top of page


Site of Wah Lee's laundry


In 1885 three towns existed where present-day Bellingham is located. The three – Whatcom, Sehome and Fairhaven – merged in 1903-04, but in 1885 there was a small population of Chinese residents in what was then the town of Whatcom. Records show that there was only one Chinese-owned business − Wah Lee's laundry − plus a few dozen Chinese employed to clear land and as domestic servants for white residents.


In spite of the small impact the Chinese had on the local economy, the editors of the town's newspaper, The Reveille, relentlessly attacked the Chinese on the front page of their publication. Researchers have noted that the two editors, Thomas Nicklin and Will Jenkins, not only railed against Chinese immigrants, they led the local movement to have them expelled.


In late 1885, Nicklin, Jenkins and others, including Mayor E. H. Marcy, called a town hall meeting and organized a boycott of Wah Lee's laundry and of all businesses whose owners employed Chinese in any manner. An anti-Chinese group formed after that meeting began to harass Chinese residents by sending representatives into Chinese homes to look for "criminal acts."


Aware of the growing numbers of attacks on Chinese throughout the West, the local Chinese decided to leave town before someone was injured or killed. The newspaper said the last Chinese resident departed on November 7, 1885. That same evening white residents of Whatcom celebrated with "a grand torchlight parade", music and gun salutes.


Eventually the leaders of the expulsion, including Nicklin, were indicted by a federal grand jury for threatening the Chinese residents. However, the indictment was dismissed on a technicality, and none of those indicted ever went to trial.

Sources: Chin, Hildebrand, Johnson, Whatcom  Museum

About this site: An 1885 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map of Whatcom shows the Wah Lee's laundry located at the intersection of 17th and Division Streets. Division Street no longer exists, but it was located between C and D Streets. 17th Street is now Dupont Street. I was able to overlay of the 1885 map with present-day Bellingham to find the current location.


I am indebted to Paul Englesberg of Ferndale and Jeff Jewell of the Whatcom Museum for information about the Whatcom expulsion and the location of the laundry.

bottom of page