Sin & Gin

Touring Bellingham’s torrid history

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

From the perch atop Maritime Heritage Park and behind Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall, it’s possible to look to Bellingham Bay and the train tracks below and imagine you’ve gone back in time a century or more. This is especially true if you’re on a “Sin & Gin” Tour with the historical hussies known as the Good Time Girls.

On the last day of March, Sara Holodnick and Marissa McGrath—the dynamic duo who have been running the guided walking tours in downtown Bellingham and historical Fairhaven since the summer of 2011—joined their support staff to lead a group tour in advance of their season opening.

The following Saturday was an auspicious one for the crew, as it marked not only the beginning of their popular weekend outings, but also drew attention to the happenings of April 1, 1910. On that day 107 years ago, the licensed and legal Red Light District near what was then the main train station on Holly Street closed down due to pressure from wealthy citizens who had protested, signed petitions and pressured local politicians to close the lucrative district.

From the vantage point above the park, one of the guides pointed out that the action was helped along by a visit from an evangelical preacher known as Billy Sunday.

“He was very famous—like if Billy Graham and Derek Jeter decided to become one person,” she quipped, noting that from the time church-going folks found out Sunday was coming (in February) to the time he showed up (in April), they were able to push through the closure.

Since one of the main focuses of the tours is to draw attention to the history of women and their role in building Bellingham, “Sin & Gin” outings also takes pains to describe not only why so many ladies were engaged in prostitution (hint: it wasn’t for the fringe benefits), but also why it didn’t stop just because it became illegal (surprise, surprise). This was also true when it came to Prohibition.

On the tour, we also heard about a wealthy madam named Myrtle Barker, a helpful police matron named Edith Fuller, promenades by various brothels’ “new girls” down Railroad Avenue, “blind pigs,” female illusionists who performed at downtown theaters, and a wealth of other titillating tidbits that likely aren’t taught to local schoolchildren.

And, since the costumed guides have also put serious time into researching and developing the tours with both education and entertainment in mind, those who join “Sin & Gin” tours—which end with a spirits tasting at Chuckanut Bay Distillery—will leave with a much better understanding of what it took to make Bellingham what it is today. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was always interesting.

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