CHELHTENEM LILY POINT STORY
Point Roberts formed from the sand and gravel
outwash of retreating glaciers 15,000 years ago. The highest
reach of this glacial deposit, some 200 feet above the sea at
the southeast corner of Point Roberts, is Lily Point, or, in
Native Salish language Chelhtenem, "hang salmon for drying."
Point Roberts was an island until the Fraser
River delta grew to connect it to the mainland. In 1846, Point
Roberts again became an island, not geographically but politically,
when the United States and England signed a treaty establishing
the international border with Canada at the 49th parallel, severing
Point Roberts from the U.S. mainland.
Archeologists date the earliest human occupation
of the Point Roberts at 9,000 years ago. A Spanish explorer reported
"an incredible quantity of rich salmon and numerous Indians"
at Lily Point in 1791. A year later Peter Puget, an officer with
Captain Vancouver, described a seasonal village at Lily Point
with houses for 400 to 500 people. The close passage of salmon
around Lily Point on their way to their home waters in the Nooksack
and Fraser Rivers undoubtedly inspired placement of the village.
Lily Point was the most important Native reef
net fishery and one of the most significant salmon fisheries
of the Central Coast Salish. In 1889, 16 Native reef nets were
in operation and a single net would catch as many as 2,000 fish
a day. A newspaper reported in 1881 that three reef nets took
10,000 fish in six hours.
For many centuries Chelhtenem was a center
of traditional salmon culture and a place of great spiritual
power for Native Peoples. The First Salmon Ceremony honored the
returning salmon and directed them into the reef nets. The bones
of the first fish "were carefully returned to the sea where
the fish regained its form and told other salmon how well it
had been treated, thus allowing the capture of other fish and
insuring a return the following year." (Application for
inclusion of Chelhtenem ("Lily Point") in the National
Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property,
In the late 19th century, non-Indian fish
traps displaced traditional reef nets. Alaska Packers purchased
a year old cannery at Lily Point in 1884. The cannery was abolished
in 1917, leaving pilings and debris still visible today. Chelhtenem
was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1994
as a site of National Cultural, Traditional and Spiritual Significance,
the second place in Washington State receiving such a designation.
Point Roberts is only a half hour drive from
Vancouver. As the city flourished in the latter part of the 20th
century, development pressure grew at Point Roberts. After Welsh
Development, Inc. acquired Lilly Point, Whatcom County approved
a major development for condominiums, a golf course, 74 residential
lots, and a regional recreational resort on properties including
Lily Point. For reasons unknown, the developer allowed the permits
to expire in 2003 without beginning construction. Lilly Point
is now on the market.
Two multimillion-dollar transactions in the
last three months indicate the accelerating pace and scale of
development at Point Roberts. One of the transactions involves
a proposed 103-house gated community less than 500 feet west
of Lily Point. Whatcom County owns three of the four corners
of Point Roberts Monument Park, Lighthouse Park and Maple
Beach, the latter of which was given to the county by Whatcom
Land Trust encumbered by a restrictive conservation easement.
Only Lily Point, by far the most ecologically important of the
four corners, remains exposed to development.
By whatever mix of spirit and ecological powers,
Lily Point remains a place of prolific productivity just as it
was when Salish people evoked spirit powers to ensure the return
of the salmon to Chelhtenem and direct migrating fish to the
The site is known for numerous eagles, heron,
and loons. In addition, some of the largest migratory salmon
runs have come to this point as they make passage to the Fraser
River. In addition, the area is abundant in clams and crabs,
and features a rich marine ecosystem. Indeed, Chelhtenem has
changed little in historic period; it still reflects the landforms,
vegetation, and water resources that attracted and sustained
the original inhabitants and their descendants.
(Application to national Historic Register).
Perhaps by the grace of a spirit power, the plentiful natural
heritage of Lily Point is still ours to preserve, but the opportunity
will pass if we do not act.