Dirty Dan Harris and friends raise one of the biggest and tallest flags in the West on March 4, 1885.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 12/02/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10982
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On March 4, 1885, Dirty Dan Harris (1833?-1890) and friends raise an enormous United States flag on a 110-foot pole in front of his hotel in Fairhaven (Whatcom County). Daniel "Dirty Dan" Harris, founder of Fairhaven, was a true Northwestern original who left behind a treasure trove of stories in Bellingham Bay's early history. One of the best ones follows here. 

The Biggest Flag in the West 

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, which was located at today's (2014) 4th Street and Harris Avenue in Bellingham. Cleveland won, and Harris was true to his word. He ordered a flag from San Francisco that reportedly cost $116. It measured 18 feet wide by 50 feet long and weighed about 50 pounds. The flagpole was locally made by Harris's friend James Taylor, a ship carpenter. Taylor built the pole in two sections, with the upper section fitted to the lower section so it could be lowered alongside of it when needed. When completed, the pole was an impressive 110 feet high, and was said to be one of the tallest in the West. 

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 -- in fact, the first ones began to assemble in front of the hotel before Harris was even up. Before long perhaps 50 men (no women are reported to have attended) were in the street and ready to raise the flag. 

Erectile Dysfunction 

It wasn't as easy as they thought it would be. First loose sand in front of the hotel proved too challenging for the drunken Democrats to dig the hole for the flagpole.  Eventually "a Republican named Delaney" (Evening Herald) successfully dug it. The crowd, by this time drunk and getting drunker, turned to the next hurdle: getting the first section of the pole up. This proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. Finally, shortly before noon, a sailor identified only as "Brown," assisted by several others, managed to mount the first section of the pole. Brown was so drunk he passed out soon after.

"A Swede sailor undertook putting up the second section," recounted the Herald, but once the pole was up the men found that it leaned to the windward. But it stayed up, and the crowd moved on to final obstacle: The ropes and other gear needed to attach the flag were tangled high atop the pole, and there was no way to get the gear down without taking down the entire pole.  Someone would have to climb it. Re-enter sailor Brown, who had recovered with alacrity. He shinnied up the listing pole, fixed the cluttered ropes and clasps, and made it down in time for a round of celebratory drinks. 

Toastin' and Speechifyin' 

At last, about 5 p.m. -- less than an hour before sunset -- the flag flew.  More toasts followed, and a dance followed that. There was an attempt at speeches, with mixed success. One of the more memorable ones came from W. M. "Billy" Leach of the Whatcom Reveille. According to the Herald, Leach got into position on the hotel's veranda and then forgot what he was going to say except for the buzzwords. He "finally bowed himself into the [hotel] through a convenient window," concluded the Herald. (The Reveille saw it differently in its March 6, 1885, issue, saying Leach gave a "very neat address, appropriate and spicy.") The crowd cheered into the night.   

The Fairhaven men were faced with having to cross a log over Harris Creek on their way home, no big deal for the sober sojourner, except they weren’t sober. The adventure proved too much for a few of them and they ended up in the creek, uninjured except for their pride. Meanwhile, eight or nine Whatcom men rowed to Whatcom and stopped at a hotel bar for a nightcap, where they recounted the day's tales (already growing longer) and ended the day in song. 

Sources: HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Harris, Daniel Jefferson 'Dirty Dan'" (1833?-1890) (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 5, 2014); Frank C. Teck, "Epochs in the History of Fairhaven and Dan Harris," The (Fairhaven) Evening Herald, April 11, 1903, p. 1; Whatcom Reveille, March 6, 1885, p. 3.

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