Flooding, fires, and gas often made mines too costly to maintain
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Discovery of coal along the shore of Bellingham Bay in the early 1850s led to the development of mining as one of the city’s earliest commercial enterprises. Coal deposits located along the bluffs at the north edge of today’s Fairhaven were first noted by William Prattle in 1852, prior to any non-Indian settlement around Bellingham Bay.
Prattle had come from San Francisco to the San Juan Islands to cut timber for use in California’s building boom following the 1848 Gold Rush. While in the San Juans, Prattle heard native reports of coal around Bellingham Bay. With coal commanding a high price in San Francisco, and being eager to take advantage of an economic opportunity, Prattle decided to investigate these reports.
While exploring Bellingham Bay in October 1852, Prattle found promising coal deposits along the Fairhaven shore, near the present-day Chrysalis Inn & Spa on 10th Street. He then traveled to San Francisco to raise funds, and with two partners formed the Puget Sound Coal Mining Association.
Returning to Bellingham Bay in January 1853, Prattle and his partners staked claims to the shoreland area, which became known as Prattle’s Point. Prattle and his partners then leased the mining rights to other operators.
Mining activity at Prattle’s Point began in the fall of 1853, working a nearly vertical 8-foot seam of coal. After being dug by hand, the coal was carried by wheelbarrow to the shore and loaded on ships for transport to San Francisco.
Prattle’s mine, however, was not large enough to achieve commercial success, and operation gradually was reduced over the next few years. Discouraged by these events, Prattle seems to have lost interest and abandoned his claim in 1859. About 150 tons of coal were shipped before the mine closed permanently. Prattle went on to become an election judge and road inspector for the county.
As the Prattle mine was opening in the fall of 1853, another coal deposit was discovered to the north of Prattle’s Point on the bluff below the west end of present day Laurel Street. This 17-foot thick vein was found by two employees of Henry Roeder, who had established the first settlement on Bellingham Bay and opened a lumber mill at the mouth of Whatcom Creek in December of 1852.
Roeder, who owned the Sehome Hill property on which the vein was discovered, immediately saw an opportunity for financial profit from the coal. His first move was to have 60 tons of coal extracted from the seam, and shipped as a sample to San Francisco. After the coal sold for $16 per ton, Roeder then sold his coal-bearing land for $18,000 to a group of San Francisco investors who organized the Bellingham Bay Coal Company and made Edmund Fitzhugh the mine’s first local manager.
Development of the Sehome mine proceeded slowly for several years until 1859, when the owners decided to invest $100,000 in improving the shaft and constructing related facilities such as a wharf, coal bunkers, and a tramway from the mine to the bunkers. In order to provide for dependable transport of their coal to San Francisco, the company purchased three ships, The Amethyst, the Lookout, and the Germania.
Bellingham Bay Coal Company’s Sehome mine proved to be quite successful, generating a gross income of $300,000 for its owners in its first year of operation. Its success attracted competition from Charles Richards, a local merchant, who formed the Union Coal Company, to attempt to re-open mining near Prattle’s original efforts.
A small community named Unionville formed around Richards’ project.
Consisting of a 100-foot vertical shaft, Union’s mine operated for only two years, shipping a total of 2,500 tons of coal to San Francisco.
Coal at the Sehome mine was dug by hand in the shaft and brought to the entrance in groups of seven to nine coal cars, pulled by mules and horses. Each car could carry one and a half tons. When the mine was operating at full capacity, the coal trains made 9 trips a day to the entrance.
As the mine’s shaft went deeper and closer to tide level, problems developed from seepage and flooding. Fire also was a constant worry as the coal being mined had a high sulfur content and was highly combustible when wet. When the coal ignited, the shafts were flooded and then subsequently had to be pumped out at a high cost to continue mining. Toxic gas collection inside the tunnels also was a continuing hazard.
Despite these problems, the Sehome mine continued to operate, employing as many as 100 workers, including many immigrants from England, Wales and China. The Bellingham Bay Coal Company in 1863 brought in a new manager, Michael Padden, with a background in mining in Pennsylvania and the Seattle area. Padden eventually homesteaded in Happy Valley and was the discoverer of Lake Padden, to which he gave his name.
A major expansion of the Sehome mine was undertaken in March 1875, with the opening of new shaft higher up on the hill, just south of today’s Morse Condominiums. This new shaft ran northeast under Railroad Avenue and eventually would reach a depth of 500 feet, and also extend at least 500 feet out under the bay.
Problems with flooding and gas continued to beset the mine, and in 1876, major flooding occurred in the mine’s lower levels. The deeper tunnels were then abandoned in favor of digging coal about 150 feet higher.
The increasing expenses of dealing with fire, gas, and flooding dramatically reduced the profitability of the Sehome mine. Bellingham Bay Coal Company’s President Pierre Cornwall traveled to Bellingham from San Francisco in 1877 with a geologist and a coal mining expert to inspect the mine. Cornwall’s team decided that continued mining was unfeasible, and work at the mine came to a halt in December.
The end for the Sehome mine came in January 1878, when the coal company sold all the mining equipment, keeping only the property. Shipment of the remaining 4,000 tons of coal in the bunkers to San Francisco was completed in February 1878.
Bellingham Bay Coal Company vacant property on the side of Sehome Hill was moved into Pierre Cornwall’s Bellingham Bay Improvement Company’s extensive holdings that would be developed in the 1880s and 1890s into modern Bellingham. Cornwall’s Bellingham Bay & British Columbia Railroad, completed between Bellingham and Sumas in 1891, constructed its locomotive roundhouse at the site of the Sehome mine. This structure remained in place behind Morse Steel through the early 1980s when rail service on the line was terminated. The mine’s location at the south end of Railroad Avenue is now being developed for residential condominiums.