Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Fire on Railroad Avenue

In the early morning of Feb 18, 2019, one of the coldest nights of that year in Bellingham, a homeless man started a fire behind 1324 Railroad Avenue to keep warm.The fire spread to the building, damaging 1314, 1324, and 1322 Railroad. These buildings comprised Hohl’s Feed and Seed (1322 and 1324), which had become by 2019 a pet and pet supply store, and an at-the-time vacant space (1314).

The pet store next door, Clark Feed & Seed at 1326 Railroad, was without power for 18 hours, but by some minor miracle the astonishing fish collection housed therein survived unharmed.

The truck is loaded with broken remnants of the poured concrete pads under the buildings. Time to drive off. This is pretty much the end of the story here.

5 months later, a second fire started in 1326 Railroad, which spread to the record store at 1330, and gutted both storefronts. Firefighters were able to save a handful of bettas, but all the remaining fish perished.

The remains of 1314 Railroad, looking east from Railroad Ave. A small part of the foundation is visible in the center of the frame, the north wall near the back of the building. A couple feet of brick more or less underground. The cylinder with the lifting chain was always on site, some sort of ad hoc wrecking ball, I think.

Clark Feed & Seed maintained large salt water environments, and were home to a puffer fish, to various Nemos and Dorys, corals, shrimp, anemones, and lots and lots of goldfish. Bettas lived everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the store, hanging motionless in little plastic cups stacked one on another. The employees knew where all the stacks were, and took care of the fish.. Clark’s was the kind of store which would refuse to sell you an accessory you did not need, or a fish you were not yet worthy of. The best kind of store, with a dimly lit wonderland of colorful fish, and in the back under a heatlamp behind a sign reading Employees Only, a horrifying box of what I think were crickets. Lots and lots of crickets.

Avalon Records and Clark Feed & Seed, despite the modern-appearing exterior, was indeed an old brick building (1908) with a stone foundation. These are two of the the cornerstones, roughly shaped, chisel marks still visible.

The Fish Store was a destination for kids in Bellingham, for years. The interior was thoroughly cave-like, dark and moist to the point of dankness, a welter of plumbing and tools and supplies all but hidden in the murk behind the tanks. But the tanks. 100s of them, many of them 100s of gallons in size, each a glowing circus of jewels. Feeder fish here, a churning mass of koi there, a reef here and look, there’s Dory. They specialized in cichlids, whatever those are. A sort of fish, apparently. 13,000 gallons of tanks all told.

This building was destroyed in the second fire, the evening of July 17, 2019, and only the bettas, mentioned before, were saved. This same fire also destroyed irrevocably Avalon Records on the corner.

Looking north across the sites of 1314, 1324, and 1322 Railroad Ave at the steam plant behind Vienna Cleaners. To the left, west of the steam plant, the space formerly occupied by Clark and Avalon. The concrete pad is intact here but was shortly broken up and replaced with gravel pending an unknown future.

Demolition began in August of 2019, and was concluded in May of 2020. Asbestos mitigation, as well as certain structural challenges slowed the process down.

Looking east from Railroad Avenue, through the gap between Vienna Cleaner's and their steam plant. The empty space behind the chain link fence was occupied until early 2020 by Clark Feed & Seed's building.

To understand the history here, we should spend a little time with the history of Railroad Avenue, which runs through the heart of downtown Bellingham. In the late 1800s, as now, the main line of the railroad ran along the coastline. It runs often literally only yards from Puget Sound, or even on a causeway crossing some little bay or inlet. Bellingham earned a branch line that ran northeast up through downtown, looped around north of town, and turned south to end at Lake Whatcom 300-odd feet above sea level.

Clark Feed & Seed, seen from the south. The roof has been knocked down, asbestos abated sufficiently, and the contents of the building organized sufficiently for disposal. Vienna's steam plant is barely visible at the right of the frame.

Bellingham was a commercial destination of sorts, supporting the agricultural efforts inland, and the lake served the forestry industry. Bellingham’s branch line carried agricultural and timber products to and fro.

The cylinder of destruction.

Railroad Avenue was a central exchange area, a sort of narrow extended switchyard, with a small switchyard proper at the north end of it. There were up to 4 tracks running down the avenue, as well as space for cars, trucks, carts and wagons. A single track ran down the alley behind the warehouses and feed stores that were to become the two pet stores, and the record shop. Four tracks in front, plus parking and car lanes, one track behind with little sidings to serve this warehouse or that. The tracks in the alley are still there, long disused. The last track on Railroad Avenue itself was dismantled in 1987, but the center of the street still features wide islands where that last track lay, flanked by diagonal parking, then the traffic lanes, and more diagonal parking in front of the storefronts. It’s a wide street.

Masked and suited up to take Clark Feed & Seed apart. Asbestos.

The building at 1322 Railroad was the main entrance to Hohl’s Feed & Seed. It was built in 1902 with investment from Spokane, and was henceforth called The Spokane Building. It was a two story brick structure, with a retail space/commercial on the main floor, and rooms to let upstairs. Later, the rooms upstairs were operated as a hotel, reputedly as a brothel. By 2019, the upper floor was sitting vacant, by all appearances used as a storage area.

The interior of Clark's. Gutted by fire, in the process of being torn apart and sorted for disposal. The leashes still hanging on the wall display got to me. I have quite a few pictures of merchandise in the store. This was pretty tough to photograph.

Business end of the excavator, inside Clark's. The mist is mostly water-spray, keeping the toxic dust and fibers controlled.

The building next door to the south, designated street address 1324 in the county records, seems to have been added as warehouse space in 1914, to support the feed and seed operations that have always occupied the main floor. Curiously, the address, 1324 lies in the direction that address numbers ought to decrease. The city and county records were updated, as this was noticed during the fire investigations in 2019 and 2020. 1324 seems to have been a kind of phantom address, existing only in certain records.

Looking northwest, from Railroad, at the south wall of Clark's (Hohl's is completely gone). Excavator tearing down the remains of Clark's roof, as well as sorting and stacking the contents of the store in ways that apparently made sense, but appeared to the inexpert eye completely random. Note the water spray, a vertical pipe with a fitting on top misting down the area to keep toxic dust down.

This building, 1324, filled in the space between the Spokane building and a third building further south, 1314 Railroad Ave, itself built in 1900. 1324 housed, among other things, the Barron Tire company which sold Siebling brand tires in, at least, the 1950s. They offered both “recapping” and “vulcanization” services for tires.

Boarded up entrances to Avalon Records, and Clark's. The two storefronts contained in the old Pless warehouse building, from 1908. Plastic sheeting contained the asbestos abatement activities, apparently.

Looking south and slightly east, from the alley east of the site. Next to Vienna Cleaner's, looking at the last fragment of the north and only remaining wall of the Spokane Building, 1322 Railroad, the former home of Hohl's Feed & Seed. The weird bird says "You can't unsee me" on its belly, and is part of the Bird Alley mural.

1314 Railroad seems to have operated as a separate space, owned by the same general group of families that own all these buildings, but under a different system of trusts and corporate entities until 2018 when it was rolled up into the holding company that holds all (or portions of all) of the others. Most recently, it housed a sausage and pretzel shop from 2007 until that last sale, and stood unused until the fire destroyed it.

Speaking of the Bird Alley mural, here is a guide to it. The mural was painted across backs (east side, alley side) of a number of buildings and structures, all lost in the fire. The previous photograph is taken from, roughly, the center of the top edge of this diagram, looking south.

All three buildings, 1314, 1324, and 1322, were damaged beyond repair by the fire in February.

Equipment standing on the concrete pad underlying the now removed Spokane Building, where Hohl's was.

South wall of the Spokane Building, the exterior walls of the top floor have been removed, leaving mostly just burned interior framing materials standing up over the ground floor. The next stages will knock all this in, and remove the ground floor. Note the cockatiel. The owls and ducks that were south of it along the back wall of 1324 Railroad have all been removed with that building, at this point. We'll have a look at the mural on the back of the Spokane building shortly.

Beginning work on those exterior walls of the upper floor of the Spokane Building, from the front (Railroad Ave) side. The warehouse at 1324 has been removed.

To the north of the Spokane building, occupying both 55 foot lots between it and the corner of Magnolia and Railroad, Curt Pless built a warehouse for his own feed company in 1908. He subsequently left his wife, vanished, and turned up in Norfolk, Virginia. When discovered he reconciled with, and shortly after again abandoned his wife. His building eventually passed into the hands of Clark Feed & Seed, at that time an actual feed company.

The warehouse at 1324 is largely demolished at this point. Note the cockatiel, but also the "birds of a feather flock together" text that appeared at the rear of 1324.

Later a 40 foot storefront on the corner was sectioned off of the Pless warehouse's 110 feet of street frontage, and operated as a record store. First, Budget Tapes and Records perhaps starting in 1978, and then from 1987 to 2019 as Avalon Records. At approximately, perhaps exactly, that same time the last owner of Clark, Larry Oltmann, took over the business. The Clark name remained with Larry, in the 70 foot storefront along Railroad, and it became in the fullness of time a pet store specializing in fish.

Working in the largely demolished center area of 1324 among the still standing concrete supports, a worker cuts metal scrap apart. 1324 had a lot of defunct metal grain handling apparatus. Various supports and panels for these structures appear here and there, and the large grain hopper at the rear of the building was painted with pigeons as part of the Bird Alley mural.

A repeat of the "birds of a feather" text, with the remains of ducks from the mural, as well as another view of the leftover pillars from the 1324 warehouse. The cockatiel is just out of frame to the right. The RICE RAGE graffiti (not part of the mural) is on the second story of the Spokane Building, above the former roof line of the 1324 building.

At the time of the fires, Clark and Hohl’s were among the longest running continuously operated stores in Bellingham. As far as I can determine, each of them was, essentially, a continuously operating feed store operation from inception (1908 and 1902 respectively) until their respective fiery conclusions in February and July of 2019. The “feed” portion of the businesses waxed and waned, and shifted from cattle and chicken feed to rabbit and fish feed, but I dare say hay and straw were available in some quantity or another on almost any day of the 20th century, and onwards until 2019.

A little time with the Bird Alley mural. The exterior walls of the upper floor of the Spokane building have been removed at this point, so we're just seeing the lower reaches of much of the mural (some upper material on the 1324 building was lost in the fires, as well).

Details from the upper story of the Spokane Building, before the upper exterior walls were removed.

Equipnment details, because I love this stuff. There's that RICE RAGE graffiti again.

In the alley behind all these buildings, local artist Shawn Cass painted a complex of murals featuring birds, from about mid 2016 for the next couple of years. There were 100 birds, or near enough, by the time he was done, mostly well over life size, and a handful of whimsical signs and other illustrations tucked in here and there. But mostly, it was birds out back in the alley.

Bird Alley mural, various angles, while the upper exterior walls of the Spokane Building remained intact. Most of these are taken from the alley, looking west, but the last is from the parking lot, south of the 1314 building (former home of El Capitan's sausage and pretzels) , looking north at the "WELCOME TO BIRD ALLEY -->" text.

The building housing 1330 (Avalon Records) and 1326 (Clark Feed & Seed) Railroad, and the contents of both stores, were lost in the 2019 fires, and as of this writing is a neatly prepared gravelled lot, awaiting what future we know not.

Equipment is moved in to place, work begins on the interior demolition of 1314 and 1324 Railroad, the two warehouse buildings at the south end of the complex destroyed by fire. Note the pirate eating a sausage, on the south wall of 1314, the logo of El Capitan.

The cause of the fire is at present officially unknown. What is present in the Fire Marshall's report suggests strongly that the fire originated behind a wooden desk in the upstairs storage room at Clark's. A circular charred region on a lower horizontal surface of the desk, with no electrical or other external sources of likely ignition seems the likely point of origin. The report does not speculate further. It seems obvious to the reader, though, that someone dropped something hot behind the desk some time in the afternoon or early evening of July 17, 2019. Perhaps someone nipped upstairs for an illicit smoke before closing. Perhaps someone repaired some electronics with a soldering gun. Regardless, something hot fell back there.

This was taken the day demolition began, but the Spokane Building pretty much looked like this from the day after the first fire, in February, onwards.

The Fire Marshall's report also notes that the main floor of Clark's, where the fish were, was largely undamaged by the fire. The fire seems to have moved horizontally to the upper floor of Avalon, where it burned through the floor, destroying that store entirely. Unfortunately, Clark's was not deemed safe to enter for 5 days, by which time all the fish were lost.

The day after the second fire, that destroyed Avalon Records and Clark's. Very little additional damage was visible in Clark's, which had few windows and was pitch black inside on good days. Avalon's roof, though, had collapsed, letting in plenty of light. The destruction was obvious, and thorough.

The murals survived the fires largely intact, but were, of course, demolished with the buildings they were painted on.

The only really visible sign of damage to Clark's, from street level, was a plume of black soot visible from the alley, where the building met the Vienna Cleaner's building. For a little while we hoped the fish might have survived a second fire.


  1. Your color work puts the black and white in the shade, so to speak.

    1. It's only good because the muralists are good. I'm just standing in front of their pictures mashing a button like a dummy.

    2. That might have some validity if you were just documenting the murals with straight-on shots, and carefully eliminating all extraneous matter -- that's not what you were doing.

      I think you understand pictorial composition better on an instinctual level (for lack of a better word), rather than on an intellectual level. Roll with it. And stick with the color.

    3. That's very kind of you, I think. Thank you!

  2. Really, really enjoyed this. I'm a great fan of graffiti, and of this kind of local humanistic geography. Also I've been through the city many times long ago and have a feel for the old parts of it. One point: Photo #22 seems a good place to begin. Earlier I was wanting the regular realtor's view from across the street, although from your descriptions I had a pretty good image in my head by then anyway. And, is northwest Washington a hotbed of exotic pet dealing? I seem to recall that was the case many years ago.

    1. Thank you!

      I did intend at one point to open with an across-the-street view pulled from Google Street View, but by the time I got the core of the thing together there were just So Damn Many Photos..

      If I get around to it (I have to sit with it a while) I will make a small book out of this, with the historical/forward narrative on the right hand pages, and the demolition/reversed story on the left pages.

      At that point, since photos take up Way More Space than text, I'll need more material for the historical side, anyways. Being separated left/right, it'll make more sense, as well, to have "historical detail" imagery entwined with it, without ending up confusing the two sides of the story.

      I have not *heard* of this area being a hotbed of exotic pet dealing? But, we've only been here 5 years, and we don't hang out with criminal types (that we know of!)

  3. This was a great read. Thanks for making and sharing this!