Whatcom County is bordered to its north by British Columbia, Canada, Skagit County to its south and Okanagan County to its east. The Salish Sea lies to the west and the Cascade Mountains rise to the east. Whatcom County ranges in elevation from sea level to a high point at 10,781 feet at the active volcano Mount Baker, also known as Kulshan. In geological times past, the Fraser River in the lower mainland of British Columbia had one arm extending down to Bellingham Bay, creating the flat geography of a delta plain in that area that makes for productive farmland for dairies and berry growing.
For thousands of years, Whatcom County has been home to people of the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish and Semiahmoo tribal groups. Fur trappers and traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company were the first non-native residents of the county. In the 1850s, Whatcom County experienced an economic and population boom propelled initially by coal mining, timber and agriculture.
Northwest Normal School, the predecessor to present day's Western Washington University (WWU) was established in Lynden in 1886. The northwest’s first high school was built in Whatcom County in 1890. This boom came to a halt in 1893 due to the national recession and the population in the Bellingham dropped to fewer than 50 individuals.
The 20th century brought in more prosperous times with increasing national demand for the abundant timber and salmon. Fish canning operations were a mainstay of the Whatcom County economy. The towns of Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham and Fairhaven joined together to form the county seat of Bellingham. Whatcom County is now a regional hub for northwest Washington. Bellingham is the biggest city (both by population and area) in the region.
Agriculture is a steadying influence in the northern parts of the county. Today, farms in Whatcom County make up 4.0 percent of Washington’s agriculture sales. Whatcom County’s agricultural production is diverse, with notable berry and milk production.
The largest contributors to GDP in Whatcom County include manufacturing (especially nondurable goods), real estate, government and healthcare.
Whatcom County is home to Western Washington University as well as two community and technical colleges. The university and colleges are in their own right major employers, and Bellingham consistently draws a large student population which contributes to the local service economy.
The proximity to the Canadian border has a strong influence on the Whatcom County economy. When the Canadian dollar is strong, it creates demand as Canadian shoppers seek retail bargains and real estate in Whatcom County and travel from the Bellingham International Airport. In addition to local constraints, the border was effectively closed to travel across the border, with exceptions for the transport of essential goods and services. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Whatcom County’s labor market to a slightly greater extent than the state as a whole due in part to the loss of cross-border traffic.
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