The Fairhaven Empress Tree
2019 Photo by John Koenig
The gnarled remnant of a once-elegant flowering tree remains standing on the grounds of the Amtrak station at the foot of Harris Avenue. Its presence memorializes the former site of Pacific American Fisheries, a once thriving anchor to the economy of the Fairhaven district of Bellingham.
Paulownia tomentosa, or Empress tree, is native to western and central China. It is named for Anna Pavlovna of Russia who reigned as queen consort to King William II of the Netherlands in the nineteenth century.
Why was the Empress Tree planted on Harris Avenue? It's location on Harris Avenue and 4th Street is the former Pacific American Fisheries salmon processing facility. The PAF was heavily reliant on the cheap labor of their Chinese workers, as were many such industries up and down the West Coast.
Fire on Sept. 1934 at Pacific American Fisheries offices at 4th and Harris
Empress Tree is the larger tree on left.
Photo by J.W. Sandison
Whatcom Museum #1996.10.12993 from the Gordon Tweit Collection
Goon Dip in 1905
Courtesy Wing Luke Museum
The tree was a gift from Goon Dip, a successful Chinese entrepreneur and diplomat who managed the labor contract for this cannery and many of the others in the Northwest. The tree was presented to E.B. Deming, the manager of Pacific American Fisheries, who contracted with Goon Dip to provide the labor necessary for the profitable operation of this facility. Their association began around 1900 and evolved from strictly business into a personal friendship of mutual respect. Deming was a pallbearer at Goon Dip's Seattle funeral in 1933.
|How old is the tree? A series of Bellingham Herald articles helped to narrow down the date. |
May 21, 1931: "Down at the PAF there is a tree a-bloom with purple.”
Spring 2019 photo by John Koenig
Fairhaven Empress Tree Still Blooms
A 1941 article reported that 30 years earlier, PAF gardener Rockwell H. Thomas, planted a small tree on the grounds of PAF and that the "big Empress tree is one of the few monuments left to the memory of his love of nature’s handiwork.” Gardener Thomas worked for PAF from 1913 until his death in 1928.
The May 23,1962 Herald had an interview and photo of PAF employee, Mrs. Wes Geiger, in front of the tree and wrote that the tree was presented to PAF in 1908.
A column in September 22, 1968, cites historian Galen Biery maintaining that it was planted sometime between 1913 and 1918 based on photographs in his collection. The article reports that World War I rallies were held next to the tree.
J.W. Sandison photo of 1918 Liberty Flag Raising
Whatcom Museum #2016.25.19
Close up hows two saplings at the location
of the current Empress Tree.
The Empress tree is a living symbol of the Chinese labor contribution to Fairhaven's history. In 1968, a small group of citizens created an informal "Save Our Empress Tree Committee” over fear that the Port of Bellingham, the new owners of the PAF property, would remove the tree. A typo in the July 11, 1976 Herald article "Empress Tree Survives" describes the tree as being over 6 instead of over 60 years old. Local garden clubs got involved in taking care of the tree. The effort worked, the tree continues to bloom every year.
The existence of the Fairhaven Empress tree before WWI makes it one of the oldest empress tree in the United States. The height of the trees in the 1918 photograph would indicate it was most likely planted closer to the 1913 date. We will continue to research and hopefully find the documentation of the ceremony of Goon Dip representing the tree to E.B. Deming.
Good to Know "We already have the Worlds Most Efficient Carbon Capture Technology: Empress Trees
Koert, Dorothy, and Galen Biery. Looking Back: the collectors’ edition: Memories of Whatcom County/Bellingham. Bellingham, Wash.: Grandpa’s Attic, 2003.
Radke, August C. Pacific American Fisheries, Inc.: history of a Washington state salmon packing company, 1890-1966. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2002.
Shiels, Archie W. Brief chronological history of Pacific American Fisheries. Bellingham, Wash.: [A.W. Shiels], [197-?]