Monday, 10 October 2016

South Bay Trail

Boulevard Park
We spent our summer in what I consider to be my second home of Bellingham in Washington State.  It has been far too long since I managed to make the trip across to the city where my wife was born and grew up.  We arrived to something of a heatwave and so despite our best intentions of some lengthy hikes while we were there it actually proved not to be possible due to time contraints and weather conditions.  We focused instead on the old favourite short walks around the city and surrounding area.
Autumn tints

Bellingham is a city situated approximately 90 miles north of Seattle and 50 miles south of Vancouver.  It is blessed with a fine network of walking and cycling trails, many of which follow former transport routes.  This particular walk follows the former interurban railway route between Fairhaven on the south side of the present city and the downtown area of Bellingham.  Once these were two distinct places and the railway was a valuable connection between the two.  There is a present day railway but there is no longer a passenger service that connects Bellingham with Fairhaven.  The next stop north on the Amtrak service is Vancouver on a service that runs only twice per day.
Downtown View

The interurban railway connected Bellingham with Mount Vernon and was opened in 1912 during the boom time for these railways.  By 1915 there were over 15000 miles of interurban railways in the USA and they were primarily used for passenger travel between neighbouring cities, often linked to streetcar networks and usually electrically powered using 500-600 volt DC systems.  Most were short-lived and this particular route was shut in 1930 after a couple of accidents further down the line.  The first involved one of the cars derailing on a curve and tumbling down an embankment while the next only a few months later happened when a train smashed into a rock that had fallen on to the track.  The result was pretty much the same although it was a miracle that no-one died in either incident.  As far as the future of the line was concerned these two accidents pretty much cooked its goose.
South Bay Trail

A lengthy stretch of the trackbed between Fairhaven and Larrabee State Park is preserved as a foot and cycle path and although I have walked it a few times in the past I am going to focus this time on the short stretch that ran between Fairhaven and Bellingham for this trail is remarkable in its reconstruction of the former line for this two mile stretch.  When I lived in these parts in 1995-96 I was only vaguely aware that there was a second railway built on trestles out in Bellingham Bay but in 2007 the City rebuilt a lengthy portion of it, not in wood this time but in concrete.  The use of material was probably a smart move as the original trestles suffered from saltwater worms having a liking for it and constantly attacking it.

The trail starts in an alley leading off from Chestnut Street close to a Wood Fired Pizza outlet.  I suspect that the original route followed the line of Railroad Avenue although this doesn't quite connect with the beginning of the trail on a trestle just behind the Bellingham Farmer's Market.  This section is the oldest part of the route - I remember walking this section in the mid 1990s.  What I don't remember though is the line of condos that have appeared alongside the trail - it certainly has a different feel with the buildings cheek by jowl with the path.  Soon a road is reached and the path crosses Wharf Street obliquely before continuing its SW course.

This section of the path is fairly closed in feeling a little isolated from the wider environment.  It follows a green line that runs below the coastal road of State Street and above the route of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railway that runs along the shore below.  Eventually I would meet the present day railway as the trail runs steadily downhill to shore level.  Signs of autumn were already showing even though I completed the route in early August.

Alaska Ferry
I have walked this route a number of times and have never had to wait for a train at the bottom.  Today was no exception and I wandered across the track at the pedestrian crossing.  I do remember that it was almost accepted that people wandered along the track in the old days - signage now suggests that this practice is no longer tolerated.

Boundary Stone
On the other side is Boulevard Park - one of the gems of Bellingham and with wide ranging views out across Bellingham Bay and Lummi Island beyond, what is not to like?  Certainly the locals flock to this place - it is always heaving with people at the weekends and on summer evenings as locals come down here to have their barbecues.  With magical sunsets over the water it is easy to see why so many people come.  I walked around the park people watching as I went.  It is a fascinating place - people playing sports, doing Tai Chi or generally sitting around and nattering.

Fairhaven Mural
At the far end I passed by the small coffee shop (worth a halfway stop if you get thirsty). and I passed over the first section of boardwalk - this straight section was in place when I first visited and lived in Bellingham in the mid 1990s.  On the other side though walkers had to cross the railroad tracks diagonally to continue walking on into Fairhaven.  Since the onward trestle was completed in 2007 the way forward is a lot more pleasing.  The arc of the trestle follows roughly the line of the former interurban railroad but it suddenly stops.  I suspect that the money ran out at this point, or perhaps reaching landfall at the more logical end of the route was too difficult because of the proximity of the BNSF railroad?  Anyhow the route suddenly heads back to shore via a ramp up and over the railroad and the route continues through some backroads to Fairhaven.  On the day I walked this section the ferry to Alaska was in - quite an adventure to travel on this up the Inside Passage to Ketchikan and Skagway.
Fairhaven Village

Fairhaven is a pretty good place to wander around with a lot of interesting independent shops and a smattering of restaurants.  It is worth wandering around enjoying the ambience of the place before either heading back downtown via one of the frequent buses.  If you are feeling particularly energetic you can complete the whole of the former Interurban Trail by continuing along the trail that runs up Padden Creek to join the onward route to Larrabee State Park.  Just be aware there is no public transport that can bring you back and it is a 12 mile round trip (not a problem on a bike!).  It is also possible to link this walk with an exploration of Lake Padden.  It is there that we shall be headed next.


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