I have one of the most beautiful commutes in the country, I’m pretty sure. My drive is around fifteen miles long, winding through precipitous hills clad in dark and overgrown forests of hemlock, Douglas fir and Bigleaf Maple. Most of the route follows the south shore of Lake Whatcom on a road that is thinly traveled. The drive I make is a relatively recent road, though.
Since American settlers first visited this lake in the mid-1800s, boats were the favored mode of transportation. Native Americans taught the earliest settlers how to build shovel-nosed canoes made of a single hollowed-out cedar log. Row boats followed, then sailboats. The first of the steam-powered boats was launched in the late 1800s, and it contributed its muscle to burgeoning industries of coal-mining and the lumber trade.
By the early 1900s several steamboats traveled the twelve-mile length of Lake Whatcom, visiting docks of settlers and nascent communities along the way. Other steamboats dragged barges loaded with coal or with train cars loaded with coal. Still others nudged rafts of huge logs toward several lumber and shake mills that dotted the perimeter of the north end of the lake.
Passengers could ride the cars from settlements around Bellingham Bay, disembarking at a major dock at the end of the line. From there, travelers boarded one of several passenger ships bound for Silver Beach, Geneva, Blue Canyon or Park at the far end of the lake. These were places that roads did not reach for years to come. The steam packets weren’t large. A bus might be equal in size, and possibly in comfort, when you consider that most of the tiny boat’s interior must have been taken up by a roaring furnace.
It’s easy to romanticize a trip on one of Lake Whatcom’s steamboats, but the reality could have been really unpleasant. On a hot summer day, you queue up on a creosote-soaked dock, bunched up with the other anxious passengers, uniformly over-dressed in heavy woolens or thick cotton coats. Sweat beads on the faces, soaking through shirts, gingham dresses, bonnets and hat brims. People didn’t bathe as much in those days, so the close air inside the little boat must have grown rank with human odors. Heat radiates from the boiler and the sun’s rays blast through the southern glass. Pitch seeps from sun-baked wooden walls. There is a petroleum stink of coal, oil and smoke. Men smoke cigars, pipes, cigarettes, and perhaps swill from smuggled bottles. You can smell dried fish, smoked sausages, rye bread, pickles, boiled eggs and cabbage. The boat rocks across a wake and a green-faced little boy heaves his breakfast onto the floor. Someone tosses a bucket of lake water onto the mess.
The furnace roars and steam hisses, linking rods clatter and chuff and clang. The captain bellows some orders and the sailors yell out in response. Passengers scream at each other to be heard.
Lake Whatcom steamers weren’t all that safe. Records from the early 1900s are full of reports of accidents. In a dense fog in 1907 the Marguerite ran aground and began sinking by the stern at an alarming rate. The little Elsinore nudged close to save the passengers. Marguerite was salvaged and repaired at a shipyard near Strawberry Point, and she continued to run the lake for about another decade before she caught fire and burned to the waterline between Geneva and today’s Bloedel Donovan Park.
Fire was a constant threat. The little boats were lightly built of resinous fir or other softwoods. Walls and partitions were thin and parched by their exposure to the sun and the constant heat of the furnace. Flammable paints covered the boat from top to bottom. Holes were patched and ropes preserved with thick, flammable tar. Kerosene lanterns provided lighting in the early dusk of winter. Thick fog frequently covered the lake, adding the threat of running aground to the threat of fire.
Lake Whatcom’s water level can fluctuate seasonally, and also at the will of the operators of the dam on Whatcom Creek. A few years ago, when the water level was low, I passed a shallow bay near Strawberry Point and I caught a glimpse of some timbers just breaking the surface of the lake. It occurred to me that the timbers might have been part of a sunken boat. On subsequent trips I studied the pattern of the timbers and thought I saw the shape of a hull. I did some desultory research and decided I had seen the wreck of the Marguerite. But this was on the wrong side of Geneva.
Then came Google Earth. I downloaded the program on a laptop recently, and just for kicks I decided to see what I could see along the shores of Lake Whatcom. There, in the little bay near Strawberry Point, was the ghostly image of a boat’s hull imprinted on the bottom of the lake. The location matched the spot where I had seen the timbers.
More recently I’ve turned up some reports about a different wreck, this one near Strawberry Point. The scanty information available on internet about this wreck is muddled and confusing. As with many of the lake steamers, when this boat was built it bore a different name, the Mike Anderson. The boat was purchased and moved to Lake Whatcom in the early 1900s, renamed Bried. In 1901 she caught fire, but evidently the flames were extinguished quickly enough that she could be salvaged. Ironically, the shipyard that worked on her was located on Strawberry Bay, not far from her ultimate watery grave.
She was renamed Cora Blake and she continued to make Lake Whatcom runs for a couple of years. But in 1904 she erupted in flames again. The captain ran for the shallows in an attempt to save his passengers. He ran aground a few yards from the shore, without a loss of life. The boat burned to the waterline and the remains of the hull settled to the bottom, with only the furnace, mast and a few other metal parts rising above the surface. Eventually these were recovered and hauled away, but whenever the water level drops in the lake, the skeletal remains of Cora Blake’s hull can still be seen, 110 years after she burned. Or you could just look for her on Google Earth.