Fairhaven: From boom to bust and back

Workers plank Donovan Avenue in Fairhaven in the 1890s. Planked sidewalks and graveled streets were common at the time.
Workers plank Donovan Avenue in Fairhaven in the 1890s. Planked sidewalks and graveled streets were common at the time. HERALD PHOTO

Fairhaven looks pretty good from where the new sculpture of Dirty Dan Harris, the man who platted the town, lolls on a bench in the Village Green.

Shops, restaurants and sidewalks bustle with people browsing for gifts, books and plants, or for a good cup of coffee or an Italian meal. New construction is everywhere.

Fairhaven hasn't always been that way. In fact, in the century since 1903, Fairhaven has boomed, gone bust and boomed again.

Fairhaven was a coming place in 1903, having recovered from its first bust more than a decade earlier.

"We want a city built on a payroll," a 1900 promotional booklet said of the town.

Pacific American Fisheries, organized in 1899, seem to fit that bill. In a few years the company would build the largest structure in the state, a huge cannery to process the area's bountiful salmon.

PAF employed people by the score, including about 1,000 Chinese and nearly 4,500 "white persons," many of them Swedes, Norwegians, and Slovenians from Dalmatia.

PAC also generated support businesses such as Pacific Sheet Metal Works, which made salmon cans, and Fairhaven Shipyard. The shipyard, begun in 1916, built vessels for PAF's large fishing fleet, and built freighters during World War I.

Fairhaven also was a place to raise families. People with money built beautiful homes high on South Hill. Lower-income workers lived lower on the hill and down on the flats.

Public amenities soon arose for the betterment of those residents. In 1904, a Carnegie-backed public library opened on 13th Street. It's now the Fairhaven branch of the Bellingham Public Library.

Two years later, Charles X. Larrabee and Cyrus Gates donated five acres for what became Fairhaven Park. The park boasted of a small petting zoo from 1908 to 1922. In 1910, the great architect John C. Olmstead redesigned the park. In a few years the city added a log entrance, wading pool and a rose garden, and later erected the stone entrance that still stands today.


Jean Cory Kaufman was born in 1911 and grew up in Fairhaven. She remembers going to the wading pool at the park with her father, a postman. Her mother was principal at Fairhaven High School and later taught first grade at a one-room schoolhouse on Lake Whatcom's South Bay.

Life was simple then. Everyone kept a garden, especially important for large families like Jean's. She and her six brothers lived near Harris and Mill avenues for many years. They attended Larrabee Grammar School, built in 1890, and later went to Fairhaven High School.

During her teenage summers, Jean received a dollar a day doing chores and cleaning house. An evening of baby-sitting brought home 25 cents.

She graduated from Fairhaven High in 1928. Four years later, she and her new husband bought a house, one with two bedrooms upstairs and a living room and kitchen downstairs. Like most houses in Fairhaven it had no bathroom, only an outhouse.

They paid $300 for the house. It was the Depression, so they found it hard to pony up the $50 down payment, but eventually arranged monthly payments of $10.

Fairhaven's shipyards, plywood mills and canneries bustled during World War II, but changes came after the war. As the local canneries declined, new industry came, including United Boat Builders, which set up shop in the former Georgia-Pacific plywood mill on the Fairhaven waterfront in 1959. The innovative company made small pleasure boats, and crafted river patrol boats for the Vietnam War. A spectacular fire in 1980 destroyed the operation, then called Uniflite Inc.

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, taverns, stores and shops appealing to the college-age crowd came and went. An underground for Vietnam War draft dodgers met in the basement of the Nelson Building. Only old standbys like Fairhaven Pharmacy and Bob Hayden's Thriftway held on. Fairhaven's turn-of-the-century buildings showed their age.

But in 1973 Ken Imus bought the Mason Block and completed the first successful renovation of a historic building in the newly named Fairhaven Village. Other businesses began to appear, including Fairhaven Bicycle and the Teas, Spices and Herbs Shop. Dos Padres Restaurant settled in next to the pharmacy.

In 1980, Chuck and Dee Robinson opened Village Books in the Pythias Building, the building's only tenant at the time. Five years later, Colophon Café opened nearby, creating a major anchor on a block once known for hotels, hardware stores and secret societies. Then, in 1989, the Alaska ferry system began using its new southern terminus in Fairhaven.

Today Fairhaven is booming again, with Dirty Dan Harris still in the middle of it.