Houses of the Croatian Community on Lower South Hill
The majority of the houses located on lower South Hill (10th, 11th, 12th and 13th Streets) are modest bungalows in the vernacular tradition. They were occupied beginning in the early 1900s by a large group of Croatian families involved in the local fishing industry.
Most of these families trace their ancestry to the island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea at a time when the area was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (later, Yugoslavia). Faced with poverty and the threat of war in their homeland, they were lured by hopes for better economic and political conditions in America. Beginning in 1889, .they were actively recruited for their fishing prowess by a large fish cannery near Astoria. The fishermen soon settled up and down the West Coast with several arriving in Fairhaven to take advantage of the rich Puget Sound fishing opportunities. "By 1902, Fairhaven was the site of eight fish canning and packing companies.” (from "Pacific Northwest Croatian”, ed. by Margaret Sleasman. Issue 11, December 1999).
Before settling into their own homes and establishing families, these fishermen and laborers shared space in boarding houses (e.g. 706 and 922 11th Street), they stayed with friends or relatives (e.g. 804 12th Street, 1009 and 1011 10th Street), or they rented houses until they could afford their own home (e.g. 805 12th Street and several others). According to Martin Kuljis ("Whatcom County Oral Histories” by Brian Griffin, 2008), 11th, 12th and 13th Streets were 90% Croatian between 1910 and 1920.
As the salmon industry began to wane in the Puget Sound waters, many of these fishermen either ventured further north in the summer to fish in Alaska, or they relocated to other communities on the West Coast like San Pedro, California, where they sought work in the tuna fishing industry. Many families, however, remained in the Bellingham community and are now part of our social, cultural and economic fabric.
Currently, the houses on lower South Hill have a variety of owners with a mixture of occupations and backgrounds. The houses have experienced many remodels and renovations. When at one time the home owners on these streets were repelled by the smoke of lumber mills and the stench of fish canneries, the residents of this area now embrace the waterfront for its views, its parks and its scenic trails.
Above profile written by Gayle Helgoe as part of the Preserve America Project.