Cleopatra's Barge and Circus Parade, Fairhaven Washington 1891

We couldn’t resist another circus-themed blog post! We invite you to run away and join the circus with us one more time…

One of our favorite of the famous Fairhaven “historic markers” along Harris Avenue is the one near the west end of the Padden Creek Lagoon that reads “Cleopatra’s Barge, Lions and Camels Paraded Here 1891.” 

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The Fairhaven historic markers that line Harris Avenue and vicinity in Bellingham’s quaint south-side shopping district were installed by local Fairhavenites and history buffs Ty and Penny Tillson in the late 1980s and 1990s. Many are factoids gleaned from Fairhaven newspapers in the 1890s through the early 1900s. The markers give only a brief tantalizing tidbit, and we are excited to share more of the story behind the plaques with you!

This marker references the spectacle of the circus parade when Adam Forepaugh's 'Oldest Largest, Richest Exhibition in the World' came to Fairhaven #onthisday September 9, 1891, and thousands of visitors flowed into town on steamers and trains to watch the three-ring circus, probably the most exciting event of the year for many folks in the vicinity of Bellingham Bay.

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The Fairhaven Times wrote about the occasion in detail:

“Five large locomotives of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern pulled up the fifty one long cars, made up in four trains, from Seattle.  The first train arrived at 7:30 in the morning and the others pulling in at intervals during the next hour and a half.

The great caravan was unloaded at Happy Valley, and the army of men immediately began the work of raising the great waterproof tents, and putting the show in order.  They worked like an army of ants, and with military precision. A large crowd of spectators assembled to see the unloading, and watch the huge pavilions arising like magic.  

The crowd began to assemble on the streets at an early hour and continued to grow until after the street parade.  The Nooksack valley turned out en masse to see the show.  Excursions from Blaine and Sedro were run on the railroad, and brought in large crowds from the north and south, and the Dispatch came in from the islands with a load. 

A stray fakir would occasionally be seen planting himself on some crowded corner, and spreading his shell game or ‘sure thing’ to fleece the crowd.  They were all promptly admonished to move on by Marshal Parker.

Owing to the long run from Seattle and the late arrival of the trains, the show was not in order for parade until 12 o’clock.  The business streets of the city were then thronged with the expectant crowd, and a stream of people reaching from town over into Happy Valley, indicated the way to the circus.

The parade moved from the circus grounds into town on Donovan Avenue, which looked like a river of circus glory.  Three bands, a fife and drum corps, a float representing Cleopatra’s golden barge, gaudy chariots, cavalcades, as team calliope, a wild west troupe, herds of horses, elephants and camels, allegorical tableaux cars were the features of the pageant.  Crossing over to Harris Avenue it passed through the business portion of the city and out to the grounds, and as the last wagon passed the crowd made a dash for the grounds. “

Cleopatra’s barge as depicted in a Forepaugh Circus poster

Cleopatra’s barge as depicted in a Forepaugh Circus poster

The parade apparently happened just in time, and thank goodness the circus tents were waterproof…

“It began to rain shortly before the hour for the afternoon performance, and continued to pour down in torrents all the afternoon.  This doubtless kept many away, but the huge canvas was well filled.

The menagerie was not an infinite collection, but the animals had been carefully selected and were fine specimens.  The circus performance was first class.  For two hours acrobats, jugglers, equestrians, trained horses, lions and elephants, cowboys, Indians and tumblers, bicyclers and roller-skaters simultaneously in two rings and a platform, moved in a rapidly changing kaleidoscope before the spectators.

The Wild West show, the lions managed by Colonel Daniel Boone and Miss Carlotta, the trained horses and elephants managed by Adam Forepaugh Jr., the Japanese troupe, the lady wire walker and the racing were all excellent.  And the Hanlon Volters were wonderful.  It was at times difficult to keep track of the three performances in progress simultaneously.  The crowd was well pleased with the programme and its execution.”

Colonel E. Daniel Boone and Miss Carlota performed with their trained lions and dogs.

Colonel E. Daniel Boone and Miss Carlota performed with their trained lions and dogs.

It’s easy to romanticize the old time circus, but we do feel some elements are best left in the dust of time, such as abusive animal menageries and exploitative freak shows… Yet there is something so appealing in our current culture of over-saturated spectacle to imagine a time before and what it must have been like when the circus came to town. It is hard to imagine anything today that could perhaps compare..

Alas the saying goes:

“time is a circus, always packing up and moving away…”

Gallery of related images of Forepaugh’s circus wagons and parades (not from Fairhaven).

#vintagecircus #forepaughcircus #circushistory #threeringcircus #fairhavenwa #localhistory #bellinghamwa #lifeisacircus #comeonecomeall #4pawscircus #pnwhistory #runawaywiththecircus