Bellingham park faces big changes from coal-train traffic

Expanding rail capacity would mean shrinking a popular park.
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Boulevard Park in Bellingham

Expanding rail capacity would mean shrinking a popular park.

Bellingham's iconic Boulevard Park and Taylor Avenue Dock, much-loved by mothers with small children, strolling oldsters, and tourists, has had a long history with the BNSF Railroad and its predecessors, as the city morphed from a brawling cannery and logging town to one of the state's premier "green" communities.

Where an over-the-Bay walkway now stands, rail cars once dumped logs directly into the water for shipment to San Francisco. As historian Brian Griffin narrates in his Boulevard Park and Taylor Avenue Dock on the Waterfront, when the rails came in the 1880s they built along the Bellingham Bay waterfront all through the city, separating residents from their bay. The next century involved several efforts to breach the separation.

Boulevard Park was opened in 1980, a citizen effort spearheaded by the YWCA and Rotary Club; four key waterfront lots were purchased from BNSF and other access was acquired from private and public resources. In 2006 an old bridge over the original rail line was reconstructed as the Taylor Avenue Dock walkway, proving as popular as the park itself, which now included bandstand concerts, vintage auto shows, and more. The city has plans to extend the Dock beyond the park to connect over water to downtown.

BNSF tracks have always run adjacent to the park and dock, separating them from condominiums and apartments on the bluff overlooking the park. Residents have long learned to adapt to train horns at all hours, but the possibility of more than doubling the number of long freight trains in order to haul coal for export by ship to China has aroused controversy.

The city has a vulnerability on Boulevard Park: It purchased most of the land from the railroad in the 1970s, but when the park was built, part of the parking lot was placed on BNSF right-of-way without permission from the railroad. "We asked for permission and just never could get it through the railroad bureaucracy, so finally we just built the parking lot and sent them a thank-you note," recalls Byron Elmendorf, who was city parks director at the time. Ownership of a street crossing the railroad may be in a similar status.

Both the parking lot and the crossing would be closed under state plans for a second railroad track, eliminating vehicular access and bringing trains closer to the park's playground, concert stage, and coffee house.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.