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Bellingham's red-light history

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Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2004 12:00 am

Brothels, whorehouses, cathouses, sporting houses, cribs or bordellos. It does not matter what the title, these "houses of ill-fame" once were an important part of Bellingham's economic and social framework.

Between the late 1800s and 1940s, Bellingham was home to an extensive prostitution industry, according to "The Brothels of Bellingham," a book written this year by Bellingham dentist and life-long resident Curtis Smith.

Buildings that businesses such as The Little Cheerful Cafe and Bellingham night spot The Royal now occupy once housed prostitutes, madams managing the business and dozens of men visiting for the brothel's services.

At least 14 brothels existed in Bellingham, mostly along Holly Street, and at least 13 brothels existed in Fairhaven, which many considered the "boomtown" to Whatcom's low-profile image.

"Fairhaven was like the Wild West," Smith said. "Bellingham was a liberty town for service men. During World War II, 700 to 800 men were in the city on the weekend to be entertained 'in other ways.' "

Western junior Cynthia Blau said Bellingham seems like an unlikely place to have a history of prostitution, given its relaxed culture.

"This is not the kind of town you'd think would have a brothel," Blau said. "I would think that maybe Seattle would, but here, it's more down-to-earth."

Blau said that considering the culture of downtown Bellingham at night, however, she would not be surprised that lucrative businesses once flourished in the area.

"Looking at (Holly Street), you could assume that brothels were there," Blau said. "It's kind of sketchy at night, and there are so many crazy random people down there."

Smith said the first prostitutes in the Bellingham area were young American Indian women traded by their tribal chiefs to Bellingham men. The prostitution business continued without much regulation until 1901, when the city charter of Whatcom created an ordinance that laid out a designated area for the "red-light district": F Street, Astor Street and the Whatcom Creek waterway.

Smith said brothels were a safer way to deal with prostitution because the houses provided security and residences for the women working in them.

"Prostitution was a protected industry, like legalized prostitution in Nevada today," Smith said. "It was an open secret."

The "girls" worked hard, Smith said, and when business was good, they worked fast. A typical "trick" took 20 minutes to a half-hour, and in some parlor houses, girls allegedly covered the foot of their beds so customers would not have to remove their boots, saving the linens.

As the prostitution industry grew through the beginning of the 20th century, an unofficial set of rules between businesses and the police emerged, Smith said. Madams did not allow the women to walk the streets, and the police ran the pimps out of town. The women also had to register with the police and undergo health checks.

With police cooperation, women working in brothels had the security of knowing pimps could not exploit them -- they could leave the trade whenever they chose, and all profits went directly to them. Bartenders or other male employees acted as security in the houses, and madams controlled business operations.

"There was a decision made to protect prostitution in the street," Smith said. "The police were protecting Bellingham's womanhood from men who couldn't control themselves."

Bellingham residents were not as tolerant to prostitution as were the police. The public put pressure on police to crack down on the brothels, so the police started performing random raids on the brothel houses.

Smith said whenever the police raided one of the brothels the officers charged the women with either practicing prostitution or keeping a house of ill-fame, which was a $250 fine. Police officers never charged men who frequented the houses with sex-related crimes. If a man were charged with anything, it was for public intoxication, a $25 fine.

At the time when brothels were a large part of Bellingham society, employment was scarce for women, so economic necessity drove many into the prostitution industry, Smith said.

"The end of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th was a time of very limited employment opportunities for women," Smith said. "They might find a job as a seamstress, a maid or a cook, jobs which were very low paying. A prostitute could easily make 10 times that amount."

By 1948, for unspecified reasons, all the brothels in Bellingham officially closed. Smith said one theory explaining the closures was that a coast-wide organization that existed in the Bellingham prostitution industry recruited prostitutes and moved them to neighboring states. Such actions violated the Mann Act, which barred the transportation of women across state lines for "immoral purposes."

Whatever the reason, Bellingham eventually lost its tolerance for brothels and an integral part of the city's history came to an end. A century later, Smith said, some are commemorating Bellingham's seedy past.

"Now, we have prostitutes on Railroad Avenue to celebrate (Bellingham's) centennial," he said.

Western junior Tiffany Rugg, a three-year Bellingham resident, said she heard rumors of a prostitution ring existing in Bellingham but was surprised to learn brothels once existed in the city.

"Bellingham has a very liberal morale," Rugg said. "With this strong sense of community, brothels don't seem to fit."

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