History Down Harris
by Gayle Helgoe
The land at the base of Harris Avenue below the Fairhaven Historic District was the site of the first habitation by Euro-American settlers. This area provided a calm harbor, a gentle slope at the mouth of a freshwater creek and abundant natural resources for building materials and bodily sustenance.
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|Indigenous Inhabitants |
Indigenous inhabitants enjoyed the resources provided on this land. Trees for constructing shelters, clothing and transportation, salmon and shellfish from the waters, meat and hides of deer and elk, and berries and medicinal plants found nearby in the forests.
This mostly peaceful existence, save for periodic raids by their northern neighbors, was forever changed by the appearance of the "white man”. First came explorers (Spanish and English) in search of a water passage to the Orient, then traders in search of furs and trinkets to be traded for exotic Chinese goods, and finally settlers lured by the promise of free land courtesy of the 1850 Oregon Land Act.
Early White Settlers
Bellingham Bay initially saw the arrival of Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody in 1852; then a bit further south, William Pattle in 1853; followed by James Morrison and John Thomas in the same year.
John Thomas, fighting tuberculosis, began work on his cabin near the mouth of Padden Creek. He was soon joined by that colorful character of legend and lore, Daniel J. Harris.
| ||Poe's Point |
Prior to their arrival, Alonzo M. Poe had constructed a cabin on a point of elevated land now occupied by Marine Park. Over the years, there have been several names attached to the point on this property originally claimed by Alonzo Poe. Poe referred to the point of land as Commercial Point. A later name, Dead Man’s Point shares two competing stories of origin. One was due to the discovery by early settlers of Spanish relics and skeletons in this area. Another refers to the death and decapitation of two men in 1857 who were posted as sentries at this location watching for an Indian raiding party but imbibed too much whiskey and falling asleep instead.
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n 1862, Dan Harris donated four acres of this land for a cemetery, at which time this property became known as Graveyard Point. In the following years, the graves were moved to the new Bayview Cemetery, and Pacific American Fisheries then excavated much of this land for industrial expansion.
By 1883, "Dirty” Dan Harris had acquired and added part of Poe’s property to that he had acquired earlier from the heirs of John Thomas and proceeded to file a plat of his land and sell individual lots for gold. The first year he sold 238 of 680 lots. He built a three-story hotel at the foot of Harris Avenue that sported fine furnishings with an adjoining ocean dock.
"Boomer" Advertising 1891
Fairhaven Land Company and the Boom
In 1888, Harris sold most of his property in Fairhaven to Nelson Bennett and the newly incorporated Fairhaven Land Company for $70,000. Additional acreage was acquired for the town of Fairhaven when Bennett and associates, operating as the Bellingham Bay Land Company purchased the land immediately to the north of Fairhaven known as Bellingham. This land was then re-incorporated into Fairhaven.
The boom was on. Lot prices soared, the population rose from 400 people to 8,000 within one year, and building construction was non-stop.
The population explosion at this time brought both prosperity and peril to the new inhabitants. Investors and developers profited while the common workers often fell victim to the temptations of a proliferation of saloons and brothels which flourished along side of the grand buildings that housed banks, real estate offices and professional services.
| ||Devils Row |
Devil’s Row, the area on the west side of 11th Street between Harris and McKenzie sported a number of saloons with bawdy musical performances and various houses of ill repute. Other hastily-erected buildings below this block offered similar entertainment for anyone with a coin in his pocket and a yen for excitement that often ended poorly.
Financial Panic of 1893
The financial meltdown which began in 1893 slowed and closed many of these entertainment enterprises, the exigencies of the economy succeeding where the efforts of virtuous citizens were ineffective. By 1910, prostitution resided only in pockets further north in the newly-consolidated town of Whatcom, along with Fairhaven, now the city of Bellingham.
Salmon, the Pacific American Fisheries and other Industries
What now was left "Down Harris”? At this time in history a relatively new business venture devoted to the salmon industry was expanding and consolidating with related businesses that offered a huge financial stimulus to the economic woes of Fairhaven. Pacific American Fisheries brought a new complexion to the area at the base of Harris Avenue.
Industry replaced entertainment. Railroad construction, ship building, warehousing, manufacturing and food processing now defined the new economy of Fairhaven. Vacant and crumbling structures of former business ventures were replaced by housing for seasonal Chinese and Japanese laborers and other buildings connected to the salmon processing facility.
| |1970 Klipsun Year Book: Photographer Greg Gable
Similar photo taken for the April 1969 issue of the
Northwest Passage underground newspaper
|The "Hippie Era" of 1966-1973 | The closure of Pacific American Fisheries in 1966 brought a major change to the fortunes of Fairhaven. The so-called "Hippie Era” of 1966-1973 became the defining character of this part of . The historic buildings of the late 19th century still stood, though many unoccupied, providing cheap housing and space for alternative businesses for society’s disconnected and discontented during this time of political unrest. Even though the principal actors from this drama have since moved on, their community values of cooperation and compassion are still felt throughout the city. Spurred by the investment of developer and native son, Ken Imus, these buildings now house restaurants, boutiques, condos, and that beloved destination, Village Books.
"Down Harris" Today
The land once occupied by the industrial artifacts of the salmon cannery was purchased by the Port of Bellingham. Other property was under city ownership and became the site of the sewage treatment plant, adjacent to the Port’s Marine Park and the only heron colony within the city limits of Bellingham. A few waterfront businesses remain next to the Alaska Ferry terminal and the Amtrak train station. | |
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On the path to one of these contemporary venues, pause to reflect upon the history of this area. Imagine the Native-American encampments living off the gifts of the land, the European explorers anchored in Bellingham Bay searching for a trade route to the riches of the Orient, the early settlers struggling to eke out a new life on the frontier, the developers endeavoring to build their "Imperial City” and the subsequent citizens of this community now committed to the preservation of its commercial and cultural traditions.
Edson, Lelah Jackson. The Fourth Corner: highlights from the early Northwest. Bellingham, WA.: Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1968.
Griffin, Brian C. Fairhaven, a history. Bellingham, Wash.: Knox Cellars Publ. Co., 2015.
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.
Smith, Curtis F. The Brothels of Bellingham; a short history of prostitution in Bellingham, WA. Bellingham, Wash.: Whatcom County Historical Society, 2004.