by Al Currier
Whatcom Historical Society
Logging in Whatcom County’s extensive spruce and fir forests rapidly expanded in the 1880s, providing almost unlimited employment opportunities in the camps and mills dotting the landscape.
Among those drawn to Bellingham by work in the woods was William McCush, a young logger from the woods of northern Michigan. Always known to everyone as “Billy,” McCush would eventually rise to prominence in the Bellingham business community through ownership of a successful timber business as well as a career in local banking.
Billy McCush was born on April 21, 1865, in Port Hope, Ontario, east of Toronto on Lake Ontario. When he was a few months old, his parents, immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, moved to Otsego, a lumbering community in north central Michigan.
Following his father’s untimely death, McCush completed elementary school and then went to work to assist his family. His first job, at the age of 10, was in a lumber camp kitchen, where he cleaned and sorted potatoes, earning 50 cents a day. By age 15, he was familiar with the work of lumber camps and mills.
McCush continued working in the Otsego area until he was in his early twenties. As the timber in the Michigan woods became depleted in the late 1880s, loggers started looking to the virgin forests of the Northwest for further employment. At the age of 25, in June of 1890 Billy followed several friends and left Michigan to move to Bellingham and seek work in Whatcom County. A year later, his mother, two brothers and twin sisters joined him.
After arriving in Bellingham, McCush worked for a year in a carpentry shop on State Street, where he was paid $3.75 a day. He then became a self-employed building contractor, and in 1892, ventured into the logging business by purchasing a mill and opening a lumber camp on north shore of Lake Whatcom near Agate Bay. The Y Road today follows the course of a three-mile railroad built by McCush in 1896 to bring logs to lake.
With a successful business now operating, Billy McCush turned his attention to domestic life and in 1900 was married to Alwina Korthaur. They set up housekeeping in a home at the corner of Franklin and Potter Street, which would be his lifetime residence. Two children were born to the McCush family, George in 1902 and Lillian in 1904.
Vast new areas near Mount Baker were being opened to logging in the late 1890s along the new line of the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia Railway from Sumas through Maple Falls to Glacier. Seeing an opportunity to expand his logging business, McCush purchased timber and set up a camp near Maple Falls in the summer of 1901. Initially, 20 loggers were employed with as many as 45 expected to be hired as cutting expanded.
Success in logging brought Billy McCush to economic prominence in the community, and in the fall of 1904 he became one of the founding directors of Bellingham National Bank, now Key Bank. This involvement was the beginning a life-long career with that financial institution, of which he eventually became president.
In addition to his lumber company and banking interests, William McCush also founded and was president of Standard Manufacturing, which during the early 1900s operated two shingle mills in the Goshen and Rome areas along today’s Mount Baker Highway. With 65 employees, these mills could produce 150,000 cedar shingles a day. The economic downturn following World War I idled Standard’s mills by 1920.
Continuing in logging, McCush in 1906 entered a partnership with Ernest and George Christie to form McCush and Christie Company. The Maple Falls camp subsequently moved to a location on Cornell Creek near Glacier, and in 1912 the company moved into the Columbia Valley area along the railroad and today’s South Pass Road, between Kendall and Sumas. The Columbia camp boasted a cookhouse, bunkhouse, water tower and blacksmith shop to support its logging operations.
Further expansion to the McCush logging empire came in 1915, when Billy and George Christie formed Christie Timber Company to begin logging along the Nooksack River’s South Fork valley near Wickersham. Shortly after establishing Christie Timber, McCush also opened a camp under the name of McCush Logging Company several miles southeast of Alger at Prairie.
Along with the camp, McCush operated eight miles of railroad with three steam locomotives to transport logs down the hill to the Northern Pacific Railway mainline. One of these locomotives, a 70-ton Climax type, was purchased new for $20,000.
Tragedy came to McCush’s Prairie Camp on the rainy night of January 10, 1923, as one of the company’s locomotives returned from Sedro- Woolley where it had been repaired. Climbing the steep and curving track toward the camp, the locomotive’s crew was unable to see a washed-out trestle ahead, and were killed as the engine plunged to the muddy ground 100 feet below. The engine was buried so deeply in mud that the first workers to come along in the early morning gloom failed to see it.
As the 1920s continued, Billy McCush gradually turned his efforts from logging to Bellingham National Bank, where he had served as vice president since 1908. In addition to his responsibilities at the bank, Billy was involved in several other commercial enterprises, including Whidbey Island Sand & Gravel and his brother’s Globe Clothing on Holly Street. McCush sold his interest in Christie Timber in 1924, and by 1930 the Prairie logging camp was closed.
William McCush was also highly involved in the community of Bellingham. He served as president of the city school board for six years, and was a longtime member of the Chamber of Commerce, including a term as president in 1931. When the new Battersby Field baseball facility was opened in 1921 at the corner of F and Halleck streets, McCush had the honor of throwing the first pitch before the crowd of 1,400.
Another example of Billy McCush’s community involvement was his role in the construction of today’s Bellingham Towers building on North Commercial Street. When the project started in 1928, McCush chaired a fund-raising campaign to secure numerous local investors for the new building, to be named the Bellingham Community Hotel.
After serving as vice president of Bellingham National Bank for 31 years, Billy McCush became President of the bank in 1939, following the death of President Victor Roeder. In 1945, he became chairman of the bank’s board, continuing until his death on November 25, 1949, at the age of 84.
McCush was noted for walking from his Franklin Street home to his office in the bank at the corner of Holly and Cornwall nearly every morning until just a few weeks before his death. Starting early, Billy always greeted everyone he met along the way with a warm “good morning” that reflected his open and down-to-earth way of dealing with people.
Declaring Billy McCush as perhaps one of the best-loved men in Whatcom County, the Chamber of Commerce saluted him for his friendly nature and constant willingness to give freely of his time, finances and advice to benefit the entire community. The Bellingham Herald in an editorial tribute recognized McCush as having such “an active part in the business, civic, and fraternal life of this community for so long that his name will forever be associated with Bellingham’s and Whatcom County’s history.”