Klipsun Magazine

Paint the town Red. Bellingham's Brothels.

Story by Kassidy Vietti // Photos courtesy of Whatcom Museum

As the doors are pushed open, a powerful aroma of greasy burgers and fries winds its way to the street from inside the restaurant. Through the dim lighting, locals who have been visiting for more than thirty years can be seen sitting hunched like gargoyles on the barstools.

Not even a rowdy group of college students giggling nearby shakes the concentration from their lined faces as they munch on their meals. Old, brown tile floors darkened with years of wear lay depressively beneath customer's feet. Th rough the restaurant's haziness, a narrow, steep staircase near the back of the restaurant can be seen leading up into darkness. Beyond are rooms that were long ago quite familiar with a seedy part of Bellingham's history.

At 122 years old, the Horseshoe is the oldest restaurant in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. But back in the day, paying customers could get more than a hot meal; sex was also on the menu, and sold behind closed doors on a regular basis.

Residents are often surprised that brothels were common in Bellingham. At the peak of prostitution's reign, roads such as Holly Street and Harris Avenue, now considered a charming Bellingham locale, were in fact where "women of the evening" would stand every night, flaunting themselves to prospective customers.

"Bellingham now is nothing like what it was at the turn of the century," says Curtis Smith, author of Th e Brothels of Bellingham. "Bellingham was a logging, mining and fishing town. Th ere were so many men coming, it had a huge impact on everything."

In the early 1900s, there were few jobs for women, and even fewer respectable ones. For the most part, a woman could be a waitress, a maid or a schoolteacher.

Smith says the jobs paid 50 cents per hour, whereas working in a brothel could pay $5 to $10 per trick. Especially if a woman worked in a crib, where getting the man in and out quickly was the point--she could make more than enough to survive.

To speed things along even more, girls were known to lay an oilcloth on the bottom half of their bed. Usually made of canvas or linen, an oilcloth was a piece of fabric coated in oil to repel water--so that loggers and the fishermen, wouldn't have to take off their boots.

"It was a sanitary kind of thing," Smith says, laughing.

When the city charter was established in 1903, Bellingham laid out the boundaries of the red light district. Th e district, complete with actual beaming red lights, began at the intersection of Holly and Bay Street.

Despite being an ‘open secret,' residents' tolerance for the brothels waned.

"Everyone knew what was going on, but no one talked about it," Smith says. "Th ere was a rationalization of justifying it and taking it however they could."

Th e drama climaxed during the 1920s, when there was a moral outrage against the brothels and the red light district. Police tried controlling the businesses by taking down women's names in an eff ort to keep track of them.

Health checks for the women became a weekly occurrence and the prostitution business was restricted to the brothels instead of out on the streets.

To appease the public, the police would occasionally perform raids on the brothels--sometimes giving notification beforehand. Some of the women were arrested and fined $250.

"It was just the cost of doing business," Smith says. "It didn't stop them from doing anything. After they paid, they would go right back to work."

Dating back to almost the beginning of the town's history, prostitution and the brothels played an immense role on the social and economic framework of the community. But even today, the influence of prostitution and the Bellingham brothels is exemplified every year at Western Washington University.

It began in 1895 when a woman named Elizabeth Th omasson moved to Bellingham from West Virginia.

She met and married Roy W. Stokes, a lumber inspector. According to city records, she changed her name to Joy M. Stokes soon after.

Th roughout their marriage the couple lived practically everywhere in Bellingham, from Gladstone Street, where she managed the Verna Vista Apartments, to Northwest Avenue, where she managed a roadhouse known as the Winter Garden.

Th rough the grapevine, it became apparent that some of the apartments Stokes managed were, in fact, brothels.

Smith says some of the women Stokes employed were students from the State Normal School at Bellingham, which became Western Washington College of Education in 1937.It was commonly believed that young female students had to turn tricks in order to pay for tuition.

On June 14, 1968, Stokes died at Bellingham's St. Luke's General Hospital. Two months after her death, the executor of her will, the Bellingham National Bank, began executing her last wishes.

In her first request, she asked that nothing be left to her two brothers, Harry and Robert Th omasson and her two sisters, Hallie Mohon and Emily Bratt.

In her second request, she asked that her debts and funeral charges be paid.

Her third request gets a little more interesting. She explains that she noticed students attending Western were sometimes forced to stop attending school because they lacked funds. She refers to three real estate contracts whose funds are to be given to deserving students who have already begun their education at Western, but cannot continue their schooling without financial assistance or because of financial reasons.

She states that she is leaving judgment and discretion of the money's use to her trustees, but leaves them a final warning--they must always "keep in mind the basic purpose to assist students who have a proven need and are of deserving character."

Little is known about this woman who bequeathed a six figure sum to Western, but they must have been talking about her when the term "hooker with a heart of gold" was coined.

"It's obvious that she cared not only about the students who attended the university here, but for higher education," says Mark Bagley, senior director in Foundation.

According to the Western Foundation, a sector of the university that deals with private donations, there is currently $125,000 in endowment funds; money that cannot be spent or given out. Th e money is then invested by the board of directors. Whatever money is made is put into a separate fund that may be used for the loan. Currently, there is $14,668 in that fund.

"As a loan, it's been historically one of the loans with the highest default rate, meaning most students can't pay it back in time," says program assistant in the loans and collections offi ce in Old Main, June Fraser Th istle. "But the Joy Stokes loan is only given out during the summer and it's usually a last resort for a student who has no other way to aff ord going to school."

Th ough the donation was made 30 years ago this year, it becomes obvious how far-reaching the brothel's eff ect was in Bellingham. Although some may be embarrassed by Bellingham's shady past, in reality prostitution was an industry that spurred the economy into making the town become what it is today. It seems apparent that the city of subdued excitement may not have been so subdued after all.

© 2008 Klipsun Magazine