The resurrection of craft beer – after its Prohibition-induced death – is still in the fairly recent past. Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing Company in 1965, Jack McAuliffe started New Albion in 1976, and Sierra Nevada brewed its first batch of Pale Ale exactly 37 years ago, in November of 1980. The youth of the movement is even more apparent closer to home: of all our local breweries, only two have passed their tenth birthdays.
However: young breweries are rarely housed in young buildings. On the contrary, in fact: one of the wonderful things about the craft brewing movement is that it has breathed new life into some beautiful and storied old buildings. In our own community, we know the story of the brewers, and we know the story of the beer, but what about the story of the buildings? Often, when I’m savoring a pint at one of our local watering holes, I find myself looking around – at the exposed beams, the old wood floors, the repurposed garage doors, the quirkily placed windows – and asking, “I wonder what this place used to be?”
If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, then read on. In this series of articles, you’ll discover the backstories to our beloved Bellingham brewery buildings. What story do these buildings tell? Why did these brewers choose them as the location for their own stories?
In this installment, we learn about a meat packing plant turned brewpub.
Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro has the curious distinction of being the first, the third, and the oldest craft brewery in Bellingham. It is the creation of Ed Bennett, a University of Washington alum who went on to earn his Master’s degree in winemaking from UC Davis (where he also took classes in their renowned malting and brewing program) before returning to the Northwest. His love of the Western part of the state moved him away from wine and toward beer, and after having fallen in love with the small college-town feel of Davis, Ed decided that Bellingham was the ideal place for the next stage of his career. When the Thomas Burns building at 1107 Railroad Ave. became available in November of 1993, Ed knew that would be the place. He signed the lease in January 1994 and began construction that July. At the time, Bellingham was a craft beer desert, and Boundary Bay would become its oasis.
Ed wasn’t the only one with his eye on developing a Bellingham beer scene, though, and in the time that it took to build Boundary Bay, two other craft breweries popped up: Orchard Street (in an industrial park off Meridian just past Cornwall Park) and Mount Baker Brewing (now Bellingham Bar & Grill on Cornwall Ave). So, by the time that Boundary Bay opened its doors on September 16, 1995, it was the third brewery in the city. Mount Baker Brewing only lasted about a year, though, and Orchard Street closed its doors in 2004, which left Boundary Bay to occupy its curious and wonderful role as first-permitted, third-built, and yet oldest craft brewery in town.
Part of the explanation for this odd status is, in fact, the building that houses the brewery, which required 14 months of work in order for it to be successfully converted into a convivial brewpub.
Boundary Bay’s home is a historic building in the heart of downtown Bellingham, directly across the street from the Depot Market Square, which currently hosts the Bellingham Farmers Market but which at one point hosted an actual train depot (it was demolished in 1945). This is, of course, where Railroad Ave. gets its name, and is the reason that the street is so much wider than the other streets in the downtown corridor.
The building at 1107 Railroad Ave. is the Thomas Burns building, as indicated by a copestone at the top of the façade, which also dates the building to 1922, though the building’s first tenant – Swift & Company Meat Packing – seems not to have moved in until 1925. Thomas Burns (1860-1926) was something of a mover-and-shaker in the early days of the city: he owned Bellingham Bay Iron Works and was the President of the Whatcom Machinery Depot, which was located just down the road from the building that today bears his name. (You can see a picture of the Machinery Depot here.) He had the building at 1107 Railroad constructed specifically so that it could be used by Swift & Company.
But Swift & Company was just the first in a long list of tenants at the Thomas Burns Building. According to the R. L. Polk Bellingham City Directories, shortly after Swift & Company moved out in 1933, Bellingham Transfer & Storage moved in. And it was during the WWII era that the building acquired its first association with alcoholic beverages, since for approximately eight years it was home to the Crown Distribution Company. An ad that ran in a 1941 issue of the Bellingham Herald reads, “Attention! Beer Dispensers. The Crown Distribution Company is now Bellingham distributor for Rhinelander, the Beer of the Century. 1107 Railroad Avenue, Bellingham.” Another notable tenant, not completely unrelated to the enjoyment of tasty beer, was the Hart Novelty Co., maker of arcade games and pinball machines, who occupied the building for much of the 1950s. (Hart’s previous location was, believe it or not, 1420 N. State St., the modern-day home to Structures.)
Directly before it became the pioneering brewery we know and love, however, the Thomas Burns building was home to Steve’s Body Firm, a body building club owned by Stephen Peterson, a bodybuilder and photographer, who actually ran a photography studio in what is now the foyer to Boundary Bay. The club operated from 1980 until 1993, when Ed Bennett, who was living in Seattle at the time and scouting buildings up and down the I-5 corridor, noticed the availability of the building and said, “This is it.”
So why did it take fourteen months to get the building in shape? Well, Ed’s love for the location wasn’t just based on its being in the heart of downtown; it was also the ambience that Ed wanted to preserve – the old wooden floorboards, in particular. The problem was that many of those floorboards had been covered up by multiple layers of concrete and asphalt over the years, which needed to be removed to let the building’s personality shine through once again. In total, Ed ended up having to remove 46 tons of concrete from the interior of the building (where the taproom is now). That in itself would have been an enormous task, but the task was even further complicated by the way in which it had to be removed. Since it had been poured over the old floors that Ed wanted to preserve, each bit of concrete had to be broken up and then carefully brushed off before being loaded into a truck, so that stray rocks wouldn’t cause any damage to the wooden floors underneath.
Ed himself played a pivotal role in overseeing the restoration work. In fact, when he went to the city to file for the permits to start construction and he was asked for the name of the general contractor, he chuckled and responded, “Well, I guess that’s me.” Did he have any experience with that sort of work? “No, but I can probably figure it out.” Exuding confidence is something that craft brewers tend to be especially good at, and when Ed says he can figure something out, you can’t help but believe him. 46 tons of concrete later, Ed and his team had restored the original ambience of the building, something that Ed still sees as one of the best things about the location.
Since Boundary Bay opened in 1995, it has undergone several stages of expansion. It now occupies not just 1107 Railroad, but several other adjoining lots as well. One of those expansions brought us the much-loved beer garden, which was completed in the early 2000s and now is one of the most enjoyable places to enjoy a summer evening in Bellingham. Back in the early 1920s that area was occupied by buildings that housed the Freeman Transfer Company (movers), and the MacKenzie Waterhouse Company (a manufacturer of car parts). In fact, the next time you are at Boundary, head into the men’s restroom and take a look at the old photo hanging over the sinks. There you can see the early days of Railroad Ave, including the train depot, the Thomas Burns building, and the MacKenzie Waterhouse building, where the beer garden now is. (The photo itself is courtesy of the Whatcom Museum; here’s a photo of the photo.)
But perhaps less well-known than the beer garden is the event space called the Mountain Room, named after the original tasting room at the old Rainier Brewery in Seattle, where tours would end with a celebratory drink. Ed has fond memories of visiting that tasting room when he lived in Seattle during college, so when he heard that they were closing and selling off some things, he went to check it out and discovered that one of the things being auctioned off was the original bar from the tasting room. Ed got lucky, and now the bar from the original Rainier Mountain room gives his own Mountain room a deep connection to Northwest brewing history.
According to Joe Hoppis, a local real estate agent with a well of knowledge about commercial brewery buildings, one of the key virtues of Bellingham’s downtown that makes it an attractive place to open a brewery is its walkability, and Boundary Bay certainly gets its fair share of foot traffic. (It sells a significant proportion of its pints on site.) Given its proximity to the Depot Market Square, the university, and the rest of downtown, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. In choosing 1107 Railroad, it seems Ed Bennett chose wisely. And we’re all better off for it.