Charles Larrabee wasn't the founder of Fairhaven (which later became part of Bellingham), but in many ways he might as well have been. He was one of a handful of people who made the community's explosive growth happen in the late 1880s and early 1890s, but unlike many of his peers, Larrabee stuck around after the boom went bust and kept investing in his community for more than 20 years. His family made further contributions after his death. His generosity was unparalleled, and he left a lasting impact that's still felt in Whatcom County.
Charles William Larrabee was born in Portville, New York, on November 19, 1843, to Mary Ann Johnson Larrabee (1823-1881) and William Larrabee (1820-ca. 1877). A brother, Samuel Edward (known as Ed) followed in 1845. About 1850 the family moved to Omro, Wisconsin, and soon after, William deserted. Alcohol was the suspected culprit, and Larrabee was an unconditional teetotaler for the rest of his life. He was also unconditional about forgetting his father: In his teens he changed his middle name from William to Xavier. (Why he chose this particular name is something of a mystery in the family. His grandson Charles speculates in his book Larrabee that "maybe for something to go with X?" [Larrabee, 8]). And when William contacted him in the 1870s, some 20 years after his departure, and invited his son to visit and presumably try and clear the air, he declined.
Larrabee was old enough to fight during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) but he didn't, instead hiring a substitute to fulfill his military obligation. This wasn't an uncommon practice in the North during the Civil War, but it usually wasn't cheap, which suggests that even as a young man Larrabee had some money. He traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1862 and earned a teaching certificate at the Eastman Business College. He taught for a few years in Omro, and, according to one source, in Vermont. Lottie Roeder Roth writes that he also worked for a time in his (maternal) grandfather's lumber camps. However, there's roughly a 10-year gap in his story between 1865 and 1875 that history has yet to fill.
Mining in Montana
In 1875 Larrabee decided to join his brother, Ed, who had moved to Montana more than a decade earlier and had become an expert gold assayer in the town of Deer Lodge. He had also gone into banking, and by 1875 he was quite successful. Charles was more interested in mining. He settled in nearby Butte and developed several copper mines near Butte and Deer Lodge. He's said to have sunk the shaft of the well-known Anaconda Mine in Butte (he's also said to have owned a half interest in the mine). His crew sank the shaft of the Mountain Boy Mine 514 feet, claimed to have been the deepest mineshaft sunk by horsepower in Montana Territory. (Montana became a state in 1889, after Larrabee left.)
Another mine that Larrabee invested in, the Mountain View (not to be confused with the Mountain Boy), threatened to break him. He blew through his funds as well as through a loan he obtained from his brother. Some urged him to call it quits, but the stubborn Larrabee refused. After a few years he was handsomely rewarded when he found a large deposit of copper ore in the mine. He and others formed the Boston and Montana Consolidated Copper and Silver Mining Company to manage the mine, but Larrabee soon sold his stock in the company, earning a healthy sum in return. Accounts vary, but the most conservative amount this writer has seen says he received $1.5 million from the sale, or more than $40 million in 2016 dollars.
When Larrabee moved to Montana he took a number of horses with him for his brother, who enjoyed raising Morgan trotter horses and later began breeding them on a large ranch. Charles caught the breeding bug too, and in 1883 he established his Brook Nook Stock Ranch. Located east of Dillon, Montana, it eventually grew to at least 25,000 acres. It wasn't his only ranch. He had a smaller one about 10 miles west of the Brook Nook, which he named the Ruby Dell Ranch.
Larrabee left Montana in 1887, but he kept his connections to the state. In 1890 Ed Larabie became owner of what became known as the Larabie Brothers Bank in Deer Lodge and Charles became a partner, though he never managed the bank. (In the 1860s, Ed Larrabee had changed the spelling of his last name to Larabie. He and Charles partnered in many ventures throughout their lives, and the differences in spelling often confused the uninitiated who saw the brothers' full names side by side. It was a steady source of merriment for the two brothers.) Larrabee also kept his connection to Butte, but in a different way. Shortly after he moved to Fairhaven in 1890, the Butte Woman's Christian Temperance Union tracked him down and appealed for funds for a new city library. He agreed to donate $10,000 (approximately $270,000 in 2016 dollars) provided his funding was matched locally. It was, and the resulting Butte Public Library building served for nearly 100 years. The "new" building (which opened in 1991), located in downtown Butte, has a plaque inside the entrance that reads "This library was established by the generosity of Charles X. Larrabee and the citizens of Butte, Nov. 1890" (Larrabee, 18).
Pit Stop in Portland
Larrabee moved to Portland late in 1887, apparently on the advice of his brother, as well as his friend Nelson Bennett (1843-1913), whom he'd met during his Butte days. The three men together bought Holladay's Addition, a large tract of land that covered part of what is today (2016) the eastern part of Portland. Larrabee, the principal purchaser, felt like he got such a good deal that he gave more than 700 acres of land and cash to the Holladay heirs. He and his brother also helped finance the construction of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland. But while most biographies say Larrabee lived in Portland for three years, that's not exactly true. Within a year after moving to Portland, he began spending considerable time in Whatcom and Skagit counties. It didn't take him long to fall in love with the place, and he gradually spent more time there until he finally moved to Fairhaven in 1890.
By the summer of 1888 he had already bought land near the community of Mountain View, a settlement located a few miles west of Ferndale. That same summer he and Bennett bought large sections of land in Fairhaven from its founder, "Dirty" Dan Harris (1833?-1890). In November 1888 Bennett, the Larrabee/Larabie brothers, and others formed the Fairhaven Land Company to manage their investments throughout the area, and one of the company's first actions was to buy the land that Bennett and Larrabee had bought earlier that year from Harris.
Boom and Bust
Big plans were being made for Fairhaven, which was turning from a hardscrabble frontier settlement into a bustling city almost overnight. Railroad magnate James Hill (1838-1916) was building his Great Northern Railroad west, and in the late 1880s and early 1890s, there was every hope that Fairhaven would be its new western terminus. This was not an unrealistic dream. Seattle in the late 1880s was only beginning to become a city in its own right, and it did not yet have the "big city" status in Washington that it later would. Hill for his part played cat-and-mouse-games with both Fairhaven and Seattle, as well as with a few other western Washington communities, trying to cut the best deal he could. In anticipation that Fairhaven might be the terminus, the town saw a boom in the late 1880s and early 1890s that just as quickly went bust when Seattle won the prize.
Larrabee, though, was in the right place at the right time. A month after he helped form the Fairhaven Land Company, he, his brother, Bennett, and others incorporated the Fairhaven & Southern Railway, and in 1889 they built a line toward the coalmines in Sedro (Skagit County). Larrabee and Larabie financed the venture and Bennett, who had considerable expertise in building railroads, built it. Plans to build the line south of Sedro fizzled, and a few months later Bennett and Larrabee sold their controlling interest in the line. Larrabee remained the face of the company, at least initially, and it was he who drove the ceremonial spike for the United States when the Fairhaven & Southern and the Canadian railroad New Westminster Southern connected rails at the Canadian border in the U.S. border town of Blaine on February 14, 1891.
The rest of the year would not be as auspicious. As 1891 progressed it became apparent that Fairhaven would not become the Great Northern's western terminus. Bennett quietly sold a large part of his Fairhaven investments to Larrabee and late in the year departed for greater fame and fortune in Tacoma. The boom imploded and went into full reverse, and Fairhaven's glory days became a bitter memory for many. The worldwide financial panic of 1893 and resulting four-year depression only made it worse. Larrabee, by now one of the few principal players in the boom who hadn't left town, shouldered a lot of the blame for a few years, primarily because people were looking for a scapegoat. He persevered, and eventually this awkward period passed.
A Gorgeous Hotel, A Growing Family
The Fairhaven Land Company financed the construction of the gorgeous Fairhaven Hotel, which was located on the northeast corner of 12th Street and Harris Avenue. It opened in September 1890 with Larrabee as the manager. One of his first acts was to shut down the hotel bar just two weeks after the hotel opened, which eventually doomed the hotel's business. This wasn't a bad thing for Larrabee, however. To the surprise of nearly everyone, the seemingly perennial bachelor married in 1892. He and his new bride (and later their growing family) had a ready-made home in the hotel, and they lived there for the next 22 years. Larrabee also maintained his offices there.
He married Frances Frazier Payne (1867-1941) on August 3, 1892. Though more than two decades younger than Larrabee, "Fannie," as she was known, was a well-educated, bright woman with an impressive family tree that could be traced back to seventeenth-century Virginia. She and Larrabee met in Boston in 1890, probably at a musical social function; Fannie was a gifted pianist, and Larrabee enjoyed the arts. They had four children: Charles Francis (1895-1950), Edward Payne (1897-1944), Mary Adele (1902-1988), and Benjamin Howard (1906-1944). The hotel proved to be an ideal playground for the children. After business dropped to almost nil during and after the 1890s depression, visitors could expect to find children's toys scattered about the lobby or perhaps the children themselves skating on the first-class flooring.
By 1900 the depression was history. Three years later, Fairhaven merged with its neighbor, Whatcom, to become Bellingham. Larrabee too changed and grew with the new city. His Fairhaven Land Company became the Pacific Realty Company, and in 1906 he and others established the Northwestern Bank in Bellingham. He had varying percentages of interests in coal and copper mines, timber, railroads, and ranchland in Montana, Oregon, and Washington, all of which was estimated to be worth about $8 million in 1906, or about $215 million in 2016. He invested in commercial oyster beds on Samish Bay, and he became an amateur horticulturist. For a time he had an ownership interest in the Bellingham Herald, a little ironic because while he was willing to talk to reporters he was well known to be reticent about providing personal details for publication. Through Northwestern Bank, Larrabee had an ownership interest in Bellingham's Pacific American Fisheries plant, an enormous salmon canning company that at one time was one of the largest in the country (some claim in the world). In the summers he found time to manage his horses at his Montana ranches.
In 1890 Larrabee hired a friend from his Vermont years, Cyrus Gates (1858-1927), as his secretary. Gates soon became Larrabee's most trusted associate in his business affairs. In one well-known story, in the early 1900s Larrabee was approached about financing a coal mining opportunity near Roslyn. Gates researched it, decided it was a winner, and recommended it to Larrabee, who bought a half interest in the project. It was indeed a winner, and Larrabee rewarded Gates with half of his half interest.
As was usually the case, Gates was with Larrabee on September 16, 1914. For a large part of the day the two men met with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at its flower-bulb farms north of Bellingham. (Larrabee had donated the 40 acres the farms were on.) In the afternoon the group took the Bellingham and Skagit Interurban trolley to Larrabee's oyster beds on the Samish Flats. Those present said later that he was in good spirits and seemed to be in good health. The group returned to Bellingham about 5 p.m.
Gates and Larrabee walked to Larrabee's office at the Fairhaven Hotel. Waiting for them near the steps was a "Mr. Hunt" ("Death Takes…"), identified by the Bellingham Herald as the superintendent for the new YWCA building that Larrabee and his wife were preparing to have built on land he had donated to the YWCA. (The building still stands on N Forest Street.) Together the three men walked up the steps and into a vestibule that led directly into Larrabee's office. Just in front of his office door, Larrabee paused and suddenly collapsed. Gates and Hunt carried him into his office, sat him up in a chair, and loosened his collar. For a split second he regained consciousness. "I'm all right" ("Death Takes…"), he said, but he was dead when doctors arrived moments later and diagnosed the obvious: a massive heart attack.
Shortly before his death Larrabee had hired a highly regarded Seattle architect, Carl Gould Sr., to design a new home for the family just south of Fairhaven in what's presently known as the Edgemoor neighborhood. (Gould [1873-1939] would later design 18 buildings for the University of Washington in Seattle, including Suzzallo Library.) Though Larrabee and his wife were involved in the house's design, he died before construction began. Frances Larrabee saw the project through to completion, and she lived in the two-and-a-half story, 25-room house until her 1941 death. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and it's now known as Lairmont Manor. It currently operates as a nonprofit and can be rented for public events. It's especially popular for weddings.
More than a century after his death, Larrabee's legacy lives on in Bellingham. He donated land for the Fairhaven Library, land for what is now the Fairhaven Middle School, and for Fairhaven Park. Perhaps one of his most well-known (and appreciated) donations is Larrabee State Park, established in 1915 as Washington's first state park. In 1913, newly elected Washington Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) suggested establishing a state park along a part of Chuckanut Drive to Larrabee, who readily agreed to deed waterfront property he owned near the Whatcom-Skagit County line. He died before the deed was prepared, but his wife Frances made sure the deal went through, and the 20 or 25-acre park (sources differ) was established in October 1915, a year after Larrabee's death. In 1937 Frances and son Charles donated another 1,500 acres to the park, and (with donations from others) it has since grown to 2,683 acres, a crown jewel of a park with mountains, lakes, beaches, and hiking trails galore.