Please Tell Me a Dirty Dan Harris Story

By On
• In Bellingham, People,

The people behind Bellingham's colorful history matter - just like it matters that Pierre Charles L'Enfant designed Washington DC and that Thomas Jefferson created the University of Virginia. Visit that campus and tell me if Thomas Jefferson, though long dead, deserves to be consulted – his vision and life and artistic sense honored - anytime the U of V decides to build a new dorm? Absolutely.

Too bad Dirty Dan Harris, founder of the village of Fairhaven, was no Thomas Jefferson. If we followed Dirty Dan's plan for our town, Fairhaven, at least, would be the booziest, smuggling, and brothel hot spot on Puget Sound. Luckily Dan wasn't Bellingham's only influence. Yet Dirty Dan Harris proved - hands down, no doubt about it, are you kidding? - the best storyteller of this region. Bellingham's first and foremost weirdo, a sailor and adventurer, a sweethearted, smelly old geezer who got rich and who may have left a fortune, a treasure, hidden somewhere around here. But where?

Dan Harris arrived in Bellingham Bay in May of 1854 in a row boat. He rowed to Victoria and back, regularly, transporting goods and smuggling liquor. He named his claim Fairhaven because it is such a nice place for small boats, with deep enough waters to dock bigger ships, too. You can't really experience this region without the help of a small boat; a kayak, rowboat, or canoe. Small craft remain necessary vehicles for most Pacific Northwesterners just because we live here. It makes you wonder about the folks that have been running our Port in recent years. Authentic Pacific Northwesterners require and support public access to waters. We need programs and facilities that help citizens and visitors experience Puget Sound shores and islands intimately, as sailors, the way Dirty Dan did it. Shouldn't every Bellingham child be trained in water safety and small boat management? I know I was.

And Bellingham children get told Dirty Dan Harris stories, because we live here - because this is Bellingham, Washington, where Dirty Dan Harris himself once lived - not Fresno.

How many Port candidates can tell us Dirty Dan stories? Did they raise their children on them? Or are they another bunch of tourists and rootless land speculators? If you can't tell us a Dirty Dan Harris story, then you haven't been initiated yet. You aren't a Bellinghamster. Sorry. I mean, come on. When did you move here? Where do you live?

You live where Dan once lived. They named a street after him . Or maybe he named it after himself? You tell me.

Or go ask Ralph W. Thacker who introduces himself on his website dedicated to Dirty Dan Harris:

"After retiring from a career in insurance and banking, I moved to Bellingham’s Fairhaven Neighborhood to be near the boats and the water. I soon became interested in the history of the section of the waterfront that my apartment overlooks. I quickly learned that during the period from 1900 to 1980 the Fairhaven shoreline east and north of Padden Creek had been home to a series of lumber milling, logging and boat building operations, several of them being world-class enterprises. All were located on land first granted to Dan Harris, the founder of Fairhaven."

Thank you Ralph for going native, for putting down real roots, for being interested in the land you live on and the people and culture around you. I invite Ralph and other NW Citizens, to also share in "Comments" below, favorite Dirty Dan Harris stories.

Dirty Dan Harris stories come in three forms. Dan Harris left us true stories about his actual adventures. and Dan also left us stories, tall tales and fictional narratives that he performed for Bellingham children a century ago. And, of course, others told stories ABOUT Dan too. Dan knew the power of a good story. Dan figured that settlers would keep coming to this beautiful land and that we would remember who established our town - Eldridge, Roeder and others – but we would tell our children Dirty Dan's stories. Why? Because Dirty Dan Harris stories are some of the best stories you'll ever hear! Ask anyone around these parts if we don't feel that Dirty Dan stories rank up there with the finest tales on earth. Absolutely!

That said, Dirty Dan Harris was a bum. He wasn't lazy though - eventually he became a rich bum. He died a hard pathetic death – another good story. Wait until you hear it!

Meanwhile, some say Dan used bear grease as a body and hair lotion; everyone agrees he never bathed. He smelled really rotten. Dan would NOT be welcome in any shop in modern Fairhaven, much less the restaurant that sports his name. They require a suit coat – actually Dan did wear one, over his filthy, really filthy. long-johns, and he sported a top hat too. Hilarious to imagine Dirty Dan Harris eating at his namesake restaurant. I think the irony pleases him, from beyond the beyond, in a twisted sort of way. Dirty Dan loved a good joke. Then again, Dirty Dan Harris actually welcomed poor people, wanderers, humble workers, homeless and simple folk to Fairhaven, something which our new-fangled Fairhaven Distrust - I mean Distract - that is, District - does not.

It is because of Dan Harris that, while driving out Lakeway to Blodel Donovan (the old mill), we remember how one man felled all the trees ( and they were really BIG back then) to create that road. A super duper real life man, none other than Daniel Jefferson Harris himself. How long did it take him? How much money did Dan get for clearing Lakeway Drive? Just how huge were those trees again? How big were the mosquitoes? Roeder rode a horse out to check on Dan and what did he report?

Do you know where Dirty Dan lived? Dan's beach shacks were down around where Fairhaven's community boat dock is now, except that the shoreline ran closer to where the present day Wastewater Treatment plant sits. His shacks were junky hovels and when Dan got a couple of pigs he didn't bother to pen them. What did he feed those pigs? Nothing!

That confused Dan. His pigs kept getting fatter and fatter while he kept forgetting to feed them. So eventually Dan investigated and what did he find?

Clamming pigs! Those porkers were out at low tide on the beach around Post Point shoveling clams with their snouts. They gorged themselves on clams and got fat, much to Dan's delight, and the delight of Bellinghamsters ever since.

Dan Harris didn't pretend to be better than he was. He didn't pretend much at all. Rather Dirty Dan established Bellingham as a place where folks feel welcome to be ourselves. We love a good character.

Then again Dan stands accused of inciting an Indian war that harmed the Lummis - whose land he was stealing – just like all the other Victorian era white settlers. Except the other local pioneers were like all developers, trying to create their land, lumber, fishing or mining empires so they could live in European inspired grandeur. Dirty Dan, in contrast, simply hustled - working class style - selling folks what they wanted to buy. We love that about Dan but we don't share Dan's stories because he deserves our highest respect and honor exactly - rather we share them because Dan stories are so darn good and we love them, and him, eternally.

Below Ralph Thacker shares a brief summary of a the high and low points of Dirty Dan's amazing true life story, from which Dan spun his fictional yarns:

"Daniel Jefferson Harris was born on February 16, 1833 at Southampton, Suffolk Co. on Long Island, New York. He was second among six children. His family went back at least six generations to a George Harris, who was living in Southampton as early as 1657. Dan’s father and grandfather were farmers.

"...At the age of fifteen, Dan Harris accompanied an uncle on an Arctic whaling voyage. In 1851 he joined a Pacific whaling expedition aboard the Sag Harbor ship "Levant" of which Mercator Cooper was Master. Dan Harris served as a "boat steerer" (harpooner). On this voyage the "Levant" made two trips to the Arctic and one to the Antarctic, where it penetrated further south than any U.S. ship up to that date. Dan was the only crew member reported to have stepped out on to the ice at that point. During the voyage, Dan was jailed in Hobart, Tasmania for arguing with other crew members upon returning late from liberty and put in chains at sea for being insubordinate to the captain. Dan left the ship on January 24, 1854 during its two-and-one-half month stay at Honolulu.

"Dan Harris arrived at Bellingham Bay in May 1854, after a brief stop in Victoria, B.C. In 1855, he filed for a Donation Land Claim on land originally settled by John Thomas, receiving a certificate for 146.44 acres in 1868 and a patent in 1871. Dan later purchased another 43 acres along the shoreline west of his claim in a private transaction. For many years Dan combined homesteading with trading on Puget Sound, first as master of a Schooner named "Phantom" and later in a boat named "Bounding Ball," in which he carried coal from a 148 acre tract of public land he bought a mile east his claim in 1876 and held until 1882.

"Dan Harris was involved in at least four notable legal scrapes. In 1855 he was arrested for selling "spirituous liquor" to First Nations People. In 1856 he was arrested for inciting the Stikines of British Columbia to attack the Lummis. In 1867 Dan Harris was arrested for using $60 entrusted to him by William Nichols for purchasing a bank draft in Victoria, B.C. to buy trade goods and then for smuggling those goods, including liquor in casks labeled "Honolulu Sugar" into the U.S. Dan was jailed more than once while awaiting trial and was bailed out by friends. Apparently, he was never sentenced to serve a prison term.

"Dan Harris displayed a great deal of enterprise. He spent the period from the fall of 1860 to June of 1861 in the mines of British Columbia. In 1875, he single-handedly constructed a three-mile road from Sehome to Lake Whatcom. In 1878, he led a team of oxen to the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia. On one occasion while there, he purchased several kegs of nails at $3.00 a pound and sold them for $5.00 a pound after transporting them just twelve miles. From as early as 1877 Dan Harris envisioned developing a town on his claim. Because of his infrequent bathing and untidy appearance, he was given the sobriquet "Dirty Dan" as early as 1867. However, marriage and the acquisition of wealth late in life substantially improved his public image."

I never heard that marriage and wealth improved Dan's personal hygiene. Bellingham children didn't care that he smelled really foul. They gathered around Dan and listened to his tales; some true and some fictional stories too

Please, share your favorite Dirty Dan tale here - particularly if you are running for Port Commissioner. Share your favorite Dan story and tell us why Dan Harris matters to us, why we love him and care about him. Let's encourage, help and support newcomers to our town, region and culture, in their best efforts to put down authentic and strong roots with us.

Because you'll always be a tourist - no matter how long you have lived here – until you can tell a Dirty Dan Harris story.

About Kamalla Rose Kaur

Notifications • Bellingham • Member since Jul 12, 2009

Comments by Readers

John Servais

Aug 08, 2009

Rather insulting and ignorant stuff about the Port Commissioner candidates in this article.  From the paragraph, it seems the author knows little or nothing about them.  Some of the candidates probably know a lot more about Dan Harris than the author - and some have lived here a lot longer than the author has. 

John Blethen and Doug Karlberg, to name two, probably know a lot about Dan Harris and also about the other early Fairhaven pioneers.  And they know the Fairhaven waterfront. A knowledge of our current waterfront and our county economic situation is far more important for a candidate. 

The article is colorful and charming, but is very off the mark in the implied characterizing of Port candidates.


Tip Johnson

Aug 08, 2009

Whoa! “Insulting and ignorant stuff about the Port Commissioner candidates?” As I read it, it says nothing about the candidates, but questions the incumbents.  Well, I guess Kamalla doesn’t really have any monopoly on disparaging the incumbents, does she, John? ;-)

Anyway, I can tell you from personal experience that the Port for many years has done little, if anything, to support small boat facilities, boating skills programs or water safety. 

I can also personally verify that the Fairhaven Master Plan gives every indication that the Boating Center, formerly Fairhaven Boatworks, is not contemplated as a future amenity.

With all the drownings this year, and the election upon us, we might all benefit from considering which Port candidates might better fulfill these important community needs.


Kamalla R. Kaur

Aug 09, 2009

Hi John,

Please share your own favorite Dirty Dan Harris story so we can all learn. And yes,  I hope Doug Karlberg and John Blethen use this opportunity to:

1. Share their favorite Dirty Dan Harris story with us,

2. Talk about being Pacific Northwesterners,

3. Speak some more about our native joy and right to launch rowboats, kayaks, canoes and small sail boats into Bellingham Bay.

“The author” admits freely her ignorance regarding the life and times of Dirty Dan Harris when compared with the knowledge of Ralph Thacker(and maybe other NW Citizen readers - maybe not). Ralph was not born in Bellingham, but he really lives here, which I admire very much.

Settlers arrived within the last 150 years, so most of us have not been here very long. Obviously anyone born in Bellingham who is older than I has lived here longer. My greatgrandmother, Mary Perkins, among the first women physicians in the USA, moved to Steilacoom (Washington’s first incorporated town, just South of Tacoma) with her husband, who was also a doctor, in the late 1800s. My grandparents and parents - native Puget Sounders.

My parents moved to Bellingham in 1950. My father, the late Dr. Don F. Blood taught in the Psychology and Education Departments and ran the Testing Center at WWU. Between 1950-1987, you couldn’t become a certified teacher at Western without passing the “Blood Test.” Dad taught teachers how to write tests, because otherwise wonderful educators can be terrible test writers.

My mother, Pat Blood, taught for years at Shuksan Middle School and then taught for many more at Whatcom Middle School.

For some locals I remain eternally Bruce Blood’s (Seattle’s webmeister, also a fine regional musician and songwriter)little sister.


David Camp

Aug 10, 2009

Nice work, Kamalla. Nothing illustrates the problem with the current Port administration than its treatment of the ONLY community small boat center - despite being in operation for over 20 years (and being the Port’s longest-standing non-governmental tenant), the Port seems to regard it as completely expendable, a mere trifle to be ignored and left out of any plans. More important to maximize the number of 65 foot yacht berths and marquee tenants. And we see how this emphasis turns out - after spending months and uncounted (!) staff and related travel costs wooing NOOA (the only figure available from the Port on this failed bid is the $266,000 spent on external consultants), the Port is essentially saying “Now what?”.

How about supporting community-based boating? With one-tenth of the funds flushed on external consultants for the NOOA bid, the Community Boating Center could fund a full learn-to-sail program and maybe, just maybe, help new sailors avoid tragic accidents on the Bay.

With another $4,000, the Boating Center could pay off its locally-made rescue boat, which the manufacturer generously provided interest-free terms for.

How about providing a proper long-term lease for the Boating Center, and showing some support rather than continuously keeping the Center insecure on whether it will even have a location after this season?

The Port has forgotten who it is supposed to serve - the taxpayers who fund its operations, not some retired trophy yacht owner from Bellevue. They need a wake-up call. They need to do their job, which is to develop the GP lands for the people of Whatcom County.

They could start by supporting community small boating rather than trying to kill it.