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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Touring Bellingham’s Haunted History

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Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen.

When youre walking downtown, do you ever look up at the old buildings? Do you wonder about their dark secrets? If you are climbing the wooden stairs in Fairhaven to reach The Black Cat, does anything you see out of the corner of your eye surprise you?

The buildings around you are filled with history more grim than you may even imagine.

Luckily, the Bellingham Bureau of Historical Investigation has two Gore and Lore Tour events to explain the unexplainable hauntings and histories of downtown Bellingham and Fairhaven.

To me, its not like you have to be decided one way or another, we really try to build the tour to keep people guessing,” bureau co-owner Marissa McGrath said. When you talk about a story of a serial killer in 1905, whether or not the place he killed someone in is actually haunted, its still creepy.

Five years ago, the Bureau decided to look into making a haunted tour of downtown Bellingham.

They began by asking about folklore, specifically from people who worked in buildings like the Mount Baker Theater and the Old City Hall.

We collected some really great versions of those stories and began our research,McGrath said.

One example that may surprise you is found within the Old Town Cafe. The bureau uncovered a terrifying past: the cafe used to be a funeral parlor in the 1890s. There was also a mysterious death with ties to ghost stories told, such as staffers who have experienced detached voices and levitation.

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Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen.

We were able to discover things that had never been published anywhere before,McGrath said. She used The Center for Pacific Northwest Studies and the State Archives housed at Western to begin her studies of the haunted buildings.

The facts found in the archives strengthen the ghost stories. In Fairhaven, everyone told the bureau the place to research was the Sycamore Square Building.

It had some of the scariest stories, McGrath said. We found documentation of a very unfortunate death that occurred that may have been the beginning of the story of the green lady, which we tell on the tour.

“It’s under your feet, everyday looking stuff, that you wouldn’t think twice about.”

Paul Caravaggio

On the tour, guides say the lady may be Flora — a woman who lost a child and had a sister who went insane. Her death was quiet and reported as a disease of the brain, which could mean almost anything. The speculation is she may have jumped off the fourth floor of the Sycamore Square Building while living there.

Its not feeling a story in a linear historic senseMcGrath said. Its narratives about different spaces in different towns.

Samantha Dodge, 25, attended the Fairhaven version of the Gore and Lore Tour. She had been on tours hosted by the bureau before.

They talked about how black cats used to be huge in Fairhaven and they have a restaurant called the Black Cat,Dodge said. Bellingham has a very interesting history.

The tour doesn’t include jump scares, but rather the cerebral, slow creeping out of people,McGrath explained. McGrath also warned of potential triggers due to mentions of suicide and violence.

In order to give tour-goers peace of mind about the murders, the tour doesn’t talk about murders after the 1940s.

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The Sycamore Square building is rumored to be haunted by a ghost known as Flora. // Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen

The bureau works to update the tour every year for returning guests, and guides work to put different spins on each tour.

We have hardcore people that take the tour again and it’s become a Halloween tradition, McGrath said, I really like that we are Bellinghams weird hayride or something in our weird Pacific Northwest corner of the world.

Both tours take about an hour, depending on the size of the crowd, and start at 6 p.m. The Fairhaven tour meets at the corner of 12th and Harris Street, and the downtown tour meets at the Bureau’s headquarters (217 West Holly). They have two tours left for the weekend before Halloween on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29, though they may try to add more dates spilling over into early November, but check the bureau’s website for availability.

After finishing the tour, attendees can go to Skylark’s in Fairhaven or Uisce in downtown with a drink ticket to “work off some of your spookiness before you go home,” McGrath said. The drink tickets can be purchased for an additional $5 on top of the standard $15 ticket price.

You can take this tour if you totally believe in ghosts and [believe] that certain actions have ripples that affect a physical space,McGrath said, You can also take it if youre interested in how a historic moment can be so impactful that a culture creates a mythos around it.

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Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen.

Tour-goer Paul Caravaggio, 28, said he went to the tour because he was interested in learning the history of Bellingham.

Its under your feet, everyday looking stuff, that you wouldnt think twice about, Caravaggio said. These days, Bellingham seems so modern and normal.

The Fairhaven Gore and Lore tour had an overflowing crowd on Oct. 21, with about 25 people gathering to hear the stories of Fairhavens haunted past. McGrath said the tours cap at 25 people because of the dangers of crossing streets as a group, and rain can make it hard for more than 25 people to hear.

Tour guide Kolby LaBree was dressed in dark Victorian clothing, her face pale and her eyes darkened black with a ghostly flare. The five tour guides often dress up to look a little undead, but LaBree’s is an ode to the distinctive Victorian-era history told on Fairhaven’s tour.

I love getting to share the fun history tidbits, Labree said. Every single tour somebody has a ghost story for me of their own.”

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