Dirty Dan Comes To Bellingham
Nearly all accounts agree that he was born on New York's Long Island, but few agree when, other than that it was sometime between 1826 and 1833. He left home as a teenager, ended up in Sag Harbor, shipped out on a whaler, and for the next few years sailed the seas. He sailed both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and even made trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. He eventually deserted ship in Honolulu, and made his way via Victoria to a new and tiny settlement on Bellingham Bay in 1853 or 1854.
He settled on the beach at the mouth of Padden Creek, roughly between today's 7th and 8th streets near Harris Avenue in Bellingham. He finished a log cabin that had been begun by an earlier settler, John Thomas (d. 1854), and filed for a donation land claim in 1855. In the 1860s he obtained legal title to 146 acres that later became Fairhaven, and in 1861 he bought another 43 acres along the shore west of his original claim. This eventually became the main part of Fairhaven's downtown.
Dan the Man
Harris was a big man for his day -- an inch shy of six feet, in an era in which the average American man was four inches shorter. He weighed about 200 pounds, but he wasn't fat, just big. He had powerful arms and broad shoulders from his years on a boat. (In his early years in the Northwest he regularly rowed a small boat between Bellingham Bay and Victoria.) Long brown hair and a shaggy beard rounded out his appearance.
Even considering the primitive conditions that Whatcom County settlers endured in the 1850s, Harris was a shabby-looking guy. Hence the nickname Dirty Dan. He typically wore a well-worn hat, greasy coat, unbuttoned red flannel undershirt, and pants that were ripped and occasionally held up with rope. Shoes and socks were something of a novelty for him in his younger years, though he did wear them when he was on the road. He loved his liquor and could hold it as well as any man, but his eating habits were atrocious. He was an equally sloppy housekeeper, and almost proudly "maintained" a maze of junk that surrounded his cabin on the beach.
From the beginning, he was a vibrant storyteller. (And he swore like a sailor.) He had plenty of stories to share, and wasn't above embellishing or making up facts as needed. His favorite stories were ones in which he was the butt of the joke. A gregarious man, he had no trouble finding listeners for his yarns, at least among men. Women tended to be more wary. Historians have speculated about a complex of sorts that he had in his early years, when he believed his neighbors were all against him. He didn't seem to realize it was more about how he dressed and acted than about who he actually was.
Despite his quirks and odd habits, Harris was an optimistic and tireless man who made a tremendous contribution to Bellingham Bay's early history. It didn't start that way. During his first years on the bay, he was a smuggler. This did not really carry a stigma in those days, and he regularly rowed over to Victoria -- the region's big city in the 1850s -- to exchange cargoes of vegetables and smoked salmon for dry goods, rice, flour, and lots of alcohol. Business grew, and he eventually graduated from smaller rowboats to larger sailing sloops. (He named one sloop Phantom and a later one Bounding Ball.)
Even then, there was the occasional effort at customs enforcement along the border between the United States and what was then British North America (Canada), and Harris soon attracted the attention of the local customs inspector, Edward Eldridge (1829-1892). Eldridge and Harris were friendly, but this didn't stop Eldridge from busting Harris when he found a barrel of liquor in his boat.
Harris was nothing if not a fast learner. Some time later he was putting down anchor in the bay after a liquor run to Victoria. He looked up and saw Eldridge sailing his way. He casually attached the anchor line to the barrel and dropped both into the water, and was the very picture of innocence when Eldridge boarded the boat. Harris subsequently began avoiding customs altogether, which in those days was a breeze. He sailed at night, ducking in and out of the inlets and coves of the San Juan Islands, and proudly bragged about it later.
He did get caught a few times. In 1855 he was arrested for selling liquor to Native Americans, most likely members of the Lummi tribe. (It was not to be his last liquor-related arrest.) The following year he was charged with inciting the Stickene tribe of British Columbia to attack the Lummis. (Sullivan writes that it was all an innocent misunderstanding.) He had a couple of other scrapes with the law, but seems to have come away from them relatively unscathed.
He became an unlikely hero in 1859. Members of the Nooksack tribe tried to storm the blockhouse in Whatcom to free a tribal chief who'd been arrested. The attack was thwarted, but the settlers feared more tribal members would be back. Harris got wind of the fracas and sailed out into the straits, where he located the U.S. steamer Massachusetts. He alerted the crew to the emergency and they sailed in to help save the day.
Boxing and Baseball
He was well positioned when the Fraser River Gold Rush struck Bellingham Bay in 1858. His liquor trade boomed. More people and more liquor were the perfect match for the jovial Harris, and he hosted the first recorded prize fight on Bellingham Bay in 1859 or 1860. Billy Blimpton, an Irish miner at the Sehome Coal Mine, had insulted an Englishman, Tom Sheldon. Honor was at stake. The fight was fought under London Prize Ring rules, and lasted an astonishing 104 rounds before Blimpton finally knocked Sheldon out. It was a long fight, but fortunately there was enough liquor to cover it.
Harris tried his hand in the British Columbia mines in 1860 and 1861, but it didn't pan out. He next invested in sheep, but that didn't work either. As the 1860s and 1870s passed he kept busy in various projects. One project he was especially proud of came in 1875 (some accounts say 1877) when he single-handedly cleared a three-mile road from Sehome to Lake Whatcom to provide access for machinery and supplies to travel to the newly opened Blue Canyon coal mine.
Also in 1875 he hosted what some say is the first baseball game on Bellingham Bay. The Black Diamonds from the Sehome Coal Mine went up against the Wideawakes, the professional men of the area. History doesn't seem to record who won, but history does record that so many disputes arose over the plays (no one knew the rules) that Harris rolled out a barrel of booze to cool flaring tempers.
Eighteen eighty-three was a big year for Dan Harris. As the new year dawned he was putting the finishing touches on the plat of a brand-new town that he named Fairhaven. Accounts differ about where the name came from. Harris is said to have claimed that it came from a Lummi name, Seeseelichem, which he said meant a port of fair haven, whereas others claimed that the name came from an old whaling port in the Northeast. He filed the plat on January 2, 1883. The new town consisted of 85 blocks divided into eight lots each, and its main street was named Harris Avenue.
The area around Bellingham Bay was growing fast, and Harris sold his first lot in little more than a month. He went on to sell another 237 lots during the year, all on fixed prices, payment in gold only. He grossed at least $22,000 in 1883, which would equate to more than half a million dollars in 2014. His neighbors began looking at him with a lot more respect.
He rose to the occasion. He became more genteel. He bought a new wardrobe -- a silk hat, fine black cutaway coat, and matching pants, real pants, sans ropes, and a white vest. Yet he didn't pull it off entirely. He still wore his red flannel undershirt, no tie, cowhide shoes (still an improvement from no shoes at all), and his coat and pants were often dotted with spots and stains. Still, he delighted in putting on the outfit and heading out to the new dock whenever a boat pulled up so he could personally greet its passengers and help them tie up the boat.
The Fairhaven Hotel
Harris spent part of his profits to build a dock at 4th Street and Harris Avenue (near today's Fairhaven Shipyard), which later became known as Ocean Dock. Another part of his profits went to build the Fairhaven (later Northern) Hotel on the northeastern corner of 4th and Harris. It was a three-story frame building, unremarkable looking from the outside. Inside was more opulent. The parlor (lobby) offered furniture with brocaded upholstery and marble tops; it also had what historian Lottie Roeder Roth writes was probably the first piano known to Bellingham Bay. Harris was particularly proud of the piano.
Service at the hotel can best be described as sketchy. A guest seldom had a problem finding a drink in the hotel bar, no matter the hour. If he wanted a particular brand of liquor, that too was likely to be available. But housekeeping was another matter. "He made no attempt to provide regular hotel service for any guests that might be attracted to it," explains Roth (Roth, p. 444). Author Michael Sullivan puts it more candidly: "Upstairs a guest would be very lucky if the bed had been made since the last person slept in it, let alone the linen changed" (Sullivan, p. 53). The hotel had a restaurant that has been described as a cookhouse, something you'd expect to find more in a mining or logging camp than in a hotel. After Harris got married in 1885, service is said to have improved.
Toasting the Flag
Harris was an ardent Democrat, and swore to all that if Democrat Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) won the 1884 presidential election, he would fly the biggest flag money could buy in front of his hotel. Cleveland indeed won, and Harris was true to his word. He ordered a flag that measured 18 feet wide by 50 feet long; it weighed roughly 50 pounds. The flag pole was so tall -- 110 feet high -- that it had to be made in two sections.
The grand ceremony was scheduled for Inauguration Day, March 4, 1885. Harris prepared for his guests by having plenty of liquor on hand, but no food. However, this was not a problem. Happy Democrats arrived early. An even happier Harris personally greeted each of them with a toast. Then came time to raise the flag.
Problems arose. First loose sand in front of the hotel proved too unstable for the drunken Democrats to plant the flagpole. They finally got it up around noon. Lifting the second section and untangling the ropes and other gear needed to attach the flag proved to be an even bigger challenge, and took most of the afternoon. Finally, less than an hour before sunset, the flag flew. The crowd cheered into the night.
Love and Los Angeles
By this time, Harris was in love. The preceding year he'd met Bertha Wasmer (1857-1888), the daughter of a Happy Valley farmer. They became unlikely piano-playing partners in the parlor of his Fairhaven hotel. Music played for them too, and the 25-year age difference didn't seem to bother them. They were married in the parlor on October 17, 1885, but Bertha Harris must have found her new life quite a change from the former solitude down on the farm. She filed for divorce from her husband a year later, alleging verbal abuse and physical threats. In the end the couple reconciled.
There was another problem, though: Bertha had tuberculosis, which worsened in the late 1880s. The couple began spending time in drier Los Angeles, and eventually moved there in 1888. Harris sold most of his remaining Fairhaven property that year for $70,000.
Bertha Harris died in November 1888. Dan Harris remained in Los Angeles, where, at least at first, he lived quietly -- so much so that historian Lelah Jackson Edson wryly remarked "Old friends in fact characterized this new Harris as a Sampson with shorn locks" (Edson, p. 142). But he hadn't changed that much, and before long his new Los Angeles neighbors had nicknamed him "Grease Pot Dan."
Into this lonely breach stepped Dr. Andrew Shorb (1837-1912) and his wife, Mattie. Shorb had treated Harris's wife during her final illness, and had learned that Dan Harris was a man of means. He and his wife befriended Harris after his wife's death, and were happy to keep him company. Sometimes they let him take them out on the town and treat them to a big spending spree, including lavish dinners. Other times they dropped by the Harris house to hang out and give him financial advice. He made several loans to the Shorbs, and on their advice, in July 1890 put a $25,000 bank draft in all three of their names into a Washington state bank. Shorb quickly transferred the funds to his personal account in Los Angeles.
Harris seems not to have learned of the double cross before his death the next month. He missed the Northwest, and his health was failing. Maybe he sensed the end was near. One day he slept late, then woke up and told the Shorbs he felt like having a party. It was just the three of them, but that was fine with Harris. He drank, he laughed, he banged away at his piano in classic Harris fashion -- and then he collapsed. It was August 18, 1890.
A public administrator was appointed to handle Harris's estate in Los Angeles. The Shorbs only turned over money and property with a total value of $335 to him, and he sued them for fraud. A dramatic, highly publicized trial followed. A jury ruled against the Shorbs, but the California Supreme Court reversed the decision in 1893, and the Shorbs never returned any additional money or property.
There were legal fireworks in Washington state too. Harris had written a will in 1871 leaving his property to a nephew, Benjamin Franklin Harris Jr. Three of Dan Harris's siblings and a niece contested the will. The Whatcom County Superior Court ruled in favor of Harris, but the Washington State Supreme Court reversed this ruling and found in favor of all five heirs. Not that they recovered much. A few Fairhaven lots remained in Harris's estate, but the Whatcom County Probate Court didn't allow the property to be sold until 1895, by which time the country was mired in a depression so severe that the lots sold for less than the court costs due.
Dirty Dan Lives On
Harris's memory lives on in Fairhaven, which became part of Bellingham in 1903. Harris Avenue remains a main artery through the Fairhaven neighborhood. A high-end steakhouse there bears his name.
And, beginning in 2003, Fairhaven began recognizing him yearly on a Sunday in late April with the Dirty Dan Seafood Festival. The event features music, an uphill piano race, a Dirty Dan look-alike contest, a salmon toss, a chowder cook off (often the capstone of the affair), and a beer garden -- where, were he still alive to enjoy it, you would doubtlessly find Dirty Dan himself holding court to the faithful.