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Fairhaven’s American story as told by the Good Time Girls

“There was no free casual sex in Victorian society, unless married,” quipped Good Time Girl Hayley Boothe. Along with Jane Burleigh, the Good Time Girls provide a unique social perspective on the boom town history of Fairhaven. An affluent neighborhood of Bellingham, on Washington State’s northwest Pacific coast, Fairhaven once was infamous for Devil’s Row, Dead Man’s Corner and its Chinese ghetto.

Hayley Boothe & Jane Burleigh, Good Time Girls Walking Tours, Fairhaven Historic District, WA
Marc d'Entremont
Fairhaven painted sign on brick wall
Marc d'Entremont

Bellingham residents Marisa McGrath and Sara Holodnick created Good Time Girls Walking Tours a year ago. Dressed appropriately in Victorian lingerie, the rough and tumble history of early Fairhaven comes to life through the eyes of their guides, Hayley and Jane, two working girls. In an age when the average seamstress earned $.25 a day and a teacher $1.25, a working girl, despite disease and social ostracism, could average $10 to $20 a day. Considering that the early population was overwhelmingly young unmarried men, the euphemistically named working girls, as Hayley and Jane explain with wry humor, got to experience a lot of life. “These young strapping bearded men were exploiting the natural resources, so we were just exploiting them.”

The natural resources were coal, timber and salmon. During several gold rushes, Fairhaven was a major port and supply center for miners embarking on the arduous journey to the gold fields. All this raw material needed raw human power, and that was supplied by America’s ample and ambitious young male workforce, especially immigrants from Europe and Asia. Venture capital was provided by a few wealthy families who built spacious Victorian mansions high up the hill with breathtaking views of Bellingham Bay.

Commercial Fairhaven, below 12th Street, was undesirable, and the marshy flats near the docks and canneries were a no man's land, yet, as the Good Time Girls explain, “prostitution was a necessary social evil for the young men to work out their sexual frustrations so as not to go after the society ladies.” Taxes raised from the world’s oldest profession are estimated to have provided seven to eleven percent of Fairhaven’s budget, with the parlor houses, above 12th Street, whose clientele rarely included working class men, paying more than a fair share.

Fairhaven is studded with unusual historical markers, all the gift of the late Fairhaven newspaper publisher Ty Tillson. He did not want Fairhaven to forget its colorful past and characters, such as Dirty Dan and Spider Biles, even if some events were shameful. Employed by the hundreds, especially in the canneries, any Asian was considered Chinese and was restricted to the marshy docklands. Venturing north was forbidden, but white men were allowed to frequent the ghetto’s noodle houses, opium dens and prostitutes. Yet that did not stop racist violence and the eventual deportation of all Asians from Fairhaven in the first decade of the 20th century. In 2011, Bellingham’s mayor issued an official apology to the Asian community.

Both Dead Man’s Corner and the seedy red light district of Devil's Row are now in the heart of the restored Fairhaven Historic District. In the 1890s, Dead Man’s Corner, at the confluence of dirt streets and raw sewage running to the bay, was where unidentified bodies of the deceased would be exhibited for a day or two, in hopes of identification before burial. Today this narrow corner is popular for its century old Rainier beer sign painted on the brick wall of the historic building that once housed a saloon.

This historic sign, for the Good Time Girls, signals the turn of the century struggle that eventually transformed Fairhaven and Bellingham. Excessive taxes levied on saloons by a reform minded town council were paid by local breweries in exchange for exclusive sales rights. In the case of the saloon at the Dead Man’s Corner, Rainier beer was it for brew, but that did not stop the inevitable. Working girls were segregated to a specific district, such infamous businesses as the Tontine Saloon and the Casino Theater were shuttered and demolished, and by 1910 alcohol and prostitution were outlawed. The new city of Bellingham was dry.

The end of this era was the start of a long, slow economic decline that began a reversal only in the 1990s as Bellingham attracted artists, young professionals and retirees. The former red light district and stunning waterfront are now shops, cafes, beautiful public walkways and parks, but Hayley and Jane inject much needed life into a bygone era that’s usually glossed over in both text and guide books. The Good Time Girls offer a family themed historical walking tour of Fairhaven, but the decidedly adult Sin and Gin tour is enlightening, historically accurate, and, above all, fun.

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