Hidden Treasures – Part II – Olde Fairhaven

Dirty Dan Seafood Festival Olde Fairhaven

I live in Vancouver BC and one of my favourite day trips is a visit to Seattle. Many years ago a friend introduced me to Chuckanut Drive. Built in 1896 and now formally State Route 11, Chuckanut is a scenic twenty one mile (34 km) route so spectacular it has become a must-do diversion on either the way down or way back.  Over the years I have seen ‘The Drive’ as it is known locally, in all seasons and from both directions. Its beauty never fails to impress. My own preference lies with the north-south route, but perhaps that is because I am generally the passenger and the most scenic parts tend to parade to the right.

In my last post I wrote about my brother introducing me to the wonders of Maryhill Museum of Art at the bottom of Washington State. The following day, a Saturday, was our last on the road and it was my turn to introduce Irv to a new wonder. We had an early breakfast in Yakima, traversed Snoqualmie Pass and spent time at the gorgeous Snoqualmie Falls. Bypassing Seattle we took a bit of time at the Burlington Factory Stores before making our way onto Chuckanut Drive. At the south end, The Drive rolls through bucolic farmland and is rather benign. Then it crosses over railroad tracks and suddenly a whole new vista is opened. From here the road narrows dramatically and climbs and dips between steep mountain pitches and the waters of Chuckanut, Samish and Bellingham Bays, with stunning views of the San Juan Islands and the Coastal Mountains. There are a number of scenic overlooks where one can pause and just drink in the majesty of the area.

Tucked in at the north end of The Drive on Bellingham Bay sits the community of old Fairhaven. Designated an Historic District by the US National Register with a listing of seventeen historic buildings, Fairhaven is a village within the City of Bellingham. Bellingham is a border town, less than an hours’ drive from the Vancouver area and attracts many Canadian shoppers. I usually visit a couple times a year and whenever possible squeeze in a meal and walk in Fairhaven. With its venerable old buildings and quiet pace, one cannot help but feel a sense of peace there.

But it wasn’t ever thus.

For some it’s not that old, but folks from North America and especially those from the upstart West tend to be fascinated with the architecture and sturdiness of old buildings – and we like to romanticize their colourful histories.

Fairhaven does not disappoint. The founder of Fairhaven, ‘Dirty Dan’ as he is known, is one of those brash wild-west types who was bigger than life.

According to Fairhaven.com, “Dan Harris arrived on the shore of Bellingham Bay as a 21-year-old adventurer in 1854. He became a legend as a homesteader, land owner, smuggler, hotel owner, and seaman, who founded Fairhaven in 1883. He also picked up the colorful nickname “Dirty Dan” due to his infrequent bathing. Dan’s amazing feats include traveling by rowboat between Fairhaven and Victoria, B.C. A shrewd business man, he once rolled his piano out of the Fairhaven Hotel in 1890 and straight down Harris Avenue into the bay after the hotel’s new owner wouldn’t pay for it.”

The designated historic structures were built on a few square-ish blocks in the speculative boom years between 1890 and World War I, and occupy pride of place in the village. As with many towns of the west, saloons dominated the landscape, with one for every two hundred residents. The buildings also housed two liquor warehouses to service the saloons; hotels; boarding houses; a library; eating establishments; offices; banks and all the other accoutrements one finds in a turn-of-the-century boomtown.

Dirty Dan and his cohorts dreamed of Fairhaven becoming the major port of the Pacific Northwest. In 1889 the race was on. At one point in the building craze bricks had to be imported from Japan when the local supply was exhausted. Workers were imported from overseas. A railway line was constructed.

Then in 1892 news came that Seattle had been chosen to become the major transportation centre of the area. Construction was largely halted, with some buildings left unfinished. In 1903 Fairhaven amalgamated with neighbouring Whatcom and Sehome to become the City of Bellingham. Today the I5 freeway runs between Fairhaven and most of the rest of Bellingham and the flavour of the old town has been maintained.

My original plan for the day I introduced my brother to Chuckanut was to have lunch along The Drive and then an ice cream or tea and cookies in Fairhaven. I was secretly delighted when lunch did not materialize as planned, for it meant we would have more time in Fairhaven.

Today the old village is a wonderful mix of eclectic boutique retail stores and eateries, some of which evoke an era where folks gathered around tables and ate and drank – and laughed and flirted and debated the issues of the day. Others, though occupying old brick buildings, offer wonderful anomalous fare. One of Bellingham’s best Mexican restaurants resides in the village and is a fave.

True to Dirty Dan’s dream, a hundred and more years later Fairhaven is the southernmost point of the Alaska Marine Highway System, the nation’s first scenic marine highway, and transportation is conducted on its waters – though not as he envisioned. In 1989 Bellingham Cruise Terminal was built, and cruises depart from Fairhaven to traverse the ‘highway’ as far as the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Fairhaven Station, an historic brick warehouse, was renovated in 1994 to service the terminal and other transportation needs of the area such as Amtrak, ferries to San Juan Islands and Victoria BC, whale watching and other recreational pursuits. Dirty Dan would have been proud to see the transportation hub it has become.

Irv and I arrived just before two, got parked and walked a few streets before wandering into a Bakery-Deli. The deli does not have a liquor licence but the staff assured us we could visit the wine store next door and they would deliver our meals there. What fun! We spent a few minutes in the wine store, bought a bottle or three and ordered two glasses. As we took our first sips, our meals were indeed delivered and we ate them perched on stools at the wine bar’s tasting table. The food was delicious as has been every meal I’ve had in Fairhaven and the wine went down very well with it. Alas it was getting late into the day when we finished and we still had to get through customs before returning to Vancouver, never a pleasant thought, so we dashed away before I could show Irv any more of the town.

I laughed out loud when that Monday some friends invited me to join them for a visit to Fairhaven’s Dirty Dan Seafood Festival the next Sunday! I thought about it for a nanosecond before deciding what the heck. I don’t see enough of these friends and it’s always a good time to visit Fairhaven.

We got an early start and after a ‘random’ full check of our car at US customs which we decided to view as most humourous, and a must-do short shop in Bellingham, we arrived at the village late morning.

A seafood chowder cook-off was scheduled from 2 to 4 pm. The sun was shining on Olde Fairhaven that day, showing it in its best light. We wandered the cobbled streets, stopping in to look at offerings at establishments with names such as The Big Fat Fish Company (who could resist?); A Lot of Flowers (closed during storms); 4 Starrs Boutique (designer and brand name chic); Wild Blueberries (for children) and a host of other shops and eateries. We followed our noses and made our way down to the Village Bookstore and Colophon Café, both housed in the historic structure whose lower level opens onto the town square where the festivities were taking place. This building is my favourite in Fairhaven. Four stories tall and one block wide, it began its life servicing the community with a hall where ‘secret’ meetings took place, a ballroom and a hardware store. One enters the second story from the street above the square. Village Bookstore occupies three stories on one end. The bookstore in itself is a hidden treasure, full of nooks and crannies found upon climbing its creaky sweeping stairs or through doorways which once led to other, perhaps less accessible rooms for the general public. With tall ceilings, spacious rooms and bright windows, it is not the cramped old bookstore where one encounters musty antiquated books piled high on shelves with room for one person only to pass. With its dark wood trim and plank flooring, the whole evokes a certain je ne sais quoi, and there is at once a liveliness and peacefulness to the store. Despite the advent of ebooks, one hopes to see the bookstore around for another hundred years.

Colophon deli café occupies the two lower floors at the other end of the block and serves up friendliness along with its fabulous soups and huge decadent desserts. Outdoor seating and an ice cream bar add to the appeal.

We elected not to buy a ticket for the cook-off, which entitled the holder to a sample of each entry as well as a bowl of their favourite chowder, in favour of an earlier lunch and longer stroll through the shops.

We were grateful for this decision when we discovered a huge paella being crafted at an outdoor stand. The flat-bottomed vessel had to be four feet across. The paella featured local seafood such as clams, mussels, oysters and salmon. The making of the dish was a work of art and was topped off with carefully placed layers of fresh asparagus, pea pods and spinach, and garnished with lemon quarters and red peppers. The batch soon disappeared and the artist began all over again – and again, and still yet again. We ate our bowls at a table on the lawns, people watching and listening to live entertainment.

In honour of Dirty Dan, there was a raucous piano race down the street and Dan Harris Paddling and Rowing Competition on the Bay.

Sated, we leisurely strolled the cobbled streets, poking our noses into art galleries which may or may not sell boutique clothing and/or art jewellery, a famous sweets store to top off our seafood meal, pottery shops and those selling exquisite hand-blown glass pieces, along with the usual one-of-a-kind eclectic tourist shops. Unique to the area are several shops selling beautiful hand-carved wooden bowls and other fine woodwork.

This was the longest visit I’ve ever had in the historic village and I was delighted to find a few back alleys I had not noticed before, with hidden treasures such as ‘Mrs Hudsons Yarns and Teas’.

I will close our tour with an interesting tidbit. Thanks to a local historian, several engraved cement plaques which mark historical events are scattered throughout the village. As we passed one corner we noted a plaque which read: “Unknown dead 1901: Bodies displayed in hopes of identification.” I will leave it for the reader to romanticize the rest…

Bread & Cafe in Olde Fairhaven

Old Fairhaven Days – Dirty Dan and Friend

Old Fairhaven Days – Making Paella: Rice and Seafood Base

Rendering of Fairhaven city plan 1891

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4 responses to “Hidden Treasures – Part II – Olde Fairhaven

  1. Joani Glasser

    We moved to Bellingham a little over a year ago and Fairhaven is a gem. We often go to the Big Red Bus for fish and chips or
    walk down the hill for gelato, and stroll the shops full of artist’s fantasies and completed projects. Thanks for the lovely description of this cute little village.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Joani. I had forgotten about the gelato. Yes, a must! Lucky you to live so close. I’ve never had fish & chips at the BIg Red Bus, but will make a point of it next time I visit.

  3. Another destination for my husband and me! We’ll be sure to check out Fairhaven, with a stop at all the places you mentioned — including the Big Red Bus. Thank you so much for your great travelogue.

  4. I was thinking of you Sandra, knowing you had fairly recently moved to Wa. Wondered if you had ever visited Fairhaven. Shopping is wonderful there too, if you’re of a mind…