Special Reports

Pay to borrow a book? Early residents did

The first libraries on Bellingham Bay were private operations - readers paid a fee to borrow books.

In Fairhaven, tycoon Charles X. Larrabee and other prominent citizens started a private library in 1890.

The following year, 12 women of New Whatcom, including poet Ella Higginson, started one where patrons paid $1, plus 50 cents a month, for the privilege of checking out one book at a time.

Then, in 1903, Fairhaven obtained a $12,000 grant from industrialist Andrew Carnegie to build a library at 1117 12th St., on land donated by Larrabee. Carnegie later gave $3,500 more to the library.

The Fairhaven library, now a branch of the Bellingham system, was dedicated on Dec. 20, 1904, though construction didn't wrap up until the following July.

In 1906, Bellingham became one of only two cities to win two Carnegie library grants, garnering $20,000 for a new downtown facility. That library, which opened to the public in 1908, stood atop a rocky hill next to what is now Crown Plaza Executive Suites, the former Bon Marché store.

Bellingham's main library opened at its current site near City Hall on Aug. 19, 1951.

The Carnegie library downtown was torn down two years later. Given the building's nightmarish plumbing and its 57 front steps, not everyone lamented its demise.