For thousands of years, picturesque Bellingham Bay has been a source of livelihood for those living along its coastline: from the native North Coast Indian tribes who sustained themselves off harvesting seafood, to early explorers in the 1700s and the integral Pacific American Fisheries of the early 20th century. The Bellingham Cruise and Ferry Terminal stands as a testament to the hard-working hands and industries that have shaped Whatcom County.
Located at the end of Harris Avenue, the present-day terminal is the gateway to thrilling excursions, such as San Juan Cruises, Gato Verde Sailing Adventures, Schooner Zodiac, and the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The sprawling brick building features stunning curved windows and glass rotundas overlooking the bay. Not only is it a great place to catch a boat, it also has a large upstairs event space, ideal for weddings, parties, and other special occasions. Completed in 1989, it stands by the shipyard of the former Pacific American Fisheries, which once reigned as the biggest salmon cannery in the world.
“It’s an anchor part of the Fairhaven waterfront. It’s got this great event space that a lot of people have been to or used,” says Mike Hogan, head of Public Administration at the Port of Bellingham.
Whether you’re looking for a daytime family outing, an adventurous getaway, or a romantic night on the water, the terminal offers several options.
For the nature enthusiast, Gato Verde Sailing Adventures and San Juan Cruises provide sailing and whale watching excursions for full-day or half-day outings. You can venture out on a paddle board with Gato Verde, or cruise along the San Juan Islands, Friday Harbor, or Anacortes with San Juan Cruises, where you’re guaranteed a 99% chance of spotting a whale and other wildlife.
“Going out to the San Juans to see the orcas, for people that don’t live around here, is absolutely phenomenal,” says Hogan.
History and sailing enthusiasts swoon over the Schooner Zodiac, an historic sailing vessel built in 1924.This elegant, 160-foot yacht is available for private charters for retreats, weddings, and parties, and also hosts several special event cruises throughout the year. Whether you want to take a leisurely day cruise for Mother’s Day, or an extended tour of the San Juan Islands, you’ll be enchanted by the vintage vessel and its luxurious wooden interior, delicious meals, and friendly, expert crew members – who might even let you take the wheel!
Even if you don’t venture far out of the bay, you’re still in for some stunning views. With its large, domed rotunda and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the water, it’s no wonder the event center is so sought-after.
“The ferry terminal was one of the first venues my fiancé and I looked at,” says bride-to-be Rachel Hower of Bellingham. “We were drawn to the huge dome-shaped windows that let in plenty of natural light, as well as the modern style of the building that made it easy to visualize our colors and decorations inside.”
While the current, modern building is a destination for over 200,000 travelers per year, the building owes its livelihood to its predecessor, Pacific American Fisheries.
Established in the 1890s, as the town of Fairhaven anticipated becoming a “boom town,” Pacific American Fisheries and several other canneries popped up. Unfortunately, Fairhaven’s boom never came to pass and it consolidated with the neighboring town of New Whatcom to become present-day Bellingham. Many of the canneries went under due to mismanagement or undercapitalization, but Pacific American Fisheries remained in business and grew to be the largest salmon cannery in the world by the 1940s, providing up to 4,500 local jobs.
“For decades, it was the defining industry of Fairhaven,” says Jeff Jewell, archivist at the Whatcom Museum.
With the success of Pacific American Fisheries, Bellingham saw growth in many new industries, such as foundries and boat building.
“When Pacific American Fisheries came around, that re-energized the community,” says Jewell.
Although Pacific American Fisheries closed its doors in 1965, the Port of Bellingham had their eyes on the horizon. Losing the fishery was an economic blow, but the Port continued to operate the can-labeling factory until the early 1980s, whenl construction on the new terminal began. On October 3rd, 1989, the Bellingham Cruise Terminal opened its doors and sailed the first inaugural cruise of the Alaskan Marine Highway System to Ketchikan, Alaska.
“It was a perfect fit on a site that needed economic activity,” says Hogan
If you find yourself near the bay on a Friday morning, it’s hard to miss the massive blue and yellow Columbia ferry docked in the Fairhaven Terminal, or the second vessel, the Kennicott. With two weekly sailings in the summer and one in the offseason (beginning in October), the Alaska Marine Highway transports 20,000 travelers per year. Because of the onslaught of tourists docking in historic Fairhaven, Jewell says that Fairhaven has become a tourist hub.
“People in Bellingham and Fairhaven are behind the ferry 100% and want to keep it coming here,” he says.
While local businesses come and go and the waterfront continues its natural changes, the Bellingham Cruise and Ferry Terminal seeks to keep one eye toward the future, and an anchor in the past. Without the innovation of those who came before us, there would be no port to come home to. Plans are underway to modernize the building for energy efficiency and add solar panels; there’s also a push to add more interactive history exhibits.
355 Harris Avenue
Bellingham, WA 98225
Open Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.