Train depot preservation group to meet March 25

Published on Thu, Mar 19, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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“Our immediate goal is to save the Blaine train depot by working with both the city of Blaine and the Port of Bellingham to move the building to Plover Park where it will become the Waterfront Station, a multi-purpose community venue,” said Janet Pickard, president of the newly formed non-profit Blaine Coalition for Historic Preservation. The group’s next meeting is set for Wednesday, March 25, at 6 p.m. at the Blaine Library.

It was 100 years ago last Sunday, March 15, that a crowd of several hundred Blaine residents gathered around that same building to welcome the first passenger train through on Blaine’s “waterfront cut-off,” a route that skirted the so-called Hazelmere Grade, the last major roadblock to shipping bigger volumes of freight by rail between Vancouver and Chicago.

“This will take the whole community working together,” said Pickard, a Blaine resident since 1989, “because it’s a magnificent structure and we want to do a first class job.”

She said that the group, which has drawn its primary membership from both Drayton Harbor Maritime and the Salishan neighborhood Association, hopes to recruit architects, wood workers and other professionals to restore the building to better than new condition for use near where the public restrooms now sit next to the public boat launching ramp on Milhollin Drive.

“This isn’t the kind of thing that can be done by a bunch of people with hammers and saws. We want to preserve this building as an historic artifact that has a very appropriate contemporary use, something that when first put into use was a big deal for Blaine,” she said. The structure became a symbol for development in Blaine’s early days.

A 1909 account in the Blaine Journal said that “A fine depot has been constructed on the waterfront at the foot of F street at a cost of approximately $8,500. This structure is 32 x 167 feet, steam heated throughout, including finely appointed offices for both the immigration and customs officials. The work of construction and the outlay required on this new cut-off in the city of Blaine represents an investment of about $500,000 by the Great Northern Railroad company.” That’s the same amount as current estimates to move and refurbish the building for public use.

The original building had gables at each end, but the south 70 feet or so of the structure was lost to a fire that left it with about 3,100 square feet and only one gable on the north end. It’s made of locally cut and milled old-growth fir and maple. Technically, the area where the railroad stops for loading or maintenance is the station and the structure itself is the station’s depot. The Journal story added that the railroad was considering putting in a 12-stall roundhouse adjacent to the new line but this was never done.

The cut-off replaced the original main line that ran through Blaine along the east side of Yew Street, where sections of the old grade can still be seen, through the present day Blaine school campus and along Eighth Street. North of the border it gained and lost about 300 feet in less than a mile on the Hazelmere Grade that is crossed today by Highway 15 between 16 and 32 Avenues. Despite access to downtown Vancouver provided by a government built bridge across the Fraser at New Westminster in 1904, the grade and unstable ground around it still prevented Hill from shipping heavy freight east from Vancouver Island, which in effect also limited the amount of local freight that could be shipped out.

Hill got around this by building a rail ferry terminal at Ladner and running the new line east around Mud Bay and along the beach around the White Rock Peninsula to Blaine, providing a flat and solid roadbed, a lot of it on beachfront trestles.

It opened 100 years ago last Sunday, March 15, after the last northbound passenger train came through on the old route at 5 a.m. When it left the furniture and records, from the depot and a U.S. Immigration office it also housed, were loaded into cars and taken to the new depot.

A southbound freight rattled through town on the new route unheralded at 8:30 in the morning, but two hours later a southbound passenger train arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule to be greeted by a brass band and a crowd of 1,500 people. All the passengers and crew were awarded badges and certificates by city authorities.

“The opening of the new cut-off was an event of great importance to Blaine and is given the credit for being the most important occurrence in the history of the city,” the Journal said. Transportation was seen as a key to local development, this coming at a time when the local fishery was vibrant and nearly 900 men were employed producing almost 5 million shingles a day at Whatcom County’s 53 shingle mills.

“[Building the depot and cut-off] was the final consummation of a promise made over two years ago by representatives of the Great Northern Railway when the vacation of several streets was asked for in order to extend the line around the waterfront,” the Journal article stated, as if to imply that was the reason the depot had been built several years before the grade was finished.

Pickard said that in addition to restoring the building to the way it once looked, an excellent example of local construction using local materials, it will provide Blaine with a much-needed community space for such things as large meetings, weddings and other activities as well as become a site for the Plover to land, connecting Semiahmoo with downtown via the planned boardwalk that will cross the tracks just east of the building’s planned location.

“Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) wants to put in a third track, and has sold us the building for $1 if we move it,” she said, “and even though it’s expensive, as far as we’re concerned we can’t afford not to do this. We don’t want to wake up one day to find it gone.”

For more information contact Pickard at 332-3504 or e-mail her at