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"Why Fairhaven had its Boom and Why did it Bust?"
The following is a transcript from a 1954 speech at the Washington Club.
Originally recorded by KVOS on magnetic wire, transcribed by Galen Biery.
(Headings and photos were not part of the original presentation.)
Introductory remarks by Virgil Barron
"Well gentlemen, I have the good pleasure today of having our good friend Roland Gamwell back again to tell the story of the early days—the boom and bust of Fairhaven and the history of Fairhaven and Bellingham back for some sixty-five years.
I understand from Roland that he came to Bellingham in 1889 and he resided here continuously and perhaps is the only known living member of the original Fairhaven Land Company. He has the personal and intimate knowledge of the early history I believe is unparalleled by any other person in this community; and I take pleasure in introducing to you now, the fabulous Roland Gamwell.”
(Mr. Gamwell speaks) "The Chairman of your program committee has assigned for the text of today's sermon: Why Fairhaven had its boom and why did it bust?"
Roland Gamwell in the archway of the Fairhaven Hotel on Harris Avenue
The year was 1889 "It’s not hard to tell why Fairhaven had a boom. The year was 1889. The eyes of the country were directed toward the Northwest by the recent phenomenal completion of two transcontinental railroads to this part of the country. One, the Northern Pacific, which came to the lower end of Puget Sound, and the other the Canadian Pacific two hundred miles north of it."
Nelson Bennett, the Father of Fairhaven
"There was room for another (rail)road between to take care of the optimum riches of the region that had not been touched by a railroad. There was a need for another road to serve those optimum riches to which I refer. Someone was necessary to built it. The man was readily found. He had built the large part of the Northern Pacific (particularly that section through the rich mining regions of Montana and Idaho) and he just finished piercing the Cascade Mountains with the fabulous Stampede Tunnel. He had a million dollars of his own and friends who had many more. That man was Nelson Bennett, the father of Fairhaven.
Bennett saw the need of another road across the country. He saw the profit of building it and the profit that would result from its operation. Two or three railroads were already crossing the country from the east towards the northwest. It would take two or three years for them to reach the Pacific; and so Bennett with a practical mind conceived the idea of starting a road on the Pacific Coast and building it east and joining up with them at some place in the interior.
Incidentally, he would gain much profit from the operation and exploitation of the railroad terminus. Land for the terminus could be bought at a nominal price, platted into town lots and sold at city prices; and that’s just exactly what Mr. Bennett did. Bennett bought the ground and from his neighbors he bought additional acres. It was located in the best part of the harbor—the sheltered part. Warehouses and docks might accommodate ocean ships. There was a level ground for warehouses and docks might accommodate ocean ships. There was level ground for warehouses, and railroad shops and side tracks and a business section of a community. "Here” says Bennett, "I will built a town. This will be the terminus of a railroad to be called the Fairhaven and Southern.”
Fairhaven: The Terminus of a Railroad....the idea flashed like wildfire
"The idea flashed like wildfire all over the northwest. People came in droves. Steamships, six of them, brought in swarms of people from the north end of Puget Sound, from the south end of Puget Sound; and a line that ran once a week brought people from Portland and another from San Francisco. Men came with tools. Sawmills were erected and machine shops and factories to supply the needs of the people. Houses couldn’t be built fast enough to accommodate them. People slept in tents and tarpaulins covered stocks of merchandise that arrived without any place to go. Streets—opening streets hardly kept ahead of their use. Restaurants and saloons came in swarms and they never closed. The doors were open all twenty four hours. Business was continuous in all lines and so was the continuous hum of the saw mills and the pounding of the mechanics’ hammers."
The Bankers Came
"Two men from Ohio came out to start a bank. With them they brought a safe, a ledger, and some stationery. There was no place for them so they and their friends hastily got lumber from the saw as it came from the mill and built a shack. The bank was started in the front room and the men slept in the back room. For a counter from which they might do business, planks were laid onto whisky barrels. Guards were necessary to guard the money.Three more banks came. One came from far away Connecticut, one from Michigan and the Fairhaven Land Company organized another. The organizer of the bank from Michigan (Charles Waldron) introduced it to the population by serving free champagne all night long before the bank opened."
Men with Large Stocks of Dry Goods
"Two men came from Ohio with a large stock of dry goods. They were able to get a building that was one story high when, they moved into it and another story was being put on the second floor. The dry good store was opened in the front of the lower floor. The families lived in the back and with good commercial ideas they rented the upstairs to lodgers. That firm incidentally stayed with us; Montague and McHugh who's large building is still standing over near the Post Office. Another man came from New Jersey. He brought with him a stock of stationery and books large enough to serve a city of 50,000 people. "
Standing in Line to Buy Real Estate
"At the quarters of the Fairhaven Land Company men and women stood in line to buy town lots. Real estate dealers did business without an office (always under their hats if they wore hats). Prices changed rapidly. If a lot sold for $500 in the morning, it was surely worth $600 in the afternoon and it would be foolish not to be willing to pay $700 the next day. Lots on Harris Street actually sold for $1,000 a front foot."
The Beginning of the Fairhaven Boom
"Meanwhile Bennett’s railroad was actually being constructed out to the southeast toward the Skagit River and up the Skagit and over the Cascades and easterly on to the proposed connection with a southeastern railroad, and from Fairhaven, north. The Fairhaven and Southern railroad was also building to a connection with the Canadian Pacific which had recently been completed to the Pacific coast. This sounds as though Fairhaven was having a boom."
James J. Hill
(Here, ship will meet rail. Here, you will have an Imperial City. J.J. Hill)
"Well it was, but the real boom came later on when the Great Northern President, James J. Hill, announced that his road had bought the Fairhaven and Southern and that the Pacific Terminus of the great transcontinental serving railroad would be at Fairhaven. He made this announcement to a crowded meeting of citizens one evening and he closed with these words. "Here”, said Mr. Hill, "Here, Pacific Ocean steamships will meet their dock. He, ships will meet rail. Here, you will have an Imperial City.”
Fairhaven to be the Metropolis of the Pacific Coast
"Before daylight the next morning sign painters were busy all over Fairhaven changing the signs from the immature one they had before. The Fairhaven Lodging House became the Imperial City Hotel. There were Imperial City markets and Imperial City Saloons and even Imperial City barber shops—before noon.
Then Fairhaven really had a boom. It was the greatest land excitement that America ever had. Nothing that was done before; nothing that has been done since has exceeded in activity—the Fairhaven Boom. To the men and money that had been coming was then added the men and money in the Great Northern stockholder list and from the region through which the Great Northern operated, cautious at first, but now convinced that Fairhaven would be the Metropolis of the Pacific Coast.
With them came more practical men with plans for factories, for the developing of the resources, for constructing office buildings, building for manufacturing, for theaters and for hotels and churches. There were even plans for a big university; one that would teach all the arts and sciences at the time known.
The Great Northern railroad then announced that it had already contracted construction for two steamships to run from Fairhaven to the Orient. Engineering plans were drafted for docks. The Fairhaven Herald published this advertisement daily – I would like to read it to you."
Fairhaven, the Imperial City of Bellingham (bay), the future metropolis of Puget Sound, destined to be a great manufacturing and commercial port in the northwest. The largest and safest harbor on the Pacific Coast, Fairhaven has the greatest area adjacent to it of agricultural land in the northwest. It has the most magnificent forests of timber in the world; the finest natural townsite and waterfront. Immense veins of the best coal in the west are close to Fairhaven; mountains of ore, iron ore, silver and lead, and ores of gold; extensive quarries of building stone mined in immense quantities; the terminus of the Fairhaven and Southern railroad, now owned by the Great Northern. It is the best equipped line on the Pacific Coast and is the shortest transcontinental road by 250 miles to the East Coast. That will make Fairhaven the terminus of three (3) transcontinental roads. Fairhaven is the nearest great port of the Straits of San Juan De Fuca, 600 miles nearer to China and Japan; closer than any other port now on the Pacific Coast; the shortest route to the Orient.
Senator Canfield and his Chicken Farm
"Not all the Fairhaven activity was related to the sale of town lots or the building of transcontinental railroads. A man named Canfield, the senator, started the first large scale poultry business in the Northwest. He bought Eliza Island for his location. Chickens couldn’t get off the Island and wild animals couldn’t get on and thieves were kept away by the guards who protected the shores. Canfield built chicken houses of large size; lower floor for the chickens, upper floor for supplies. Before the hens came in there was a grand opening. About everybody in Bellingham Bay was invited. The caterer was brought from Fairhaven and an orchestra engaged for a dance on the well waxed chicken house floors.
Not all guests had boats so Senator Canfield chartered the steamship Queen to transport the guests. The Queen at that time was the flagship of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. So far as is known, there was not one invitation declined."
(Jim Wardner, a Most Picturesque Individual)
"One of the most picturesque individuals that we ever had in the Northwest was Jim Wardner from the mines of Montana and Idaho. A town is still named Wardner in Idaho. Warner came to see what was going on; what was causing all the excitement in Fairhaven.
He lost no time in joining up. He started a local logging company, a bank, bought a coal mine, developed it and sold all the enterprises quickly at a good profit for himself. He had a large family and he built a large house. The house still stands at the corner of 15th and Knox Streets and now houses that fine cafe known as the Hilltop House."
Jim's Wardner's big idea -- A Black Cat Farm
"Jim Wardner was always ready with an idea from his fertile brain and to a newspaper reporter he once told of this project. "One of the new enterprises in the Fairhaven region,” says Wardner, "is fur farming for the fur market. Men are breeding fisher, mink and marten. In Holland they are growing black cats—the kind that has long soft fur. I am going to buy an island and start a black cat farm. The island will be near Fairhaven so I won’t have to leave my connections here. I will send to Holland for a large stock of the very best breed. I will locate on an island so the cats can’t mingle with the common cats of the neighborhood.” Warner added "Cats, you know have kittens several times a year so the stock will increase rapidly. There is a constant market for good cat fur at two dollars per pelt. Food will be cheap. Cats are fond of fish and around the islands fish are so thick that they would have to make them smaller to get anymore of them in the water. There’s millions of money in the project and I hope other people will engage in it also.”
The story caught the newspaper fancy. It ran all over the United States. The San Francisco Examiner printed it and the New York Tribune. As the story progressed across the country, its amplifications became actually exotic. Incidentally, the free advertising Fairhaven got was tremendous. Stories of Fairhaven were in everybody’s mouth. Transportation companies were crowded with people coming to Fairhaven."
What Became of Fairhaven's Boom?
"Someone asked me what became of the Fairhaven boom — well it burst—not through any fault of Fairhaven or its foundation nor of its promoters, nor of Canfield’s chickens or Jim Wardner’s cats. The cause came from far away. It came from London, England, then the worlds money depository. One day the great banking house of the Baring Brothers suddenly shut its doors. The worlds money was locked up—there was no money left. "
Broken Hearts and Broken Purses
"The Great Northern Railway was in desperation. It had to get to the coast somehow and by the quickest possible method. So Mr. Hill abandoned the favorable route over the Cascades and down the Skagit to his town of ships and docks at Fairhaven. He crossed the Columbia at Rock Island and built a tenuous track up the Wenatchee River; crossed the Cascades by perilous switchback and came down the Skykomish through then the new town of Everett to Smith’s Cove (now part of the city of Seattle). There were broken hearts and broken purses in Fairhaven. The people were stunned. The once hoped for region of high polish is now called South Bellingham."