Whatcom: Fraser River gold rush town

News of a gold strike on the Fraser River reached California in the spring of 1858 and within a few short months, the Fraser River gold rush began. In his historical account of the gold rush, Judge Howay wrote:

“It was at its height in June, when nearly 10,000 adventurers are said to have left San Francisco for the Fraser River; during the first ten days of July 6,000 more sailed; it is estimated that the total number who came by land and water was between 25-30,000.”

Most of the goldseekers sailed from San Francisco to Victoria and from there some hired Indians with their canoes while some obtained passage in a tramp ‘plunger’ or sloop, to Fort Langley. Beyond this point the Fraser River became very treacherous as the ‘freshet’ (snow melt) had brought enormous amounts of water into the river making it very dangerous and unpredictable. As a result, many goldseekers tried to seek alternative routes to get to the gold diggings on the Fraser River.

The town of Whatcom on Bellingham Bay sprung up because of the Fraser River gold rush, as many goldseekers were led to believe that the Whatcom Trail would soon be finished.

One goldseeker from Norway wrote to a newspaper back home about his experiences:


I arrived here after a pleasant journey of five days by steamer from San Francisco, a distance of eleven or twelve hundred English miles. On our way we stopped at Victoria, the capital of the English possessions or of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which is located on Vancouver Island.

Over four thousand men had recently arrived there, most of them from California. They were camping out under their tents, since there were not enough small steamers or other vessels to take them up the Fraser River. Only one steamer was available, which carried merely two or three hundred passengers at a time.

Under these circumstances I, with several others, preferred to walk to Whatkom, which is located on American soil. This town, not quite two months old (before this time only two or three houses were found here), had sprung up so quickly because of the fact that this point is conveniently located near the new gold mines, which will be easily accessible from here both by water and land as soon as the new road through the woods is completed. The above-mentioned trail is finished for a distance of 150 English miles. According to the last reports they hope to complete it up to Thompson River in two or three weeks.

It is something new and very interesting for me to note the life and activity that unfolds itself here in connection with the building of hundreds of houses, and to observe the energy with which trees are cut down and burned to make room for the new town and new farm lands. Every moment one of the mighty trees crashes to the ground, causing a trembling and roaring as if an earthquake had passed.