This haberdashery comes with a healthy dose of localhistory for you

Published on Thu, Feb 17, 2005 by ack Kintner

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This haberdashery comes with a healthy dose of local history for you

By Jack Kintner

Until Blaine gets its own history museum, the place to go for memories and to find out about the old days is Goff’s Department Store. Patriarch Murray Goff, there every day except Monday, has an almost complete bound set of Blaine newspapers from 1906 through 1928, and knows most of the people in town who are also good resources for photos and documents from Blaine’s early history.

Other old material on Blaine’s early days can be found around town – a real estate salesman named Shaw, for example, put out a full page ad that can still be seen hanging on the wall at Freeman Real Estate. Shaw’s brother was the well-known British playwright George Bernard Shaw.

The earliest settlements locally, one on the spit and another about where Worldly Treasures now stands, were both called Semiahmoo and were vestiges of settlements begun with early border surveys and stimulated by the Fraser River gold rush in 1858. Blaine’s version of the Mayflower was the steamer J.B. Libby which brought the first groups of settlers in 1871, though some settlers such as E.A. Boblett were already here. In the late 1880s Blaine began to grow rapidly, and went from about a thousand people at the time of statehood in 1889 to several thousand more just a year or two later.

There are living descendants of settlers in their late ’90s, such as 98-year-old Norma Kruse, who can remember much of the early days. Blaine’s economy plateaued after WWI, leaving parts of the town preserved much like Port Townsend was. One can still see stables in the alleys behind many of the older homes. But sooner or later, the connection between all this material and these memories is Goff’s store.
Murray Goff is a Blaine native who’s worked in the store, which his father bought in 1915, since 1953. It’s now run by his son Greg and his wife Jo, an accomplished photographer. Often, locals who would qualify as old-timers – the definition varies – can be found in the back of the store pouring over old photos and newspaper clippings, discussing details as they share the rambling stories of Blaine’s early days.

For example, the long panoramic photo of the Blaine waterfront published in this section comes from the collection built up by local photographer Elias Breidford, though Greg Goff is reasonably sure that he didn’t take the picture. “I think this is one of those that he more or less inherited,” said Goff, “probably from another photographer whose work Breidford continued.” The same image can also be seen on the wall in city hall.

The photo is undated, but Greg Goff said when he first saw the copy owned by local historian Jim Zell that “it has to be between 1913 and 1925. Here’s our old house,” he said, pointing out the gable of what was then known as the Morrison House. It was built by Robert Morrison, manager of the large Morrison Mill that can be seen in the left foreground of the photograph. Goff said that the picture was taken from the mill’s water tower. Since the Peace Arch isn’t shown that means the photo is earlier than 1920-21, although it may be outside the left edge of the photo.

“And here’s the old high school,” Goff said, “which burned in 1925. It was located on or near the present high school. At least,” he said “there was a bridge on Martin Street that crossed Cain Creek, now the location of I-5, and joined a trail that went straight to the high school.”

The Morrison Mill, left foreground, could put out 75,000 board feet of lumber each day, and many from the local Italian community, centered in the Odell Road area, got their start stacking the finished lumber on piers built out over Drayton Harbor. “Including Joe Barber’s family,” said Murray Goff, “although Joe didn’t stack lumber. He was a real barber.”

The Goff family lived in the Morrison house until the state bought it in the 1960s for the freeway right-of-way. The house was moved to the corner of 2nd and C streets after being bought at auction for $25 by then superintendent of Blaine schools Vernon McDonald. It now sits on the lot where McDonald moved it, the northeast corner of 2nd and C Street intersection.

“All this for 150 bucks,” said local historian Jim Zell, indicating most of the left half of the photo. “The Cain brothers bought the area from H Street to the border back to 2nd Street for $150 in the 1880s,” Zell said. The Cains also started the Blaine Journal in 1886, the first newspaper in Whatcom County.

In the photograph one can see the train tracks on a long trestle winding around the bay. The tracks were re-located to the waterfront in 1908-9 from the old right-of-way that can still be seen on the east side of Yew Avenue in Blaine, a street many locals still call the Old Grade. It runs north from Hughes Avenue (Sweet Road in the county) just east of the freeway north to Boblett Street. Fir Street, which runs south off Boblett Street across from the Blaine schools campus, also follows the old grade. It turned north at roughly the present-day 8th Street and ran north to the border. The line was completed to the border on Valentine’s Day in 1891, when a golden spike was driven at what was called a “gala Canadian-American celebration.” The train station that’s still down by the tracks was opened at another huge civic celebration in 1909 led by Mayor N.A. Cornish, whose daughter Nellie founded the Cornish School in Seattle.
Cain Creek flowed south of the pier that ran out to the Morrison Mill and in this photo is the long wandering creek that is flowing across the mudflats. Marine Drive was created where the trestles were with fill from dredging Blaine Harbor. Port Commissioner Jim Jorgensen remembers when the north side of Marine Drive was a garbage dump, and had a major hand in creating the present park. The creek now exits to the north.
Using the waterfront as a dump was a common practice earlier in the 20th century. Bert Isackson, who along with Rod DeMent is a great local source for stories from Blaine’s early days, said that the photo was known as a picture of “the back of town,” that is, the side facing the water.
Isackson remembers being at the Peace Arch dedication in the fall of 1921. “I pushed between the old folks down in front,” he said, “and got a good look at Sam Hill and this Romanian Princess he had with him.” The Peace Arch evidently had yet to be built when this photo was made.
Earlier, when Blaine voted itself dry in 1888, the Hotel St. Elmo circumvented the law by building its bar just across the border in the crowded neighborhood seen over the top of the sawdust burner in the photo. The area is now Peace Arch Park.

One landmark not often pointed out in the photo is a small non-descript house that’s the first structure on the south side of the train trestle, walking away from the beach.

“That was a sportin’ house,” said Greg Goff, “a brothel, and they put it there to catch the mill workers and sailors on the lumber ships on payday before they got up into town.”

As the story goes, it was later bought by a man with a large family and moved on to dry land. He sold it not long after, however, having grown tired of all the late-night knocks on the door from former customers.