Milestones: Prostitution had a place in the city — and its budget

The Albany Hotel at Chestnut Street and Cornwall Avenue was one of several Bellingham hotels where prostitutes worked.
The Albany Hotel at Chestnut Street and Cornwall Avenue was one of several Bellingham hotels where prostitutes worked. PHOTO COURTESY OF GALEN BIERY COLLECTION

Lottie Roth's "History of Whatcom County" fills nearly 1,000 pages, but never mentions the "world's oldest profession."

Although the brothel industry was a booming business in the pioneer towns of Fairhaven and Whatcom, most historians have ignored the subject. That caught the interest of Bellingham dentist Curt Smith. He, along with friend and Northwest historian Mike Vouri, began nosing around the subject for a presentation to a local Rotary club.

Imagine their surprise when a subject so overlooked by historians of the day was detailed in many public documents.

"The city charter of Whatcom outlines where the houses were in 1902," Smith said.

One of the finer brothels in Whatcom, according to his research, was Lizzie Rose's house.

"She was listed in the 1902 city directory as a madam," Smith said. "She was the only madam listed, right along with a dentist and other businesses."

In the boom of the late 1800s, many of the brothels were in Fairhaven. When the area's economic engine shifted to New Whatcom at the turn of the century, the women, like all smart business people, followed the money. But when consolidation came in 1903, Bellingham wasn't eager to acknowledge the trade.

"When Bellingham's city charter was drafted in 1904, they left out the brothels," Smith said.

Still, the area by the tideflats in Old Town was the new city's district of ill repute.

"There was actually a string of Christmas lights, all red, that was strung down Holly Street from Bay to the low-rent 'cribs,'" Smith said.

"Cribs" were houses with long hallways and individual rooms, or houses with an outside door for each woman's room, like a motel. Uphill on C and D streets, the cribs gave way to brothels run by madams.

"They were the houses for the middle class," Smith said. "You could go there just to have a drink."

There was nothing secret about the operations. Indeed, "The Sporting House and Club directory for Whatcom and Fairhaven" amounted to a consumer's guide to the industry.

In 1910, however, Bellingham's Municipal League won approval of an ordinance abolishing the red light district. The lights came down, but business carried on.

One reason for city leaders' tolerance for prostitution was revealed in Mayor J. P. de Mattos' budget address of 1910. In it, he agreed to abolish the houses as long as residents understood that, in a $150,000 city budget, the prostitution industry brought in a whopping $17,000 a year in fines. De Mattos said stopping the trade would force the city to forgo two firetrucks.

Prostitutes still work in Bellingham today, but have no established buildings from which they do business.