By Lorraine Wilde
A year ago this month, my husband hatched a romantic plan for our 15th wedding anniversary—gliding around Bellingham Bay in a 15-foot rowing dory, a rough replica of a boat owned by founder of Fairhaven, Dirty Dan Harris.
Handmade in Harris’ honor by 81-year-old, Ralph Thacker, the boat is now available for rent from the Community Boating Center in Fairhaven. Rowing around Fairhaven’s inland waters in this boat took me back to the 1850s where Dirty Dan earned his nickname, and made me curious about the history of the boat, Harris, and Fairhaven itself.
Thacker retired from an insurance and banking career in Connecticut in 1995 and relocated to Bellingham in 2001. His apartment on Fairhaven’s 11th Street overlooked the South Bay Trail system and Fairhaven’s waterfront. Having had a lifelong interest in boats and the water, Thacker became curious about the history of the waterfront outside his window. With meticulous research, Thacker discovered that most everything in sight had at one time been owned by Daniel Jefferson Harris (1833-1890), also known as Fairhaven’s founder, Dirty Dan Harris.
“There were stories about Dirty Dan, but most weren’t confirmed historically. My motivation wasn’t to change how people saw him necessarily, but simply broadened their view,” explains Thacker.
Born in 1833 on Long Island, NY, Harris got his taste for the water at the age of 15 when he joined an uncle on a whaling voyage. He took a second voyage, at age 18, as a harpooner, traveling to the Antarctic and twice to the Arctic. He found it difficult to stay out of trouble, scrapping with crewmates. Harris eventually came to Bellingham Bay in 1854 and by the mid-1870s, he owned almost 190 acres of land, now occupied by the Village of Fairhaven and its waterfront. He homesteaded, traded, and transported coal as his official occupation, but not without incident. “Harris’ dealings weren’t always legal, but he was a survivor. He was like everyone else capable of living here back then—industrious and creative,” notes Thacker.
In 1855, Harris was arrested for selling “spirituous liquor” to First Nations People and again the following year for inciting the Stikine Native Peoples of B.C. to attack the Lummis. In 1867 he was arrested for smuggling goods and liquor by boat from Victoria, B.C. into the U.S. in barrels labeled “Honolulu Sugar.” Although jailed many times, Harris was never sentenced to serve a prison term. Selling parcels to individuals and business through a plat filed in 1883, Harris’ later life focused on turning his land into the Town of Fairhaven.
Fascinated by what he found about Harris, Thacker began sharing his findings serially in booklets and on a website beginning in 2007. During his research, Thacker found the only confirmed photograph of Harris in the Whatcom Museum archives, marked 1884, of Harris standing in a rowboat on the shore below Thacker’s window. Inspired by the photo, Thacker began building a replica of sorts in 2009. “There were no plans or details of how the boat was made, only the photo,” explains Thacker. “I’d been a sailor and taken boat building courses for many years so I did my best. A retired boat builder named John Othmer wandered past my workshop one day and offered his help, so the boat has more quality craftsmanship than I could have done alone.”
With that help and a lot of perseverance, Thacker finished the boat in 2013. “The dory is made of several types of wood including teak for the rail, okoume plywood, and meranti for the frame,” notes Thacker. “Friends donated exotic pieces of sapele and padauk that made it in there too. It was made with modern tools and materials that Dan wouldn’t have had access to, so it’s probably a touch bigger, but that’s made it a better size for the Boating Center.”
“Thacker was one of the original founding members of the Community Boating Center,” explains Executive Director, Steve Walker. “After moving to a smaller living space, he could no longer store the boat so he donated it to us. It’s one of the largest and most popular boats we have.” Thacker’s creation, along with paddle boards, kayaks, and small sailboats, is available for rent to the public. It also serves ongoing educational classes and youth camps.
Fairhaven’s main thoroughfare, Harris Street, is named in honor of the colorful founder. His now infamous nickname, Dirty Dan Harris, noted as early as 1867, was, “Not because he was divisive in his dealings, but because of infrequent bathing and an untidy appearance,” clarifies Thacker. That moniker has graced a popular Fairhaven family restaurant for more than 40 years, The Dirty Dan Harris Steakhouse, as well as the Dirty Dan Days Seafood Festival on the Fairhaven Green each April, recently completing its 13th year.
Thacker’s research of the past has influenced his vision for the future of the Fairhaven waterfront. He’s already shared his dream with Port officials for a multicultural international village, not unlike a tiny version of Disney’s Epcot Center, that would invite and educate both locals and visitors worldwide. “We can open people’s minds by sharing the food, art, and customs of Whatcom County’s Native Peoples, settlers like Dirty Dan, and the melting pot of nationalities that have colored our local history up through today.” Thacker welcomes correspondence on his vision, Dirty Dan, and boat building, too.
It will be hard for my hubby to top all that last year’s anniversary present brought me—rowing with the spirit of Dirty Dan, meeting Ralph Thacker, and dreaming of Fairhaven’s future—but I’m willing to let him try.
Community Boating Center
555 Harris Avenue
Bellingham, WA 98225