With our first ever Murder Mystery Weekend now in the rear view mirror, I think we should take a deeper dive into the legend behind the mystery. Detectives and clue-seekers started their journey on the Fairhaven Village Green, at the statue of fabled Fairhaven founder Dirty Dan Harris. But how much do you really know about Dirty Dan? Does the mystery extend beyond the dead jogger? We’re here to provide some background knowledge and fun stories about Dirty Dan Harris.
Daniel Harris was born on Long Island, New York, between 1826 and 1833. He left home and spent a few years aboard a whaling ship, during which he sailed the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and made trips to both the Arctic ocean and Antarctica. In either 1853 or 1854, Harris deserted the whaler whilst in Honolulu, and made his way to the Northwest. By way of Victoria, BC, Harris landed in Bellingham Bay, which at the time was little more than a lumber mill and some small shacks, in the northern town of Whatcom. He finished a small log cabin, started by a previous frontiersman, and settled in at the outlet of Padden Creek, near where 7th and 8th streets would be today. In the early 1860’s, he obtained another 189 acres along the shore, the foundation of which would later become Fairhaven.
Harris was famous in those days for keeping a shaggy appearance, hence the nickname Dirty Dan. He had a scraggly beard, long hair, and was seldom seen wearing shoes. He had a rough-and-tumble look about him. He had broad shoulders and muscular arms, and was roughly 200 pounds. Much of his bulk came from the consistent rowing he did, as he would routinely row his boat from Bellingham Bay to Victoria and back. Why might you ask? Dirty Dan was a smuggler, though in those days the title was less frowned upon than it is now. He routinely rowed and sailed from Bellingham Bay to Victoria and back, exchanging vegetables and smoked salmon for dried goods and alcohol. After a couple of run-ins with the local customs official, including one which required lowering a liquor barrel with his anchor, Harris adjusted his methods and started making the runs at night to avoid customs altogether. Harris’ liquor trade was thriving with the influx of workers for the timber, coal, and gold mining industries, and he even started dabbling in entertainment. Harris is credited with organizing the first prize fight in the region, as well as the first baseball game, in which the local coal miners took on the professional team in the area. There were so many disputes over the rules that Harris brought out a barrel of liquor to keep the tensions from rising.
Shortly after Dan Harris arrived in the Bellingham area, the Fraser Canyon gold rush brought prospectors to the area looking to strike it rich. Though most of the gold was found slightly north in British Columbia, many people stayed in the Bellingham Bay area. This, combined with prosperous logging and coal mining operations, provided the basis for sustained settlement in Whatcom County. Dan Harris soon realized that he could capitalize on this settlement, and in 1883 began platting and selling off his land along the Padden Creek shoreline, and named the new town Fairhaven. Some say Harris named it after the Lummi word, Seeseelichem, which means “port of fair haven.” It consisted of 85 blocks, each of which held eight lots of land. Harris Avenue was the main street. In 1883 alone he sold roughly a third of the plots for what would account to about half a million dollars today, making him rich by the standards of the time.
Though he had always kept his scraggly appearance, his newfound wealth did force him to clean up a bit. He adopted a silk hat, a long coat, some fine trousers, and actually started wearing shoes! He spent some of his profits from the land plots to build a dock, and is said to have loved greeting passengers as they stepped off their boats. He also used the money to build the Fairhaven Hotel, home to the first piano in the area, of which Dirty Dan was very proud. It was over piano playing that he met his love, Bertha Wasmer, daughter of a local Happy Valley farmer. The two would sit at the piano in the Fairhaven Hotel, playing together for many hours. They were married shortly after, but filed for divorce just a year later. After reconciling, they got back together, and decided to move to Los Angeles. Bertha was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and they thought a move to a warmer climate would help her. Harris sold off most of his remaining land, and they made the move in 1888. Later that year, Bertha Harris died. Dan stayed the remainder of his years in Los Angeles, before dying in 1890.
The founder of Fairhaven was quite the character, and it is thanks to him that our lovely shoreside village exists as we know it today. So if you hear piano music on the wind, whether it’s the next time you walk down Harris Avenue, or linger by his statue on the village green, you can smile, knowing Dirty Dan’s watching over Fairhaven.