Bellingham developed two particularly paramount characteristics during its transitions throughout the 20th century. The community endorsed its development both culturally and economically by establishing its unique place in the worldwide outdoor recreational scene, beginning with the inaugural Mount Baker Marathon of 1911.
The mount Baker Marathon was originally a publicity proposal supported by the Mount Baker Club with hopes of bringing economic exposure to the small town of Bellingham at the beginning of the 20th century. Bellingham’s chamber of commerce joined its efforts alongside the Mount Baker Club with hopes of gaining national attention while developing Bellingham’s tourism sector.
“The Mount Baker Club of Bellingham represents the first organized effort on the part of Whatcom County residents to promote the development of the Mount Baker scenic and recreation resources” (2)
In 1911, Bellingham’s economy merely consisted of its logging industry and its fishing canneries. (4) Mount Rainer’s national park was introduced in 1899, making Seattle an immediate tourist attraction over night. The people of Bellingham saw much potential in their beloved Mount Baker; if Rainier contributed such remarkable growth for Seattle, surely Mount Baker could do the same for Bellingham. Right?
There was vehement debate as to what route the participants should endeavor in order to summit Mount Baker. One group of participants advocated to what was known as the Glacier Trail, beginning at the remote community of glacier and continuing South East towards the Roman Wall (Baker’s summit). Another group remained equally adamant that the Deming trail was an easier route, which followed the middle fork of the Nooksack River up to the high country, advancing North East toward the Roman Wall. (1)
It was decided that the runners were to be given the choice as to what route they pursued. If contestants chose the glacier trail, they’d ride a train from downtown Bellingham to Glacier and then continue running east up the fourteen mile trail to the summit of Mount Baker. Participants who chose the Deming Route were transported via a Ford Model T to a trailhead at Heisler’s Ranch on the middle Fork of the Nooksack, which remained sixteen miles from the summit. Both Routes had an elevation gain of about 9,700 feet.
This uncertainty as to which route was “better” kept the marathon controversial and thus, entertaining, to the people of Bellingham. This controversy among subjectivity added to the Marathon’s competiveness, which has contributed to Bellingham’s cultural roots associated with its outdoor enthusiasm.
The starting gun burst on August 10th, 1911 beginning the inaugural Mount Baker Marathon at ten o’clock in the evening. Fourteen contestants showed up at the starting line, which was just outside Bellingham’s chamber of commerce office. The race began at such a late hour with the intentions that the runners would descend the mountain at night – while the snow conditions were more solid and reliable underfoot.
The race began, sending six men in automobiles toward Heisler’s Ranch, and eight on the train toward Glacier. The Ford model T’s arrived at Heiser’s ranch first, giving the middle fork runner’s a head start. Although the distance for these runners to the summit was two miles longer than those who took the glacier trail, the Deming route had somewhat of a gentler incline.
As the train came to a halt in the small community of glacier, the eight eager runners began their journey toward the Coleman Glacier. By the time both groups had reached the different glaciers, eight of the total contestants had already dropped out of the race. The six remaining continued.
Judges were posted at the summit waiting to sign each runner’s certificate that they carried with them. Judges were freezing as they waited in the cold windy night (book citation). The first runner to reach the judges was N.B. Randall who was not too far ahead of Harvey Haggard. Both men had chosen the Glacier trail; as both were residents of glacier at the time.
Joe Galbraith who had taken the Deming Trail passed the checkpoint in third place. After the fourth and fifth place participants had began their descent, the judges abandoned the summit and found shelter at lower elevations. (1) This illustrates how extreme the conditions were as well as the intensity of the marathon. Did the Mount Baker Club as well as the Chamber of Commerce have any sort of sensible understanding as to what they put these young men up against? I think not.
Sometime during the early hours of the next morning, haggard took the first place position form Randall and beat him to the train with just a few hundred feet left. The initial rules of the race alleged that only Haggard (the winner) was allowed to board the train for Bellingham. Haggard insisted he get a back massage on his train ride west, and surely he was provided with one. The train made it as far as a few miles toward Bellingham when it hit a 1,800 pound bull that had wondered off its owners property. The train had derailed, yet no one was injured. Exhausted, unharmed, and completely naked from his massage, Haggard put his clothes on and wandered to find a horse and buggy that got him as far as maple falls. Haggard was assisted out of the buggy and propped on to a horse that took off west toward Kendall.
A car awaited Haggard in Kendall that unfortunately spooked his horse just before arriving. The horse bucked Haggard off of its back, leaving enervated Haggard on the ground. Haggard being the beast he was, wasn’t going to let anything get in the way between him and the finish line. After heaving himself into the automobile and continuing his trip to Bellingham, he fainted twice in the car ride.
By the time Haggard arrived in Bellingham, it was too late. Joe Galbraith had already showed up in a Ford Model T named “Besty”. Galbraith had beat Haggard by thirty-two minutes and was affirmed the winner of the first ever Mount Baker Marathon with an official time of twelve hours and twenty right minutes.
Galbraith was granted the first place prize of a buffalo robe and one hundred dollars. The crowd of downtown Bellingham quickly caught on to Haggard’s unimaginable story. A hat went around the crowd raising fifty dollars for his gallant machismo. The chamber contributed another thirty dollars to Haggard as well as the town’s of Maple Falls and Glacier, which donated about one hundred dollars to Haggard for his tenacious efforts.
The inaugural Mount baker Marathon had brought considerable publicity to Bellingham and was considered an absolute success by its residents. The businessmen that made up the mount baker club as well as the chamber of commerce were thrilled. As the summer of 1911 was just beginning, improvements for the 1912 marathon were already being organized.
Tens of thousands gathered in Bellingham for the second annual Mount Baker Marathon of 1912. Tales from the year before had spread and the marathon’s reputation grew enormously. Navy ships anchored in Bellingham bay to watch the event. A circus showed up hoping to benefit from the crowds. Even Washington State Governor Marion E. Hay made an appearance.
Unfortunately several feet of fresh snow at Baker’s summit postponed the race for an entire week. A seasoned marathon runner named Paul Westerlund from San Francisco almost had won that year’s race, but lost it to Harry Haggard after braking a rib from falling just below the roman wall. Haggard finished the 1912 marathon in first, beating Galbraith’s time by more than two and a half hours from the previous year. The marathon was yet another success.
The year of 1913 brought on an exceptionally unique twist to the Baker Marathon. The weather yet again had provided terribly atrocious visibility, causing judges to cancel the race via telephone. Though there was miscommunication. Judges on the Deming trail were returning to Bellingham late at night when they came across Westerlund and two other participants heading toward Baker. The judges tried their best to persuade them to stop; yet the runners were not easily convinced after beginning the race in the midst of their opponents headed toward Glacier. It was 1913; there wasn’t much they could do at this point. Officials scrambled back to Bellingham and concluded that the marathon would continue in defiance of the warnings.
The Deming runners refrained from descending the summit after being warned by officials. Sadly, no one had told the runners approaching the glacier route not to summit by reason of the intense weather conditions. The glacier route participants found themselves on the summit with without a judge’s footprint in sight and limited visibility. At this point the marathon had collapsed into disarray leaving the glacier route runners extremely vulnerable.
While descending the glacier, Victor Galbraith (Joe’s cousin) fell forty feet into a crevasse after loosing all visibility in the storm. Fortunately, Victor survived the fall and was brought down the mountain on a stretcher. He was extraordinarily lucky to be alive. The Mount Baker Marathon of 1913 ended with tremendous bewilderment among all its attendees.
Judges concluded that Westerlund (who had turned around just under Mount Baker’s summit) and Magnusson (who had reached the summit without injury) would be announced as co-winners. Galbraith’s near death experience altered the world’s outlook on the Mount Baker Marathon that year. Even Bellingham’s most chapped, bearded, and competent residents conceded that it was only a matter of time before the marathon took someone’s life. Up until this time, nothing had hit Bellingham with the amount of exposure that the Mount Baker Marathon provided.
The 1920s brought along the Tulip Time Festival, along with other festivities; keeping the newly developing town of Bellingham lively during the early spring. The festival included a parade down Cornwall Avenue, an elected Tulip Time queen, as well as a carnival at the old circus grounds (where Bellingham High School stands today). (6)
“By the end of the 1920s, the event had shriveled to crass commercialism”, said Jeff Jewell, a photo historian at Whatcom Museum of History and Art. (4)
The Tulip Time Festival (died) in 1929 just as the great depression began affecting the nation (immensely). After WWII, the spring festival re-emerged as the Blossomtime Festival.
“Blossomtime was more of a community event,” Jewell said. (6)
Bellingham’s economy was in need of some reassurance as the 1960s went on. While the Vietnam War was distracting most from recreation during 1966, Fred Elsethagen stepped up to the plate and proposed the idea of the Ski to Sea race.
“In search of a theme or activity that most closely represents an exclusive for this area, I would point to the old Bellingham slogan… “From Sea to Ski in Sixty Minutes””, wrote Elsethagen. (3)
Fred Elsethagen’s approach to the ski to sea was a glorious one. He pushed for a nine-legged race in the following order: beginning with a skiing leg, to a Mountaineering leg (touring), to a section on the Nooksack (canoeing, kayaking, or a skiff), to a horseback leg, to a waterskiing leg (Whatcom Lake), to a bicycle leg, to a runner, to a fishing boat, to a sail boat. This contingent concept was sought out by the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce and by 1973 the first ever Ski to Sea took place.
Fred’s letter: www.mountbakerclub.org/December12_1966_Letter_Ski_to_Sea_Formation.pdf (3)
The first Ski to Sea race began in 1970 overlapping with the Blossomtime festival. By 1973 the Blossomtime festival somewhat collapsed among the popularity of the race. 1977 brought a new name to the Blossom Time Festival, naming it the “Blossom Time Ski to Sea”. Six years later in 1983 the “Blossom Time” name was removed from the festival. Then, even, the parade was then labeled, “The Ski to Sea Parade”.
The actual rules set in 1973 (seven years after Elsethagen’s proposition) were a bit different than Fred’s initial plan. Nonetheless I consider Fred’s concept genius.
The race began near the Mount Baker ski resort, followed the Nooksack river west, consisting of seven total legs. Ninety-three miles (150km) later the race’s finish line was at Marine Park in Fairhaven. The race has been organized by Whatcom Events for the last forty two years, providing participants with an entire race committee devoted to maintaining the race’s professional aspect.
The Ski to Sea begins with a cross-country skier that passes on a token (contemporarily a timing chip) to a downhill skier. The downhill skier makes an 800 foot descent up a mountain near the Mount Baker ski resort, before skiing down to a runner. The runner heads eight miles West down Mt Baker Highway 542 where the token is passed on to a bicyclist. The road biker covers a total distance of forty-two miles before delivering the token to a two-man canoeing team. The canoeists head eighteen miles down the Nooksack River (second longest leg) where they then pass on the token to a mountain biker. The Mountain biking portion of the race was added in 1990, covering fourteen miles of forest from Hovander Park to Squalicum Harbor. The final segment of the race continues through Bellingham Bay via sea Kayaking. Kayakers beach their boats on the shores of Marine Park and run across the park where they ring a designated bell at the finish line completing the race.
The Ski to Sea has reached new levels of both competitiveness and exposure in the last decade. USA today covered the event bringing with it national exposure for Bellingham. (7) People have traveled from all around the world in order to formulate the utmost fastest teams in the race’s competitive division. Contestants now consist anywhere from high school athletes to Olympians.
“Begun in 1970, Ski to Sea reflects the various elements of Bellingham’s spring events over the years – part promotion, part competition, part just plain fun. Up to this point, there have been no 1,800-pound bulls.”
– Bonnie Hart Southcott (6)
The Mount Baker Marathon began a sector of Bellingham’s economy that persists outside the consumption of its natural resources of fisheries and the logging industry. There is an abundance of outdoor recreational shops, programs, and guides that contemporarily exist by cause of the local yearning for outdoor avocation.
The Mount Baker Marathon created a sense of enthusiasm for the venturing community of Bellingham because of its unique energy that was brought to the table during these erratic years of the 20th century. The young men of the Mount Baker Marathon pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion making them local heroes. These ideas and fundamentals that reflected such unprecedented uniqueness at the time had an influence on the town of Bellingham in a crucial sense. The contestants of the original Mount Baker Marathons received little exposure outside of their town, supporting the idea that these goals were set and conquered for the individual benefit and reward that came with it.
Joe Galbraith’s Daughter, Gail Galbraith Everett, spoke with the Herald in August of 2014, ”We’re glad the name Galbraith is helping to celebrate fitness and the joy of being in the mountains. Whatcom County has a history of promoting these values and we’re pleased to be part of it”. (5)
From personal experience, it seems that much of Bellingham’s elderly community, still hold on to the tales of the original Mount Baker Marathon as a relevant principal to Bellingham’s history. These fundamentals that keep Bellingham’s cultural aspects unique were born during the years of the Mount Baker Marathon, and still exist. Yet the original tales have been lost amidst the younger population of college students and outdoor enthusiasts. A very small percentage of Western’s students could tell you about the significance of the Mount Baker Marathon, yet a fairly decent percentage of Western’s students actually participate in the Ski to Sea race every year. All that matters is that the impact of the Mount Baker Marathon remains, and continues to develop, locally. The Mount Baker Marathon contributed to the idea that Bellingham isn’t just a place, but to some, it’s a lifestyle.
(1) Miles, John C. “The Marathons.” In Koma Kulshan: The Story of Mount Baker, 114-131. Seattle, Washington: Mountaineers, 1984.
(2) Roth, Lottie Roeder, ed. History of Whatcom County. Vol. 1. Chicago-Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926. 898-899.
(3) Elsethagen, Fred. “RE: Annual Community Celebration.” December 12, 1966. Accessed March 4, 2015. http://www.mountbakerclub.org/December12_1966_Letter_Ski_to_Sea_Formation.pdf.
(4) Converse, Kristin. “MT. BAKER MARATHON.” MT. BAKER MARATHON. Accessed March 3, 2015. http://www.whatcommuseum.org/v/vex18/.
(5) Relyea, Kie. “Historic Bellingham-to-Baker Run: Hot, Humid, Exhausting.” The Bellingham Herald. August 8, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2015. http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/08/08/3790578_historic-run-up-baker-and-back.html?rh=1.
(6) Southcott, Bonnie. “Mt Baker Marathon Inspired Ski to Sea.” The Bellingham Herald. October 20, 2003. Accessed March 4, 2015. http://www.bellinghamherald.com/special-pub/centennial/160528.shtml.
(7) Moore, David Leon. “Grueling Outdoor Adventure Race Blends Sportsmanship with Competitiveness – USATODAY.com.” Grueling Outdoor Adventure Race Blends Sportsmanship with Competitiveness – USATODAY.com. May 26, 2010. Accessed March 4, 2015. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/2010-05-25-ski-to-sea_N.htm.