Looking for a good time

By: Tyler Kirk and Jamie Leigh Broten

On a tour given by The Bureau of Historical Investigation focusing on the history of prostitution in Bellingham, tour guide Marissa McGrath said the old city hall overlooked the bay and the redlight district. Photo by Taylor Nichols
On a tour given by The Bureau of Historical Investigation focusing on the history of prostitution in Bellingham, tour guide Marissa McGrath said the old city hall overlooked the bay and the redlight district. Photo by Taylor Nichols

The Bureau of Historical Investigation is a local Bellingham business owned and operated by long-time friends Marissa McGrath, 29, and Sara Holodnick, 31, better known as The Good Time Girls. They specialize in historical tours of downtown Bellingham and Fairhaven with a gift shop on West Holly Street serving as their headquarters.

McGrath said they had originally wanted to open a bar, but the pair encountered many challenges in opening a bar including finding a place to open.

After acquiring a space last November and opening for a small window during the Christmas season, McGrath and Holodnick officially opened the Bureau of Historical Investigation in Feb. 2014.

McGrath and Holodnick were eventually approached by local filmmakers Dan Hammell and Andrew Simpson in hopes of making a Good Time Girls documentary.

“Over the following months, over 100 hours of film was accrued, including footage of research throughout different areas of town, their attempts at opening a bar, McGrath and Holodnick in their daily lives, and the challenges they encountered while trying to expand their business.

“One of the things that he was hoping to capture from [our work] was trying to find parallels between what it’s like to be a business owner in [Bellingham] as a woman today and what it’s like to be a woman business owner as a woman at the turn of the century,” McGrath said. “He was surprised at some of the same challenges that we explore through our research… perceptions of us as people based on what we do for a living. There was an incident where we were denied a space because of what we do. Because we were perceived as glorifying prostitution as part of our business model.” McGrath was referring to one of the tours they guide, called the Sin and Gin tour, which focuses on the history of prostitution as an industry in Bellingham.

The film is now being edited to premier as a six-episode web series.

McGrath said that after the challenges they had faced in getting their business up and running, the friends decided to redirect their efforts towards opening a gift shop specializing in handmade and historical items, which eventually became the headquarters for their historical tours.

The bureau gift shop focuses on “two things, stuff that was made here, and stuff that evokes a sense of the past,” said McGrath. “There’s a real kind of desire and nostalgia for things that were well made by a person out of natural materials, and that is a big part of what we have here, and what we want to expand on.”

The bureau also hosts photo parties about once a month, where women get historical photos taken dressed in handmade corsets made by one of their employees, Jane Burleigh. Burleigh’s corsets focus on fitting every body type with an emphasis on historical accuracy, McGrath said, adding that they eventually plan to sell the corsets in the gift shop.

“I like to challenge myself, and I feel think it’s easy to get stuck and feel [that] just  because you’re curvy or built the way I am that it’s easy to hide, and I am kind of tired of hiding,” said Mary Burwell, who attended a photo party.

“We try to make it something that is a little more grown up and legitimate,” said McGrath

Aside from selling local and historical items in the gift shop, the Good Time Girls offer three tours of Bellingham. The General History tour gives an overview of local Bellingham history while the Sin and Gin tour focuses on the history of prostitution and the prohibition in Bellingham. The Gore and Lore tour looks at local legends, scary stories and ghost stories as well as real horrors from Bellingham’s past. This tour was written and researched in one month, McGrath said.

The Whatcom Horizon staff attended the Sin & Gin tour, which starts at the intersection of Holly and Prospect Streets in Bellingham and travels through the downtown area. The tour describes the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, more specifically, the industry of prostitution and its evolution through the time period.

To capture one sense of Bellingham in the early 1900’s the tour began at a mural painted on the side of 306 W Holly Street by local mural artist Lanny Little. McGrath said that the mural, while accurate in a sense, is still missing major pieces of Bellingham history relevant to the time period, such as the presence of ethnic diversity and cigar smoking.

After discussing the mural, the tour moved down Prospect Street to the old City Hall building overlooking Maritime Heritage Park. Behind the building, McGrath explained that the red light district was located near the bay, where many industrial buildings now stand. McGrath added that at the time, prostitution was legal and women working in the field were required to pay a monthly fee of roughly $16.50, which covered their health examinations and also provided a sizeable chunk of the city’s budget.

“Madams were one of the very few female business owners in early Bellingham,” said McGrath, adding that there was a law at the time protecting “fallen women” from being taken in by men who wanted to make a profit off of them. She said men accused of profiting from sex work, like pimping, were not tolerated.

The tour continued to Railroad Avenue, where McGrath explained that most buildings in the area with more than one floor were once brothels.

She said that when professional baseball player, evangelist, and political figure Billy Sunday traveled to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s, he was followed by many supporters. Sunday influenced a change in local laws that led to the closure of the official red light district and banning of prostitution in Bellingham. After its closure, much of the industry relocated to Railroad Avenue to form a subtle but thriving new version of the previous district.

McGrath said that continuous raids and threat of legal punishment by local law enforcement required women workers to take alternate precautions, such as using the Horse Shoe Cafe in downtown Bellingham as an unofficial bank for money made throughout the week.

The tour concluded back at its starting point, Lanny Little’s mural. McGrath then explained that one last thing was missing from the mural: the red light district in the distance on the waterfront. She said that in the time period depicted in the mural, the red lights would have been unquestionably visible in the distance near the bay and, like the racial diversity and tobacco use of the time, was likely left out of the painting to show a version of Bellingham that was a bit more wholesome.

During the interview, McGrath described that while the focus of their work at the bureau is historical accuracy and connecting the public with an earlier time, the Good Time Girls place a priority on providing a realistic and empowering female perspective of Bellingham’s history.  

“The bureau is also special to me because I think it›s important to explore the history of this place, and we want to make that process as accessible and fun as possible,” Holodnick said.

With swells in tourism throughout the year, McGrath said that the bureau’s private tours run year-round with public tour season running from early summer through fall.

“The 1890s are really hip right now,” said McGrath.

With regard to the future Holodnick said, “I’d like to see us be a Bellingham staple where people tell new residents or visitors that ours is the place they must visit to get oriented to our town and its history.”

Tours, photo shoots and other Good Time Girls events can be scheduled in person or online at www.thebureaubellingham.com.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *