Chuckanut Sandstone: The Bedrock of Whatcom County Geology and Architecture

Jerome Powell

In the shadow of the Cascades, the Chuckanut Formation
rises above Whatcom County’s lowlands and lies as far as 20,000 feet below.
This peculiar rock formed during the Eocene epoch—34-55 million years ago—when ancient
streams carried sediments (sand, silt, and clay) into floodplains. These
sediments solidified and rose as earthquakes transformed the low-lying plains
into the Chuckanut Mountains and hills we see today.

The Chuckanut Formation extends into British Columbia,
Skagit, and Snohomish Counties. Nearby Huntingdon, Swauk, Roslyn, Chumstick,
and Manastash Formations are closely related. The exact meaning of the Coast
Salish word “Chuckanut” is disputed, but it evidently refers to Chuckanut Bay for
its long tide and narrow entrance. From this bay originated the Chuckanut
sandstone that has been built into historic Bellingham structures and throughout
the Sound, marvelous in nature and architecture alike.

Natural History

The Chuckanut Formation displays remarkable physical
features. Sandstone on Whatcom County shores undergoes honeycomb weathering:
the formation of “tafoni,” pockets and holes that look like honeycomb. Tafoni
form when minerals come loose from the stone, expanding spaces between grains.
Erosion and weathering result from physical processes such as waves and wind
striking sediments against the stone. They also result from chemical processes,
as when combined water and carbon dioxide weaken minerals’ chemical bonds.

As Washington’s oldest state park, Larrabee receives thousands of visitors every year for its sandstone beaches and scenic woods. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

The Chuckanut Formation contains eons of fossilized
subtropical plants. These include ancestors of Whatcom County’s present-day
alders, sycamores, horsetails, and ferns. Fossilized palm fronds found here
predate the present-day palmetto native only to the southeastern United States.
Animal fossils are significantly rarer but include ancestors of herons, geese,
and other shorebirds. Visitors to Western
Washington University’s Geology Department
can view local fossils of
mammal, bird, and reptile footprints in Chuckanut sandstone.

Whatcom County tourists and locals enjoy finding Chuckanut
sandstone high above and below sea level. The Chuckanut mountains, Chuckanut
Drive, and Galbraith Mountain feature impressive cliffs. At Larrabee State
Park, Wildcat and Teddy Bear Coves, Chuckanut Bay, and Clayton Beach, sandstone
shorelines exhibit honeycomb weathering and tidepools. In Bellingham, the
sandstone outcrop behind Mount Baker
, tunnel on Sehome Hill, and walls at Boulevard Park are popular

Chuckanut Sandstone in Human History

Seattle’s 1892 Pioneer Building combines Chuckanut sandstone with red brick, cast iron, and terra cotta in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

The Chuckanut Formation has developed pockets of coal over
eons of plants decomposing in peat bogs and swamps. Local Coast Salish tribes
had known about the region’s coal since before settlers found it in upturned
tree roots. Bellingham (originally four towns) hosted three mining operations:
Pattle Mine under present-day Fairhaven in 1851, Sehome Mine under present-day
downtown from 1853 to 1878, and Bellingham Coal Mine under present-day
Birchwood from 1918 to 1955.

Early settler Henry Roeder established Chuckanut Stone Quarry
near Teddy Bear Cove in 1856, shipping sandstone building blocks by schooner over
Chuckanut Bay. It would become Roth Stone Quarry after Charles Roth married his
daughter, early historian Lottie Roeder Roth, and took the reins. During the
1880s railroad boom, the quarry transported sandstone by rail and barge to Seattle,
Tacoma, Olympia, Port Townsend, and Portland. As a member of the State
Legislature, Roth provided stone for most early government buildings.

Roth Stone Quarry supplied Chuckanut sandstone to rebuild
Seattle and San Francisco after their devastating fires in 1889 and 1906
respectively. Seattle’s Pioneer Square includes many buildings with sandstone
trim, most famously the Pioneer Building.

Bellingham’s Sandstone Buildings

The bridge overlooking the waterfalls at Whatcom Falls Park recycles Chuckanut sandstone arches from the demolished Pike Building. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

Most towering Chuckanut sandstone buildings from the
quarry’s heyday have disappeared. Bearing an onion-domed clock tower, the 1891
Lighthouse Block on Cornwall and Holly hosted banks and offices until
demolition in 1959. The Romanesque-style Sunset Block on East Holly and State
hosted banks, saloons, offices, and theaters from 1890 to 1971. Tenants of
Bellingham’s oldest extant building, T.G. Richards and Company Store, moved
into a now-demolished sandstone courthouse on G Street in 1891. The 1891 Pike
Block gained new life after burning in 1939: the Works Progress Administration
built Whatcom Falls Park’s bridge from its salvaged sandstone arches.

Two imposing sandstone strongholds remain in Bellingham: Lottie Roth Block and Bellingham Armory.

Named for Lottie Roth, the 1890 Holly Street building uses original Roth Quarry sandstone. Charles Roth commissioned Elmer H. Fisher, architect of Seattle’s Richardsonian Romanesque sandstone buildings. The commercial block originally included four divided storefront windows and has housed apartments since 1918.

Lottie Roth Block has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, undergoing interior renovations but maintaining its sandstone exterior. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

On North State Street, the 1910 Bellingham Armory attests to National Guard history. This castellated structure hosted training and military balls until World War II’s end, became a popular roller rink from 1953 to 1989, and commercial use in the present.

Many more Bellingham buildings sport Chuckanut sandstone
trim. The historic Roeder Home, which served the family since 1908, uses
Chuckanut sandstone from the quarry. The Daylight Building, Morse Hardware,
Poplar Terrace Apartments, and Whatcom Museum are among several sandstone-trimmed
buildings downtown. In Fairhaven, visitors can see Chuckanut sandstone on the
Knights of Pythias, Waldron Block, and Fairhaven Library buildings.

Standing tall and proud, Bellingham’s sandstone buildings are only the latest cornerstone in a history as old as the hills.

Boulevard Park has Chuckanut sandstone cliffs near the locally famous “tin rock”—a cannery’s melted pile of discarded tin atop more sandstone. Photo credit: Anna Diehl
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