City of Fairhaven The town of Fairhaven, on the south end of Bellingham Bay, represents a classic case of a Pacific Northwest boom town. In fact, almost all of the historic buildings in Fairhaven were built from 1889-1891 as part of a great speculative real estate boom in anticipation of the town’s potential to be the new western headquarters for the Great Northern Railway. When the contract went to Seattle, Fairhaven lost its potential big city status, eventually merging into the town of Bellingham.
Many of the original brick buildings of that time still exist in the Fairhaven District, housing locally-owned businesses of all types, including restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, shops, and services. Its historical status assures that modern buildings are built in a historic theme, giving the new condo and business buildings a unique appearance along Bellingham’s waterfront.
Pacific American Fisheries The 1890s brought a tremendous wave of fish canneries in and around Fairhaven, though most were undercapitalized and mismanaged, going out of business within a few years. However, the canning industry did not disappear. In the 1940s, Pacific American Fisheries (PAF) in Fairhaven became the world’s largest salmon cannery in the world, providing at its peak 4,500 jobs for local residents and more than 1,000 Chinese laborers.
Transient Workers Most of the transient Chinese workers lived elsewhere off-season and were housed together in Fairhaven while working. According to resident George Hunsby, the China House, as locals called PAF’s corporate housing for the transient Chinese workers, was a fixture of the Fairhaven waterfront for many years. In fact, locals frequently ate at the noodle house on the first floor, where bowls of noodles were sold for 10-15 cents each. Other historical writings mention a Chinese-run opium den serving white customers beside where the Amtrak station now stands.
Port Acquisition of Property The PAF closed in 1966, as fresh salmon became more expensive due to dams on the Columbia and fish trap bans in Alaska. Tuna was the cheap canned fish of choice, leading to the salmon cannery’s demise. The port made a historic step in purchasing the former PAF properties after it had ceased operations, spending $598,000 to acquire the property. In an effort to lessen the economic blow the closure of PAF would cause, the port continued to operate the can-labeling factory until the early 1980s.