T.G. Richards & Co. Building in Whatcom

A Brief History of Whatcom and the T.G. Richards & Co. Building
Captain Roeder
The building's construction
An observation of the miner's departure
Unionville
Richards and Hyatt
The building during statehood
The Territorial Courthouse Taskforce
Author's Note

This information was provided courtesy of Matthew Aamot, President of the Whatcom County Historical Society.

A Brief History of Whatcom and the T.G. Richards & Co. Building

The building circa 1880s

In 1858 the infant settlement of Whatcom experienced a surge in population that has never been seen since. Thousands of miners poured into the town on their way to the gold rush on the Fraser River. With a trail being cut through the woods to Whatcom, optimistic promoters billed the town as "the next San Francisco."

Quick to take advantage of the miners' business, mercantile interests appeared overnight. The partnership of Thomas G. Richards and Company counted among those entrepreneurs investing in Whatcom's future. This organization consisted of Thomas G. and Charles E. Richards, brothers; and John G. Hyatt-all from San Francisco.

The land on which their brick warehouse was built lay on the tide flats at the foot of the hills overlooking Bellingham Bay and the Roeder-Peabody sawmill. Alonzo M. Poe surveyed Richard's new property which was part of Russell V. Peabody's claim, the partner of Henry Roeder in the sawmill venture where Whatcom Creek meets the sea.

On July 5, 1858 the deed selling "lot number twelve in block five...having a front on E and Centre Street" was recorded, and Mr. Peabody received $600 from the sale. About this time, the company also purchased the middle plot of land between Centre and D streets where a wood-framed store was built to sell goods during construction of the brick warehouse.

About this time John G. Hyatt became Whatcom's second postmaster, and "provided a hundred boxes, at private expense, for the accommodation of the public." The post office was later transferred to the brick store where it remained until January 1873. Charles continued the duties of postmaster after John until January 1, 1860.

The Northern Light published the first account of the brick building's beginning on July 24, 1858.  It noted that a load of bricks arrived for the Richards partnership from San Francisco and they "are clearing the ground for the erection of a two story brick store and banking house."

Early photo of 'downtown' Whatcom, circa 1870s

The building cost roughly eight thousand dollars, and the bricks used in the structure were made in Philadelphia and shipped as ballast around South America to San Francisco. And with the completion of this brick warehouse, a new era of architecture began in Washington Territory.

The boom in Whatcom ended as quickly as it began. Governor Douglass in Victoria decreed that all miners headed to the Fraser River must stop in Victoria first and pay for a permit. With the departure of the miners, previously expensive lots had no takers even when marked as free.

Charles E. Richards and John G. Hyatt continued business in the building until 1861. Many transactions were recorded during this time, dealing with selling fractions of shares of ownership in the building and business back and forth. On January 12, 1859 Charles sold to John the "one half part of the one-third part of the lot and buildings" for a sum of $1000.

Also during this time, Richards and Hyatt both married Native American women from the local tribes. Charles wed a Nooksack woman named Annie and had one or two children. John married Emma, a Lummi girl and had a son, John G. Hyatt Jr.

Back of building, 1884

C.C. Finkbonner was also mentioned in association with Richard's and Hyatt's enterprise during this time; The "Northern Light" listed him as a competing merchant across the street from the Richards and Hyatt building.  Another person affiliated with the building was Edward Watson, an associate of William Bausman who accompanied him north to start the "Northern Light." Watson remained in Whatcom and worked for Richards and Hyatt for a time. One famous person to visit the brick building was George Pickett while stationed at Fort Bellingham. George Pickett occasionally visited the Richards and Hyatt building since he lived up the street.

In 1861 the Richards and Hyatt partnership seemed to have dissolved with John Hyatt selling his share of the building to Richards for $2,000 and his share of the merchandise for $3,000. Charles Richards continued the store operations and invested in a coal mining venture when he bought the old Morrison Donation Claim with Seth Doty. The pair spent as much as $40,000 trying to make it profitable, but the attempt was unsuccessful. The small settlement of Unionville, with a wharf, store house and coal chutes, owes its short existence to this venture.

On May 6, 1863 the county government purchased the brick building to use as its courthouse. The first and second courthouses were log buildings and rather shabby. The move would give Whatcom County the first brick building courthouse in all of Washington.

Being short on cash, the county issued warrants worth $2,000 to Richards as payment for the courthouse. Being short on cash himself, Richards sold the warrents to William Moody for roughly 20 to 40 cents on the dollar. In Sheriff James Kavanaugh's diary from that time, he records August 28th as the date "C.E. Richards has sold the remains of everything in this store."

The new county courthouse provided offices for the county treasurer, county assessor and other key players in Whatcom city's history. Henry Roeder, Edward Eldridge, and many other founders of the community frequented the building.

Photo by William Boyd, fall of 1888

During a period of economic recession, the courthouse was described as "full of goods seized on attachment and on orders of execution." It also served as a polling place and the site of many heated political campaigns and discussions. The building also sheltered commercial interests; one was a drug store run by Dr. A.W. Thornton.

In 1873 James Powers published the <Bellingham Bay Mail> in a corner of the building. In a later interview, Powers recalled, "I would work an occasional prisoner on the press." The jail was located on the bottom floor and had held such local scalawags as "Dirty Dan" Harris, imprisoned for killing a man in a brawl.

In 1875 the courthouse underwent some repairs and the floors were partitioned into various offices. In February of 1877, repairs were made to the lower floor. In January 1879 the county commissioners decided to build a separate jail to alleviate overcrowding in the brick building. About 1888 the building was pronounced as unsafe for further county business and an opera house was used instead.

Earliest known photo of Whatcom, circa 1870s

Captain Roeder

D.W. Arthur, Mrs. Hallie Lysle Campbell, Hugh Eldridge, Victor Roeder, 1939

Capt. Henry Roeder was born in Germany, emigrated to Ohio with his parents, and became a sailor at 16 on the Great Lakes. He came to Whatcom in December 1852 with Peabody to start a sawmill. Russell V. Peabody met Roeder in the gold rush days in California and came north with him to Bellingham Bay. Their sawmill, never a very prosperous affair, operated off and on until 1873 when it burned. Roeder served as County Commissioner for Whatcom and later returned to California, dying there in 1868.

The building's construction

The publisher of the newspaper must have been in a good spot to observe the progress of this task; it is believed the Northern Light was headquartered directly across the street from the new store. Based upon a note in Howard Buswell's papers found at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, James Alexander built the warehouse.

In the July 31st edition of the paper, the "two story brick building of T.G. Richards & Co., commenced a week ago, is progressing finely. The walls have gone up some six or eight feet, and have received the joist for the first floor. The iron shutters and doors are on the ground, so that no delay will be occasioned in carrying the edifice forward to speedy completion."

On August 28, 1858 the Northern Light had this to say:

"Nearly Finished – The fine two story fire-proof brick building of T.G. Richards & Company on E Street is so far completed as to require only a few finishing touches to render it fit for occupancy, and will be inaugurated by the reception of a stock of groceries and provisions in a few days."

An observation of the miner's departure

In the words of editor William Bausman when he left for San Francisco in the fall of 1858, "Whatcom has gone in, and the (Northern) Light has gone out." "Nearly all of the best buildings were taken down and carried to Victoria, leaving the two story brick, built by Richards and Hyatt, standing as the solitary monument of departed grandeur."

Unionville

Unionville was located between the Sehome mines, now downtown Bellingham (State, Railroad Avenues) and Fairhaven. There are apartment buildings on it now.

Richards and Hyatt

On Aug. 28th 1863, Charles not only sold his store, he also gave power of attorney to Sheriff Kavanaugh to handle his coal mining claim in Unionville. It appears he left the area, leaving Kavanaugh and C. Finkboner to handle his affairs. His wife, Annie and children were left behind to fend for themselves.  It was noted in Phoebe Judson's "A Pioneer's Search for an Ideal Home" that Annie was the only Indian known to commit suicide in this area. Her children were raised in the Nooksack village near Lynden, and after attending a church-sponsored college in Boston, her son Jack Richards became a noted industrialist in the East.

John Hyatt, Jr.

John Hyatt's fate is not well documented. It is known he took part in the state government in May of 1861; perhaps he followed Isaac Stevens to the East and perished in the Civil War. His family was left in Whatcom County, an all-too frequent happening during that time. Emma, his wife, later married James H. Taylor, the hardy pioneer who helped build the schooner "General Harney" on the shores of Bellingham Bay and settled down on a farm in Marietta. The Taylor family still has descendants in this area.

His son, John Jr., lived out his life on the farm in Marietta and took care of his mother. Emma was buried in the Lummi Tribal cemetery, being an upper-class member of the tribe. Her son lived until October 15, 1934 when he died at the home of his half sister in Bellingham. He was cremated and an internment place is not known. John Jr. was a member of the Spiritualist church at that time; perhaps if there are any records to be found from that group, more of his activities in later life might be known.

The building during statehood

A new courthouse was finished in 1890 and stood at G and Ellsworth streets. The Richards & Co. building stood vacant until being sold to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veteran's organization that also included the Women's Auxiliary. It was run by James B. Steadman and its members included such illustrious citizens such as J.J. Edens and Ellery Rogers and included veterans from many different Northern states.

G.A.R. Hall, J.B. Steadman Post #24, circa 1905-1924

The James B. Steadman Post #24 occupied the building until 1922 when it was sold to Jasper M. Riddle, a local road and sidewalk construction contractor. Many sidewalks in Bellingham still bear his name etched into the concrete poured so long ago. Mr. Riddle gave the building to a lodge called the "Junior Order of American Mechanics," whose members were not junior in age and had little to do with mechanics. The organization had its lodge meeting room in the upstairs (street level) floor, where Mr. Riddle's grandson Bill Brooks remembers it smelling like "cigar smoke and spittoons." The lower floor was used as a dining room for the occasional meal that followed the meetings.

In 1937 the Survey of Historic American Buildings came through and plotted out a complete map of the building.

Later the Jehovah's Witness church held services in the building.

The building when it housed the Akers Taxidermy shop

The more current history of the building and the key for its eventual preservation began when Carl and Nicki Akers purchased the building in 1955 from the Jehovah's Witness. Through the years, the Akers Taxidermy shop was a familiar business to Whatcom County sportsmen. After the business outgrew the building, the Akers rented it out to Base Camp, a woodworking shop and several pottery studios. Carl and Nicki succeeded in having the building listed with the Washington State Historical Register and now have offered the building to the Whatcom County Historical Society.

The Territorial Courthouse Taskforce

In 2001 the Territorial Courthouse Taskforce was formed to develop recommendations to preserve the building. Some sort of interpretive display will be included in the restoration to chronicle the early history of Whatcom and the various uses the building has seen through the years. The building's history is still being researched and written with more help being needed specifically on the period it was used as a courthouse. Anyone with memories or photographs of the building or with more information on its history is encouraged to contact a member of the Taskforce. Partnerships with community groups are being sought to advise and help the project along. It seems that the old red brick building will have a new lease on life and will be around to witness the next century of Bellingham's history, as it has for the past 144 years.

Author's Note

Map of 1885

The history as I have recorded it is based upon research from many sources, including Lottie Roth's "History of Whatcom County," Lelah Jackson Edson's "The Forth Corner," P.R. Jeffcott's "Nooksack Tales and Trails," Howard Buswell Collection at the Center of Pacific Northwest Studies and newspaper accounts from the "Northern Light," "Bellingham Bay Mail" and "The Bellingham Herald." Photographs accompanying this article may be attributed to the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, (special thanks to Jeff Jewell and Toni Nagel for their assistance) and to the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, P.R. Jeffcott and Howard Buswell collections. Diagrams and photographs of the 1937 Historic American Buildings Survey may be found on the Internet at the Library of Congress website; search for Whatcom County, Washington and the T.G. Richards building. Special thanks to local researchers Rosamonde Van Miert, Wes Gannaway, and Jim Doidge for their assistance. I welcome any corrections and additions to this article and beg your patience if I have made an incorrect statement.