Advent of cheaper cars led to boom in auto-based traveling
whatcom historical society
As the decade of the 1920s began, the nation was experiencing a great wave of prosperity following the conclusion of World War I in 1918. One result of this prosperity was a dramatic growth in personal ownership of automobiles, which were rapidly becoming affordable and practical for the average wage earner.
With the new mobility offered by automobiles, touring scenic and interesting areas of the country by auto became a highly popular recreational activity. Auto tourists often carried camping equipment along with them, and at the end of a day’s driving, would look for a place to set up a tent, cook a meal and sleep overnight before continuing their journey.
Recognizing the economic benefits of tourism, communities sought to attract this new type of traveler, often by offering designated areas for overnight camping. These locations, known as auto camps, offered space to park a vehicle and set up a tent, along with basic cooking facilities, for a small fee.
The city government of Bellingham decided to join in the auto camping craze and promote tourism by opening a camping area operated by the Parks Board in Cornwall Park in the summer of 1920. Located on the northern edge of the city limits, Cornwall was the city’s largest park, consisting of 65 acres of land donated to the city in 1909 by the family of pioneer land developer and promoter Pierre Cornwall.
The new auto camp occupied an area just inside the Park’s Meridian Street entrance and was equipped with water lines and stoves for campers. It was hoped that eventually telephones, a children’s playground, some type of shelter and gas lines with pay meters could be installed. The auto camp was seen as one part of the park’s development, with other possibilities including creation of a 9 – hole golf course in the park and extension of the city streetcar line on Meridian from Illinois Street to the park. These latter plans never came to pass.
Cornwall Park’s auto camp was immediately successful, leading to the opening of a camp south side of the city in Fairhaven Park in the following summer of 1921. Donated to the city by land developers Charles Larrabee and Cyrus Gates in 1906, Fairhaven Park’s 16 acres offered a prime location on Chuckanut Drive, the only highway entering Bellingham from the south.
Desiring a well-developed auto camp in the park to make a good impression on visitors to the city, Fairhaven residents contributed money and labor for the upkeep and improvement of the auto camp. An initial gift of $150 for improvements was offered to the Parks Board in 1921, provided the board would match the donation. By 1923, a shelter with electric lights and a house had been added to the camp, which was located in the area of the park’s current main parking lot.
Development of the Cornwall Park auto camp was completed in 1923, with the addition of a shelter house, more stoves, electric lights, and shower facilities with hot water. These improvements cost the city $4,000 but the year’s summer revenue from auto tourists more than covered expenses. The auto camp’s business was expected to increase by 50% in 1924.
Opening in early May, Bellingham’s public auto camps offered visitors sheltered cooking facilities with free wood and water, children’s playgrounds with supervised play during the summer months, and electrical lighting. There was no time limit to camping. An attendant provided oversight for the daily operation and maintenance of the camps.
Travel literature of the era promoted the auto camps’ location in well-maintained city parks as an especially attractive feature to tourists. The Cornwall and Fairhaven Park auto camps were also among the few in the Northwest that were publicly owned and operated, and brought Bellingham recognition as a pioneer in automobile tourism.
Auto camping’s popularity, and use of the two city-owned auto camps, reached its height during the mid-1920s. Cornwall Park’s camp recorded 806 visiting cars in July 1925, with Fairhaven’s camp hosting 590 vehicles. New in 1925 at the camps were bulletin boards advising campers of community events and social opportunities.
Within a few years, however, auto camping sites began to experience strong competition from privately operated groups of small, individual cabins, also often called auto camps, and designed for overnight stays along the highways. Along with overnight cabins, these new auto camps or courts often included a combination service station and small grocery store.
Auto travelers quickly began to prefer the convenience of the cabins, to the complications of tenting. Patronage at the city-owned auto camps declined drastically as private cabin camps and courts like those appearing elsewhere on the nation’s roadways sprang up in Bellingham.
The city’s Parks Board, noting the decline, did not open the Cornwall Park Auto Camp for the summer season of 1927. Instead of auto camping, the area was used by the Boy Scouts for meeting and regular camping that summer. The Fairhaven Park Auto Camp, although open, operated at a loss in 1927.
The summer of 1928 found eight private auto camps or courts operating in Bellingham, ready to compete with the Parks Department’s facilities. One of private camps, Uncle Tom’s Cabins, operated by Thomas Bird, was located immediately adjacent to the south edge of Fairhaven Park’s auto camp.
Northwest Avenue south of West Maplewood was a particularly attractive area for auto camps, as it was the route of U.S. 99, the Pacific Highway, through the city.
Grove Log Cabin Camp occupied the corner of West Maplewood and Northwest, today the location of Industrial Credit Union and Rite Aid. Calmador’s Auto Camp was nearby, on the east side of Northwest, in the area of Pacific Northwest Credit Union and the Northside Restaurant.
Further south on Northwest, Fir Tree Auto Cabins was located at the corner of Northwest and East Maplewood, now occupied by Marilyn’s Yarn in the former Frontier Bank building.
Highway 99 continued on State Street where Granda Vista Auto Camp and Service Station occupied the corner of South State and 14th streets, and Old Orchard Camp was located on the site of today’s Orchard Terrace, near the intersection of North State and Boulevard.
Recognizing that sufficient private facilities for auto travelers now existed, the Parks Board in March of 1928 decided to end the city’s operation of the auto camps and not open the Fairhaven Park camp that season.
The areas the camps occupied in the parks would now be available to the public for picnicking and other uses. After more than 75 years, little evidence of the city’s early auto camps remains in Cornwall and Fairhaven parks.
A few reminders exist of the private auto courts that replaced the city parks’ camps.
Immediately south of Fairhaven Park, Uncle Tom’s Cabins have been converted into private housing. Cabins from the Grove Log Cabin Camp on Northwest were moved in the late 1980s to the 100 block of East Bakerview where they house retail shops and offices in Bakerview Country Village, located behind El Cazador restaurant.
The buildings of Marine View Auto Cabins, opened in 1929, at the corner of South State and 12th streets are now private housing units.