FIRST PERSON Narrative: 
 
Roland Gamwell
 
1954
"Why Fairhaven Had Its Boom"
 
The following is a transcript from a speech at the Washington Club in 1954.
 
The meeting was recorded by KVOS and transcribed by historian Galen Biery.

****   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.”

Roland Gamwell in the archway of the Fairhaven Hotel on Harris Avenue


Roland Gamwell:  Why Fairhaven had its boom

"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."
 
"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.”

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.
 
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. 
 
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. 
 
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.  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. 
 

James J. Hill

James J. Hill and the Beginning of Fairhaven's REAL Boom!  The "Imperial City"
 
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.  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.”
 

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. 
 

 
 
Useful Links