Notorious blacksmith known for his stories

Horseshoes outside today’s Bagelry mark spot for smithy



John Kastner, standing at right, outside his blacksmith shop on Railroad Avenue in 1905.


Among the blacksmiths in Bellingham’s history, none are more notorious than the story-telling John Kastner.

Originally from Colorado, Kastner moved to the booming town of Sehome in 1889 and quickly found “stable customers.” As a farrier to livery and dray teams, he came to know nearly every steed in town by name and temperament.

Though shoeing horses was a consistent part of his work, it was by no means all of Kastner’s blacksmith business. He made everything from hammer heads to springboard toes and could repair a vast variety of farming and logging implements.

In 1891, Kastner formed “Kastner & McKinnon” with wagon-maker William McKinnon. Blacksmiths traditionally worked closely with carriage builders because it required a smith to make a wagon’s metal fittings and wheel rims.

McKinnon was credited with having built, in 1889, the first wagon manufactured in any of the Bellingham Bay towns. In 1917, he’d have the distinction of building the last wagon made in Bellingham. After eight years in partnership with Kastner, McKinnon went on to form “McKinnon & Curtin” with Charles Curtin, another blacksmithing and wagon-building combination.

Shortly after arriving here, Kastner joined the Sehome fire department, a volunteer bucket brigade. When the firemen procured a hose cart, in March 1890, they organized as the Sehome Hose Company No. 1. John Kastner was selected as “foreman” (fire chief).

A poster from Jan. 25, 1892, honors the Sehome Hose Co., with “900 feet of hose under its entire care and supervision,” for having “responded to 25 alarms of fire since its organization.” The congratulatory placard, now housed at the Whatcom Museum, also states that among the 18 company members “none are laggards, but are ever ready and watching to protect our glorious city from the destructive demon, Fire.”

Kastner’s adventures in firefighting provided him with stories he retold for the rest of his life. In the late 1930s, he remembered the early 1890s “as the days when a fire was a big event instead of just another way to get ahead of the Depression.” Kastner explained that when he first arrived in Sehome “water was selling for 25 cents a barrel so nobody could afford to have a fire, but things were soon remedied” when the Bellingham Bay Improvement Co. installed a waterworks, and “pretty soon lots of people began having fires.”

One of his favorite tales was the time the Byron Hotel had a flue fire. Kastner, in command, ordered two hoses be directed down the chimney. The deluge extinguished the fire all right, but also flushed the hotel’s entire stock of fine china right out the front door and onto Dock Street (Cornwall Avenue).

But the Sehome Hose Co.’s most infamous feat had nothing to do with fighting fire. On June 22, 1891, the first train of the Canadian Pacific Railway was scheduled to arrive in New Whatcom, coming in on the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia tracks that had recently made the border connection at Sumas.

To welcome the train, a decorated arch was erected over Railroad Avenue at Holly Street. The New Whatcom wheelmen gave a bicycle parade and local leaders extolled the economic advantages that Canadian Pacific service would bring to the town. A crowd of 6,000 people, dressed in their Sunday best, waited in anticipation. The train was late.

As part of the festivities, it was planned that the Sehome Hose Co. and their counterparts from old Whatcom would create an arch of water for the train to pass under. What better way to show off that new waterworks?

When the train finally came into sight, the rival hose companies were given the signal to start their display. The Whatcom lads got water pressure first and, weighing their advantage, began spraying the Sehome side. Getting water, the Sehome squad retaliated and suddenly it was an all-out water fight! Torrents played across the shocked spectators as dignitaries dodged for cover.

And that’s when the train pulled in. Its confused passengers, windows open on a late June afternoon, got squirted too. In the pandemonium, a drunken patriot noticed that the Canadian flag at the top of the welcoming arch was higher than the U.S. flags, so climbed up and tore the standard down. It was trampled in the mud, thus adding insult to what was already a “damp bad reception.”



Water fight! The Canadian Pacific gets a gushy greeting on Railroad Avenue, June 22, 1891.


A result of the incident was that New Whatcom would not become the American terminus for the transcontinental Canadian Pacific. The volunteer hose companies were retired after the City of Bellingham’s professional fire department was established in October 1904.

Kastner moved his smithy to 1315 Railroad Ave. in 1894. Forty years later, Kastner joked that he “had only moved a few feet” to 1317 Railroad. Today, though buildings and addresses have changed a bit, Kastner’s horseshoes are still embedded in the sidewalk, outside the Bagelry, as a reminder of where his blacksmith shop used to be.

On March 19, 1910, Kastner was the first to sign the charter establishing Bellingham Local #239 of the “Master Horseshoers & Blacksmiths Protective Association of Washington.” The charter document now hangs in the permanent blacksmithing display at the Skagit County Historical Museum in La Conner.

Following the end of World War I, motor trucks replaced horse-drawn delivery wagons and men employed in equine-associated businesses began looking for new lines of work. In 1911 there had been more than a dozen blacksmithing firms in Bellingham, but a decade later there were only five.

McKinnon, the wagon builder, started a new company on Elk (now State) Street that made “automobile body tops.” Kastner, however, stayed with the old profession and enjoyed his venerated status as the “pioneer Bellingham Bay blacksmith.” His oldest son, J. Leonard Kastner, followed his father into blacksmithing, apprenticing from an early age, but Leonard’s career would be in a declining occupation and his years at the anvil were not something he celebrated.

For many years, John, his wife, Lily May, and their sons, lived in cramped rooms at the rear of the Railroad Avenue shop. Their back door was across the alley from the stage door of Beck’s Opera House that fronted on Dock Street. John had made all the decorative ironwork for the palatial theater when it was built back in 1902.

The Kastners’ youngest sons, LeRoy and Clifford, loved to watch theatrical road shows and vaudeville acts come and go from Beck’s. These spectacles left a lasting impression on the Kastner boys, who both grew up to have careers in local theaters.

LeRoy’s first job was playing trumpet in an orchestra that accompanied silent movies at the Star Theatre in the Sunset Building. Eventually he became manager of the theater (renamed the Dream) and, by 1947, was managing the American Theatre (the former Beck’s). LeRoy Kastner went on to run the Mount Baker Theatre from 1951 to 1974, and again from 1977 to 1987.

Likewise, Clifford Kastner worked for more than 30 years in Bellingham theaters, including the American, Avalon and Mount Baker.

John Kastner, blacksmith and firefighter, passed away Jan. 15, 1944. He was 75. Next time you’re in front of the Bagelry on Railroad Avenue, look for his horseshoes in the sidewalk.



Inside Kastner’s smithy: John, second from left, takes a break from the anvil with his three sons and an assistant.


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