WORTH THE TRIP | The Spark Museum’s giant Tesla coil is rewarding for thrill-seekers. Along with the Spark, Bellingham has lots of fun things to see, do and eat.
Editor’s note: Know a favorite restaurant, brew pub, unique museum or other Northwest attraction worth miles of driving, just for itself? This new recurring feature, “Worth the Trip,” spotlights such destinations — along with other pleasant diversions along the way.
BELLINGHAM — Talk about a shocking experience. But, happily, it wasn’t.
I felt like Houdini, in one of those old movies, where they wrap the master magician in 20 feet of chain secured with 20 padlocks, drop him into a swimming pool, then wait for him to swim victoriously to the surface.
I was inside a cage — playfully called the “Cage of Doom” — perched on what looked disturbingly like an electric chair (it was really just an old barber chair).
The crackling bolts of electric energy zapping the outside of the cage were authentic, however. Zapping, to the tune of 4.5 million volts, from a Tesla coil, an electrical transformer named for Nikola Tesla, the mad-scientist inventor of the late 19th century.
The device is dubbed the MegaZapper, and it’s the big draw at downtown Bellingham’s Spark Museum, dedicated to electrical inventions through the ages.
Sample the town’s burgeoning craft-beer scene. Detour to Mount Baker for skiing. Enjoy the excellent farmers market. But go for this titillating demonstration of electronic wizardry you won’t find elsewhere. It’s worth the trip.
Star of the show
“I had this idea: We have this Tesla coil, this big, bad coil, this is our Colossus, this is what people come to see, let’s build a little show around it!” says Tana Granack, the museum’s operations director, explaining the museum’s rebranding a few years ago from the American Museum of Radio and Electricity (yawn) to the Spark Museum (sizzle! zap!).
There’s plenty more to see in the museum, from a life-size replica of the Titanic’s Marconi wireless room, complete with a recording of the doomed ship’s actual distress call, to what’s billed as the first cellphone: a Collins wireless phone, invented in 1898, that looks like a wooden box with a swan-neck speaking tube and two big hula hoops wrapped in wire. Fit in your pocket? Not so much.
A phrenology helmet from the 19th century has a map of parts of the brain having to do with “blandness,” “agreeableness,” “sublimity,” etc. It bristles with screw-down electrodes emanating from a bronze hooped headpiece that connects to a box of batteries. Yikes.
You can make music (of a sort) on a Theremin, the only musical instrument you play without touching it. Wave your hands over and around two aerials emanating from a black box and hear all pitches of electronic wheedles. (A variation on the instrument provided the woo-ooo electronic sounds in the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations.”) “I have eight guinea pigs and I say that’s what it would sound like if I ever stepped on one!” docent Minden Eden says.
Not far from that is a model of the first AC-powered radio marketed in the United States, the RCA Radiola 30, housed in a wooden cabinet big enough for four or five circus clowns to pop out of.
All that is interesting stuff. But the MegaZapper show is, indisputably, the big draw.
The lead-up to the Cage of Doom demo with the bad-boy Tesla coil is plenty of fun, too.
Like watching the audience volunteer get a good case of Bride-of-Frankenstein hair from the static electricity that Granack plays with like a kid with a new Lego set.
He slices the air with colored fluorescent tubes that light up like Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, just from the electricity in the air around him.
Waving one of the tubes like a crazed orchestra conductor, Granack draws sizzling tones from a variac machine, playing a snap-crackle-pop version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite.” It is, ahem, an electrifying performance.
“Oh, my gosh,” a small child whispers in the audience.
“It’s loud and cool and exciting!” Granack crows.
I’m one of a few in the audience who has agreed to donate an extra $20 to be put in the cage for a zapping by the big Tesla coil. The science is that the cage disperses all the electricity and protects whomever is inside.
Nonetheless, we’re asked to sign a release acknowledging that “I could be seriously injured or even killed.” (Signs also warn anyone with a pacemaker against attending the show.)
“It’s not really going to kill us, right?” I ask Granack.
“It would be my last show!” he replies. Then, after a thoughtful pause, “And it would be a heck of a show!”
As I’m led to the cage, it feels and looks a lot like being led to my execution.
Granack’s assistant opens the gate to the Cage of Doom and there’s that suspect chair inside.
The door is slammed shut on me. The assistant stands by to make sure I don’t make a run for it.
Then all goes dark in the room until suddenly a blinding bolt of sizzling power splits the darkness and darts like a striking rattlesnake toward my cage.
Granack has instructed me to spread my palm against the inside of the cage to prove to myself that it’s harmless. I extend my hand to the bars, half expecting to be repulsed as if from a hot stove burner.
But there’s nothing. Just cold metal, with a soundtrack like a City Light transformer shorting out.
And guess what, I don’t die.
It’s really worth the trip.
• Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, 1312 Bay St., Bellingham; $9-$12 admission with MegaZapper show (staged at 2:30 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday); sparkmuseum.org.
IF YOU GO
More to do and see around Bellingham
New last year and convenient to downtown Bellingham’s museum district is a farm-to-table restaurant called Eat, whose founders include two French-born chefs. They add a delicious flair to lunch dishes such as the coq au vin slider (on brioche bun with blueberry relish and herbed fries, $5) and seafood chowder, $9/bowl. 1200 Cornwall Ave., 4u2eat.com.
About a dozen small breweries (and growing) ply their craft here. Pick up a recently updated Bellingham Tap Trail map at a visitor center or most brew pubs. Locals steered me to these two favorites:
• Aslan Brewing, with an all-organic lineup of beers, has a spacious and airy pub with a full menu of good eats, including vegan options such as tasty and colorful roasted yam tacos ($9). The Dawn Patrol Pacific Ale had exotic pineapple-y notes. 1330 N. Forrest St., aslanbrewing.com.
• New last year, Stones Throw Brewing in Fairhaven is about as cozy a pub as you’ll find, making a unique architectural statement with repurposed shipping containers and a hidden garden. I caught a free bluegrass band on a Friday night, with dinner from a Cuban food truck. 1009 Larrabee Ave., stonesthrowbrewco.com.
• Near the Spark Museum, Whatcom Museum’s two distinctly different buildings are both worth your time. With its Victorian cupolas and central clock tower, the Old City Hall (121 Prospect St.) is a wonder of architecture and spotlights history of this corner of the great Northwest. A block away, the museum’s modern Lightcatcher Building (250 Flora St.) attracts world-class art exhibitions. Admission $5-$10 (includes both buildings). whatcommuseum.org.
• Got a kid in tow? The homespun Bellingham Railway Museum tells a bit of the history of regional railways, but a visit is mostly an excuse to watch and play with elaborate model-train sets that allow kids to push buttons to make signal gates drop and a model caboose bears the sign “Lucy’s Chew-Chew Caboose Cafe, Good Food Served in a Cupola Minutes.” Admission $3-$5, 1320 Commercial St., bellinghamrailwaymuseum.org.
THE HOMETOWN HILL
Mount Baker looms high and snowy east of town, and Mount Baker Ski Area — often one of the snowiest places on the planet — is about 80 minutes up Highway 542. mtbaker.us.
The outstanding Bellingham Farmers Market operates under cover at Depot Market Square in downtown from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday from April through December and also the third Saturdays of January, February and March. bellinghamfarmers.org.
MONTHLY ART WALK
From 6 to 10 p.m. on the first Friday of every month, downtown’s Art Walk features galleries, studios, museums, shops and restaurants. Bargain-hunters note: Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher galleries often offer free admission during Art Walk hours. Print a map: downtownbellingham.com/art-walk.