Bellingham is a city of numerous greenspaces, any of which can be thoroughly enjoyed on warm spring days. But only one park is literally centered on what Americans solemnly observe each Memorial Day.
Located at the corner of East Maryland and King Streets, directly next to Sunnyland Elementary School, Memorial Park is Bellingham’s second-oldest park. As far back as 1889, The Bellingham Bay Improvement Company (BBIC)—formed by West Coast entrepreneur and Cornwall Park namesake Pierre Barlow Cornwall—had set aside about eight acres of land for the possible creation of a public park.
By 1903, the BBIC was platting residential streets north of Whatcom Creek and east of what’s now Cornwall Avenue, and the idea of beautifying the newly built area with a park was favorable. Still, the park land remained undeveloped. In 1909, the Bellingham Parks Department—having been previously gifted the land from the BBIC—plowed, leveled and seeded what was officially named “Sunnyland Park.”
It wasn’t until after World War I that the park was reconfigured as a memorial to local soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. A group of women called the Mother’s Club—an extension of the American Legion that comforted both veterans and mothers who’d lost children in wartime—raised funds to acquire the park and re-name it “Memorial Park.”
On May 30, 1919, Memorial Park was officially dedicated to “the soldiers and sailors from Whatcom County who paid the supreme sacrifice in the Great War,” the Bellingham Herald reported at the time. As what would become the Mothers of World War Veterans club tended to the park, additional features followed in subsequent years: sidewalks and shrubbery in 1920, along with about 90 dogwood trees—one for each county soldier lost in the war. A flagpole was also installed.
On Armistice Day (now Veterans’ Day) —November 11, 1922—a memorial archway designed by F. Stanley Piper, a local architect also responsible for the Bellingham National Bank Building, was dedicated at the park’s Maryland Street entrance.
An estimated 200 people attended the ceremony, which included the burying of a bronze box within the archway: in it contained an American flag, a preamble of the United States Constitution, several Mothers’ Club items, and copy of that day’s Morning Reveille newspaper.
Ninety-nine years later, this archway still stands.
In 1927, a bowl-shaped fountain, created by Clarence Irwin, was added as additional tribute to the fallen of World War I. The park shrunk slightly in 1956, when about a third of it was sold for just over $11,000 to the State of Washington to continue development of Interstate 5. Despite the loss of some park space, the 1960s construction of pedestrian walkways over the freeway created direct park access for nearby neighborhoods.
In 1996, the park’s fountain was re-painted by a local Eagle Scout troop and put into working condition after 10 years of non-use; the troop also cleaned memorial stones around trees at the park’s southern end.
In 2005, the most recent renovations to Memorial Park were added. A brick pathway lined with planters and benches was installed, leading from the memorial archway to the former fountain site. Each pathway brick contains the names of donors to the park project, which was organized by KGMI-AM 790, as well as the names of local veterans and those killed in action.
In place of the 1927 fountain are now large, polished granite slabs, assembled in a circle around a flagpole flying American and Prisoner of War/Missing in Action flags. Each slab is labeled for a specific war, and contains the names of individual soldiers killed in each conflict, from World War I to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The additions were formally dedicated on Veteran’s Day of that year.
As of 2011, a City of Bellingham brochure listed 30 different types of trees in Memorial Park, including six types of Maple, five types of Oak, three types of Cedar, and cherry and apple trees. Its greenspace is a pleasant place for a quiet walk or to run laps during the spring and summer, and its trees provide ample, picture-worthy foliage in autumn. The popular Railroad Trail also traverses past the park, which is maintained by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
All told, Memorial Park features the names of 389 Whatcom County soldiers who went off to war and never returned home: 90 from World War I, 241 from World War II, 26 from Korea, 28 from Vietnam, and 4 from the War on Terror (2 from Iraq, 2 from Afghanistan).
These 389 names represent less than 1% of the more than 621,000 total U.S. military deaths in the aforementioned conflicts, which in total claimed the lives of over 100 million people worldwide.
The next time you venture into Memorial Park, perhaps take a moment to quietly reflect on the men whose lives ended far too soon on battlefields thousands of miles from the place we call home.
Featured photo by Jack Carver, courtesy of Whatcom Museum