873, Billy Clark (1826-1909) arrived from Sehome and built a cabin from alders on the west bank of the Nooksack River (about 200 feet south of the current bridge), where he lived for nearly 10 years with his wife, Cecelia Chanique, daughter of the Semiahmoo chief. Beginning in 1875, he ran a canoe ferry across the Nooksack, and this spot became known as Clark's Crossing (also Clark Crossing, Clark's Ferry, and Billy Clark's Ferry). 

Founding Ferndale

The circumstances that led to the founding of Ferndale involved gold, coal, and wood. 

Dispirited prospector John Tennant left California's 1849 gold rush and moved north, landing in Sehome in 1856. There, he initially surveyed the coalmines before rising to the position of Whatcom county sheriff at a time when up to 10,000 hopeful prospectors were gathering in anticipation for the opening of the Whatcom Trail to the Fraser River and the promise of more gold (1858-1859). No longer wanting to prospect for gold, Tennant instead sought his future in the area north of Bellingham Bay, ultimately for the horticultural promise of the area. Many prospectors who did continue to seek gold across the border, after discovering the rich lands of the Nooksack Valley, remained in the area after the Fraser River Gold Rush ended. They staked homestead claims, cleared the land, and developed ranches and farms.

Travel by river was the sole viable method at the time for settlers, and early pioneers were thwarted in their efforts to move north at the lower Nooksack River by a series of logjams that blocked passage. The largest of three logjams in the area became known as the Big Jam. Located about one mile below present-day Ferndale and expanding downriver for nearly one mile more, the Big Jam looked more like a forest: A massive tangle of felled and fallen timber that stretched from bank to opposite bank, it had been in existence for so long that it grew its own groves of trees. One consequence of the Big Jam was that it required portage overland, and the trail on its east side became the preferred route. As a result, early settlers, including John Tennant, discovered the prairies and fertile riverine landscape of this area during their detours, and during the 1860s and 1870s, many began to stay and put down roots.  

On Bellingham Bay, the Roeder sawmill burned to the ground in 1873 and coal mining in Sehome collapsed in 1877; the combined population of Sehome, Whatcom, and Bellingham quickly declined from 3,000 to fewer than 100. With the clearing of the Big Jam in early 1877 (after more than four years of agitation toward the effort), the river granted clear passage all the way up to Lynden, and the influx to the Nooksack Valley swelled. Many of the new settlers were out-of-work coal miners and sawmill hands seeking a new way of providing for their families, and the prospect of farming and dairying up north attracted them in droves. 

The First Pioneer Community Project 

On August 3, 1874, county commissioners established the voting precinct of "Jam," to the consternation of the area's settlers, who were not in favor of their community being named for a major obstacle to river passage. In 1873, residents had appealed to Congress for funds to break up the logjam, and appealed again in 1875, to no avail. 

The Big Jam continued to grow with each season's flow of logs adding to the mass; the number of new settlers coming north was also growing. Pioneer and "Mother of Lynden" Phoebe Judson, having experienced firsthand the travails of passage during her family's two-day migration from Bellingham Bay to Lynden in 1870, marshaled the community by raising funds via subscription throughout the county in 1876. Her husband had successfully cleared the Upper Jam near their homestead with help from neighbors, thus starting the momentum to clear the Big Jam further south. 

It was John Plaster who essentially sponsored this first major community effort by bidding less than half the estimated cost to clear the logjam. With help from other residents and heavy autumn rains, the Big Jam was reported as completely cleared by February 20, 1877. Not long after, the settlers of the upper Nooksack took it upon themselves to break up the Little Jam below Lynden, and high water soon broke up the Upper Jam north of that. 

The steamboat age on the Nooksack was about to begin, and the clearing of the jams, made possible by a citizenry invested in its future, represented the first instance of many to come that brought Ferndale's citizens together for the betterment of the community. 

Ferndale Gets Its Name

About two years before the Big Jam was cleared, Ferndale received its name, thanks to Alice Eldridge (1857-1886), the community's first schoolteacher. 

Alice boarded at the home of M. T. Tawes (d. 1898), whose daughter Emily recalled to Ferndale author P. R. Jeffcott in 1948: "Sitting at the table one evening, writing a letter to her father, she [Alice] paused, and turning to mother said, 'How shall I head this letter? I don't know where I am.' Then after a moment's thought, 'Oh, I know, I'll call it Ferndale, because there are so many ferns around the schoolhouse'" (Jeffcott, Nooksack Tales and Trails 154). 

The first use of the name in print occurred on June 25, 1875, when the Bellingham Bay Mail ran the headline: "Ho! For Ferndale. The Latest Road Project." In 1876, the new name was made official. 

Billy Clark, First Settler in Ferndale 

Though John Tennant settled in the area in 1859, many consider Billy Clark the first non-Indian settler, as his homestead was located at the center of what would become Ferndale, whereas Tennant's property on the lake -- a land allotment on the newly established Lummi Nation reservation made possible by his wife, Clara -- was nearly one mile to the southeast. It was while working with John Tennant on his property that Clark discovered the place where he would settle upriver on the opposite bank in 1873.

Billy Clark applied for his ferry license in 1875 in anticipation of business to be generated by the road project that began that spring at Semiahmoo. Although progress was slow and the road to Bellingham Bay was not fully improved until the mid-1880s, Clark still enjoyed a decent business, with his daughters helping ferry people across the river in the shovelnose canoe. 

But Clark's claim on his land proved to be invalid, as he discovered when he attempted to make final settlement in the early 1880s. In earlier years, while working for the Hudson's Bay Company in Fort Langley, British Columbia, Clark had been required to become a British subject and renounce his United States citizenship; this precluded him from receiving title on the property where he had lived, raised a family, and run a business for nearly a decade. 

On November 20, 1882, Darius Rogers (1824–1897) received a United States patent on the property formerly occupied by Billy Clark. It is a matter of dispute whether Rogers took advantage of the situation or reimbursed Clark for taking possession, but in any case, Darius Rogers became "the legal father of Ferndale" (Jeffcott, Nooksack Tales and Trails 152). 

The Rivalry for Ferndale  

Darius Rogers and his brother Ambrose had established themselves on the east side of the Nooksack River by 1879, with the first general store and two log houses (one of which, the Parker House, is now located in Pioneer Park). William Sisson also moved up from Whatcom to build a general store, and Dr. A. W. Thornton (1832-1924), the first doctor to arrive in Ferndale, soon opened his practice and a drug store. By 1882, Ferndale on the east side of the Nooksack River was the third largest town in Whatcom County. A hotel, two saloons, post office, cannery, and sawmill completed the nucleus of the new city by the end of the year. 

In 1880, Darius Rogers had purchased Billy Clark's ferry license and in 1881 had a scow ferry built. In 1882, he bought the steamboat Gazelle with Sisson, Thornton, and others, including John Hardan, who had settled on Barrett Lake to the northeast of Ferndale in 1874. 

Rogers handled the steamboat business poorly. After the Gazelle sank in the Nooksack, it was pulled out and repaired, and made some trips along the Nooksack. But Rogers appeared to lose interest in the endeavor and sold the boat in a transaction that did not include his partners. Litigation ensued, and in 1882 John Hardan received as settlement the scow ferry and all of Rogers's property on the east side of the river. 

It would appear that Rogers's takeover of Billy Clark's land claim on the west side of the river in 1882 coincided with his losing his own land on the east side. The rivalry between Rogers and Hardan had begun and would lead to the battle for supremacy between East and West Ferndale. 

On the west side, Rogers donated a piece of his land (on what became First Street) for a schoolhouse, and a campground in a cedar grove of four acres to the Methodist church (later Pioneer Park). He hired John Tennant to plat a portion of the west side as Ferndale; soon businesses from the east side followed and relocated across the river. 

Meanwhile, Hardan had hired Tennant to plat and record his town site at East Ferndale after establishing a post office in the Rogers brothers' former general store. Rogers had earlier set up a post office in a general store at West Ferndale, and the oddity of having two post offices across the river from each other did not escape the government's notice: East Ferndale's post office was ordered closed. This, in addition to the loss of the hotel to fire on the east side and exodus by more businesses to the other side of the Nooksack made it clear that West Ferndale had won the battle. 

For a time, after the coming of the railroad in 1891, there was even a third distinct part of the city, called New Ferndale, after the train depot, freight station, and warehouses were located on a large parcel north of West Ferndale. 

Roads, Bridges, and the Railroad 

Although the improvement of the road that followed the old Indian trail from Semiahmoo to Bellingham Bay began in 1875, progress stalled, perhaps in favor of the focus upon clearing the Big Jam in the Nooksack River. It was due to the hoped-for increase in traffic on better roads that Billy Clark had obtained his ferry license that year to carry people over the river portion. The road was slowly being improved, in large part thanks to the efforts of the area's citizens, since government funding was in short supply. After Darius Rogers's takeover of the license and property at Clark's Crossing, followed by John Hardan's acquisition of both in 1882, the ferry business increasingly became an integral part of transportation. But this situation began to change with the coming of the railroad. 

In 1888, Ferndale residents banded together to rebuild the bridge over the river from the Northeast Diagonal road that had been destroyed by fire that year. They replaced it in one day. It was 80 feet long, 14 feet high, and 12 feet wide. This bridge and the one built in preparation for the railroad in 1890 quickly became footbridges for travelers and residents, and Hardan's ferry began to lose business. By the time the first train crossed the Nooksack River into Ferndale on October 11, 1891, the Great Northern Railroad Company had stopped objecting to the foot traffic and laid planks on the ties to facilitate crossings. Hardan gave up the ferry business in about 1893. 

In his Nooksack Tales and Trails, Ferndale author P. R. Jeffcott neatly summed up the successive eras of Ferndale's transportation: "The 70s were the days of the canoe and packer; the 80s heralded and developed the steamboat to its greatest degree of usefulness; while the 90s opened the wagon roads to freight and stage transportation and laid the foundation of our present [1949] rapid transit" (Jeffcott 173). 

The arrival of the railroad in 1891 spelled another boom in Ferndale's future, and the city was poised to make the best of the opportunities presented by river and train transport of its abundant wood products, produce, and dairy. 

Agriculture, Industry, and People 

Between 1892 and 1900, "the shingle reigned supreme in the Nooksack Valley" (Roth, Vol. I, 825) and sawmills dotted both sides of the river in Ferndale. River and rail transported the area's plentiful wood shingles and timbers far and wide, and the valley's dairy and produce farmers were encouraged to become exporters of their goods. With some 30 to 40 orchards within a four-mile radius of Ferndale, the cannery and condensery industries burgeoned. 

Despite the Panic of 1893 and fires in 1894 that destroyed several buildings, Ferndale prospered due to its rich agricultural and industrial economic base. It also continued to increase in population. The arrival of a large colony of settlers from Kansas in 1895 joined the already-settled residents from all parts of the country and abroad. By this time, Ferndale was known as a village of churches, for its city limits contained churches represented by Congregational, Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist congregations. 

By 1900, Ferndale was recognized as a center for lumber production, and by 1926 had become a hub of the dairy and poultry industries, with a population of about 1,200. 

Ferndale Heritage Honored and Preserved 

From its early days, Ferndale's citizens recognized the importance of preserving the rich heritage of the area, a tradition that continued.

In 1895, the Old Settlers Association was formed to honor the pioneers of Whatcom County; the following year, it held its first celebration in Birch Bay. In 1901, the association gathered at the Methodist campground (on the land originally donated by Darius Rogers in 1882) and established Pioneer Park, which it purchased in 1902. Every year since, the association as had its annual picnic here during Pioneer Days, awarding the oldest living settler with the silver Neterer Loving Cup to keep for the year; his or her name is engraved on the cup, which has made for a crowded display on the vessel.

On August 19, 1924, the Bellingham Reveille reported that the Neterer Loving Cup was presented to Phoebe Goodell Judson, who remarked:

"Who can appreciate this emblem of all that is perfect, pure and good more than the pioneers who crossed the plains years ago in the old-time emigrant wagons, that were not capable of carrying but a few comforts that we enjoy today ... Our outfit was indeed very meager. Food soon became dry and stale and we longed for vegetables and fresh fruit. But these were the least of our troubles. But why mention the fear and hardships we endured while crossing the plains now that they are all ended and seem more like dreams or illusions than the reality? Divine Love landed us safely in the promised land of Washington Territory. Here we have lived so long surrounded by snow-capped mountains and picturesque scenery in this grand country and mild climate that we are now ready to press forward ..."(Bellingham Reveille).
Pioneer Park has become the repository of the world's largest collection of nineteenth-century cedar-slab log cabins gathered from throughout Whatcom County. Between 1940 and 1989, 13 cabins were moved from various spots (some dismantled, others towed). All but the last cabin acquired were donated. A 14th building, the Pioneer Headquarters, was built on site in 1926. The Old Settlers Association deeded the park to the City of Ferndale in 1972, and the Ferndale Heritage Society was formed in 1994 to work with the city to maintain and display the cabins by conducting tours and hosting events designed to convey the experience of pioneer life in nineteenth-century Whatcom County. The cabins are furnished with period pieces that evoke the era of the first settlers, with furniture, clothes, tools, kitchen implements, photographs, and other ephemera of bygone times. 


Tennant Lake Park Interpretive Center and Fragrance Garden preserves the earliest settled land in the area. Not long after settler John Tennant arrived with his wife, Clara, in 1859, he made improvements to their land to such an extent that it became famous for its fruits, flowers, and "blooded stock" (Jeffcott, Nooksack Tails and Trails 137). In 1872, Tennant built a frame house that became the locus for community festivities, and his experiments in horticulture and expertise in animal husbandry continued. The Nielson farm has been adapted as an interpretive center, providing information about the surrounding wetlands environment and hands-on activities for children. The park is operated under the joint management of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Whatcom County Parks and Recreation department. 

Hovander Homestead Park is the third major historical site that honors an early settler to the Ferndale area. Swedish architect and pioneer Hakan Hovander (1841-1915) settled with his family on the east bank of the Nooksack River on a 60-acre farm in 1898, and by 1903 completed a two-story house with Scandinavian design elements furnished with original pieces from the homeland. In 1911, a 60-foot-tall barn, one of the largest wooden barns in the county, was completed and is has also been conserved. The house preserves all of its original architectural elements, some furniture, and all of its flooring and cabinetry. It was purchased by the Whatcom County Parks and Recreation in 1969; dedicated in 1971; placed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 1974; and awarded the National Trust for Historic Preservation President's Medal in 1978. 

Ferndale also honors local Indian heritage and the history of close ties between settlers and the Lummi Nation with a series of Story Poles located in the city and on Lummi View Drive. On the west bank of the river in Centennial Riverwalk Park, the House of Tears Carvers from the Lummi Nation created three totem poles that tell stories of the Nooksack River, including "Lummi Helping Settlers Around Big Log Jam," depicting a Lummi packer holding a shovelnose river canoe with two settlers to represent the help the Lummi people gave the settlers as they portaged around the Big Jam. 

A wide range of murals on several of Ferndale's buildings downtown reflects the various cultures and industries of its history: a turn-of-the-twentieth-century city scene, Pioneer Park, a Mexican cantina, and a farmland view all pay homage to the city's heritage in a visually compelling way. 

Modern Ferndale

The City of Ferndale continued to prosper during the twentieth century, as commerce thrived, banks moved in, and the city invested in its future. In 1909, it paid $30,000 (equivalent to more than $750,000 in 2013 currency) for a filtering system to purify its drinking water supplied by the Nooksack River. In 1910, a new high school was built and five years later an addition built.

In 1920, census figures placed greater Ferndale Township's population at 2,179, the largest in Whatcom County (within the city limits, the population numbered 759). Six years later, the population of the city had risen to about 1,200. By this time, the Swedish community at Ferndale had three churches  that held services in the Swedish language: Swedish Baptist, United Lutheran, and Lutheran Free. The largest industry was the Ferndale Canning Company, which sent Ferndale produce produce around the world; the Carnation Milk Products Company was also a thriving business, and poultry and diary were two more major exports.

In 1931, to celebrate the opening of the new bridge, the Ferndale Record reported, "Every fifth man and every fifth lady walking or riding across the bridge ... will be given a cigar for the man and a bar of candy for the woman" (Ferndale Record). The third bridge (still in use in 2014) across the Nooksack River was dedicated in 1949. 

The completion of Interstate 5 in 1970 attracted new residents who worked in Bellingham. Heavy industry, including an aluminum smelter and oil refineries were established in the area, providing employment and spurring further population growth.

In 1991, the Lummi Nation opened a casino, and two expansions later, the hotel, casino, and spa is a draw for locals and visitors alike. With an estimated population of 11,080 (2011), Ferndale honors its 1926 moniker, "Gem of the Nooksack," bestowed by Lottie Roeder Roth, while it looks to the future with its contemporary motto, "City of Opportunity."

Sources: Lottie Roeder Roth, History of Whatcom County (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), Vol. 1, 24, 53-55, 175, 211-213, 817-833, 945; Vol. 2, 242-243, 430-435; Garland F. Grabert, Ferndale in Prehistory: Archaeological Investigations in the Lower and Middle Nooksack Valley, Occasional Paper No. 19 (Bellingham: Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington State College, 1983), 1, 7-9, 56-59, 62; P. R. Jeffcott, Nooksack Tales and Trails (Ferndale: P. R. Jeffcott, 1949), 124-153, 156-185; Allan Richardson and Brent Galloway, Nooksack Place Names: Geography, Culture, and Language (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012), 53-55; Chris C. Siegel, Early History of Ferndale and Ten Mile Townships, Whatcom County, Washington, (Bellingham: Cox Brothers and Williams, 1948), 4-5, 7-17, 47-52, 59-60; Wes Gannaway and Kent Holsather, Whatcom Then and Now (Bellingham: LoneJack Mountain Press, 2004), 80-97; P. R. Jeffcott, Dorothy H. Johnson, Michael Sullivan, John A. Tennant: Early Pioneer and Preacher (Bellingham: Fourth Corner Registry, 1978), 37, 50; Alice Cyr, Hovander Homestead, Tennant Lake, Pioneer Park: A Resource Manual for Preparing Historical Interpretive Programs (Bellingham: Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department, 1997), 105-119,125-126,161-171, 178-184; E. Rosamonde Ellis Van Miert, Remembering the Old Settlers of Whatcom County: Whatcom County's 107th Annual Old Settlers Picnic (Bellingham: E. Rosamonde Ellis Van Miert, 2004), 7-10, 14 24-27, 69; 100 Years of Ferndale (Bellingham: Ferndale Record, 2007), 6, 9, 14, 38; Ferndale Chamber of Commerce 2014 Membership Directory (Ferndale: Chamber of Commerce, 2014), 7-9, 18, 23, 32-33.

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