Breadcrumbs

Dirty Dan Harris

 

Pioneer trader and smuggler in Bellingham Bay, Washington. Founder of the town of Fairhaven, which became part of Bellingham, Washington.

[I have a particular affection for Dirty Dan Harris, having played him in the October 2000 annual West Adams History Tours at the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.  In these events the actors learn what they can about the lives of their characters, are costumed for the period, and set up at the character’s gravestone to assume their parts.  For weeks I studied the history and maps of Bellingham Bay… about Harris’ extraordinary life: whaler Indian trader, smuggler, packer on the Cariboo Trail, and then hotel owner and founder of the town of Fairhaven, the predecessor of Bellingham, Washington.  A man of incredible physical strength and indifferent personal hygiene, who late in life married a much younger woman on whom he doted, who died young.  Briefly rich, Harris was ultimately poisoned by his wife’s Los Angeles doctor, which is how I came to be standing next to his grave channeling his unhappy spirit. At the end of this piece is a photo of me as Dirty Dan and a link to a YouTube video of my impersonation.]


Only known photo of Dirty Dan Harris, on his dory in Bellingham Bay, Washington
 

By Leslie Evans

I have a particular affection for Dirty Dan Harris, having played him in one of the annual West Adams Heritage Association's Living History Tours at the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery. In these events the actors learn what they can about the lives of their characters, are costumed for the period, and set up at the character's gravestone to assume their parts. For weeks I studied the history and maps of Bellingham Bay and the Skagit River, as well as the few articles in local Bellingham magazines about Harris' extraordinary life: whaler, Indian trader, smuggler, fighter in the Yakima Indian War, packer on the Cariboo Trail, and then hotel owner and founder of the town of Fairhaven. A man of incredible physical strength and indifferent personal hygiene, who late in life married a much younger woman on whom he doted who died young. Briefly rich, Harris was ultimately poisoned by his wife's Los Angeles doctor, which is how I came to be standing next to his grave chanelling his unhappy spirit.

 

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1826-1890. Daniel Jefferson Harris was born in Patchogue, Long Island, in 1826. After a family quarrel, Harris left home for Sag Harbor, New York, where he boarded an Alaskan whaler for a life at sea. In 1852 he deserted his ship in Honolulu, eventually reaching Victoria, British Columbia, and later Bellingham Bay in 1853, the same year that Washington Territory was created. Harris befriended John Thomas, who in 1853 had taken up a donation claim covering what was later the location of much of site of the town of Fairhaven at the south end of the bay.

Thomas hired Harris to help build a cabin on the beach at Padden Creek near the present location of 7th and Harris Streets in the city of Bellingham. Thomas died before the cabin was complete, but Harris finished the structure and made it his home while Thomas' estate languished in probate. In 1861, Harris officially took over the Thomas donation claim.

Harris was a big man, just under six feet and weighing 200 pounds. He typically wore a red undershirt, frock coat, unlaced boots or no shoes at all, and a top hat. His unkempt appearance earned him the nickname of "Dirty Dan." He had an independent spirit and declined to work in the Roeder Mill or the Sehome Mine where many of the early settlers earned their wages. Instead, between 1854 and 1858 Harris became a trader and smuggler. He would row 50 miles from the mainland to Victoria on Vancouver Island, sometimes once a week, stopping at several of the smaller islands on the way. He carried local produce and other agricultural goods to Victoria, returning with rice, fancy women's hats (which he sold to the Indians), and whiskey.

He served in the local militia during the Yakima Indian War of 1855-58 and again in the brief Pig War of 1859, and earned the rank of colonel when he brought the USS Massachusetts back to Bellingham Bay from San Juan Island and saved the town from the Nooksak Indians.

In 1858 Dan Harris bought a sloop and began trading at the mouth of the Fraser River in Canada and with Vancouver. Once a group of Samiahmoo Indians boarded Harris' sloop off Point Roberts. They tossed him overboard, and sailed off with his cargo, especially the whiskey. He later found the beached craft. He prepared a special barrel of whiskey spiked with an emetic, sailed back to the place his boat had been seized, and let the Indians capture him again. They left him alone after that.

In the early days, smuggling was not considered a serious offense and Harris was only reprimanded once by Whatcom County pioneer Edward Eldridge, then serving as Deputy Collector of Customs, who sold Harris' cargo at public auction in Port Townsend.


In 1861, Harris purchased a tract of 43 acres from Americus Poe covering the present site of southwestern Fairhaven and northern Post Point for the sum of $53.75. He meant to raise sheep there. He took ship to San Francisco, then went on to Utah where he bought 700 sheep. He drove them back to California alone with the help of some sheep dogs and bought passage on a ship to Bellingham Bay. The ship's captain, however, refused to provide water for the sheep, and by the time they arrived in Washington the sheep were so thirsty they ran off the ship to the beach, drank salt water, and all but 22 died.

Harris traded his remaining sheep for a string of horses and became a packer on the Cariboo Trail, taking trade goods overland up to the gold fields around Ruby Creek on the Skagit River .

In 1877, working alone, Harris cleared and graded a road from Sehome to Lake Whatcom to move supplies and machinery to the newly established Blue Canyon Mine. In 1881, the Kansas Colony re-established the mill at Whatcom Creek and the community anticipated an economic revival following the decline precipitated by the closure of the Sehome Mine in 1878. Harris plotted the town site of Fairhaven and became a real estate magnate and promoter. He demanded a fixed payment in cash only and soon had more money than anyone else in town. It is estimated that Dan realized $32,000 from the sale of lots created from his property holdings.

Dirty Dan Harris' Fairhaven Hotel, built circa 1882 at the corner of 4th and Harris Streets.
This photo taken sometime before 1890.


With the money he built the Fairhaven Hotel (later renamed the Northern Hotel) at the foot of Harris Avenue and constructed a deep water dock adjacent to the hotel. The hotel had marble topped tables and one of the only pianos in the area. In the election of 1884 Harris backed Democrat Grover Cleveland, who won as the first Democratic president since the Civil War. In celebration on inauguration day in 1885 Harris threw a huge party at the hotel and purchased a 50 foot flag and a 125 foot flagpole. He and his friends were too drunk to raise the pole and relied on a group of sailors who were passing by to do it.

In October 1885, Harris married Bertha Wasmer, at 28 some 31 years younger than he was. Bertha had tuberculosis and the couple relocated to Los Angeles in hopes that the drier climate would help her. In 1889 Harris sold his Fairhaven property to I.M. Wilson, E.L. Cowgill and Nelson Bennett for $70,000. Bertha continued to decline, and died in 1888. Harris was devastated. He became a recluse in a Los Angeles hotel, drinking heavily. He was attended by Bertha's doctor, A. S. Shorb, and his pretty wife Mattie.

The Shorbs took over Dan's finances, including purchasing property in Los Angeles and San Diego. Doctor Shorb prescribed medications for Harris and encouraged him to drink whiskey. In a short time Harris' health began to fail and he became bed-ridden. In May 1890 Harris gave Mattie Shorb a certificate of deposit in the amount of $25,000. She was told to put it in a bank of her choice in Dan's name. She didn't do so. He died five weeks later. Doctor Shorb signed the death certificate. The Shorbs were accused of poisoning Harris for his money. Dan's nephew sued the Shorbs to recover the money, but it had been hidden in many banks under false names and all that even a court order could recover was $45 and a pocket watch.

A statue of Dan Harris was erected in the Fairhaven Historical District of Bellingham in 2003.

 

Leslie Evans playing the part of Dirty Dan Harris, at Dan's gravesite in the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery
Los Angeles, October 2000, in the annual West Adams Heritage Association's
Living History Tour

Link to the YouTube video of Leslie Evans as Dirty Dan Harris