Since his town’s beginnings, Fairhaven has been defined by many colorful characters whose biographies blend fact and fiction. Founder “Derry Dan” Harris’s birthplace and history are known to be uncertain, and his exploits are among many others that earned Fairhaven its early reputation in the “Wild West.” But one distinctly eccentric local and national legend has solidified in just a few years: self-styled cat investor and breeder James Wardner.
Born in 1846 in Milwaukee, Wardner invested in mines across the country, starting in 1871. He quickly gained and lost fortunes during booms and busts, even naming two thriving cities in Idaho and British Columbia.
In 1889, Wardner arrived in Fairhaven at the request of promoter Nelson Bennett. He founded the Fairhaven Water Works, the Samish Lake Logging and Milling Company, the Fairhaven Electric Light Company, and the Cascade Club Company. Wardner Blue Canyon Mine opened in 1890, and sold it in 1891 with management by J. J. Donovan and Julius Bloedel. He left for South Africa in 1893, returning briefly among other investment plans.
Wardner developed a reputation for whimsy. His 1900 autobiography describes his first venture selling a baby rabbit when he was only eight years old. Contemporary readers have speculated that he was the inspiration for Mark Twain mulberry sellers. Today, Fairhaven Wardner is remembered for the cat-themed trick that made national headlines and the home of a local legend.
Cats grazing on Eliza Island
The story of James Wardner’s cat began in 1890 when… Fairhaven Herald A reporter EG Earl approached him in search of a story. With a distinct sense of humor, Wardner said he plans to breed thousands of black cats for their hides through his latest project: Consolidated Black Cat Co. Ltd. He claimed to own the Eliza Island farm run by Sam Weller – a fictional character in Charles Dickinson pickwick paper.
made the story Fairhaven HeraldFront page news. Due to Wardner’s national notoriety, editors reprinted it from San Francisco to New York Tribune, which published the title “Black Cats for Profit”. Successive stories claimed that the investors sent the money, which was eventually returned to them – putting the shares literally in the tale.
Journalists embellished the story with details of cats that subsist on local fish, freely roam the island, and lend their skins to capes, caps, and plaster. Wardner continued to play with his cat’s strings as they broke up across the country, reprinting news stories in his autobiography with tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment.
“The product did not live up to my expectations,” he wrote about the cat farm and its reputation. In fact, without disclaiming its authenticity, the hoax blurred the lines between sarcasm and honesty in the public’s beliefs.
The black cat story took on a life of its own (or maybe nine) in the Fairhaven community. It inspired the population’s adoption of true strays rumored to be descended from farm cats. The informal volunteer group “Fairhaven Kitty Committee” built homes for fugitives during the last few decades of the 20th century. Mason Block, which hosted Wardner’s office and Cascade Club, is now Sycamore Square and home to the restaurant Black Cat (Le Chat Noir).
In 1890, the same year James Wardner created his cat story, he built a mansion whose local legacy will outlive his life. Wardner’s Castle, nicknamed its grandeur, still stands tall on the corner of 15th Street and Knox Street.
Spokane Kirtland architect K. Cutter designed the Queen Anne-style house alongside local architects Longstaff and Black. Its three floors contain 23 rooms. Original features include fireplaces with carved wood mantels, stained-glass windows, and a porte-cochere overlooking Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound.
The Wardner family lived in the house for only one year. Puget Sound Mills & Timber president John Earles lived there with his family until the 1930s. Wardner Castle became the Hilltop House Restaurant from 1947 to 1955, then a private residence, and the Wardner Castle Museum from 1983 to 1986. Its last tenants were the Castle Gate House Bed and Breakfast, which was active from the 1980s through the 2000s.
The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Today, it is private property.
WhatcomTalk previously noted Wardner Castle’s reputation as a haunted place. Most of the local legends revolve around “The Spirits of Wardner Castle,” a 1984 mural painted inside by local artist Laurie Ann Josebodinovic. The mural depicts Wardner, the castle, the landmarks of Fairhaven, and black cats next to a ship bound for Eliza Island. Gospodinovic died at the age of 24, just a few months after completing the painting, and painted another mural for La Creperie in 1983. Both murals disappeared: the castle’s owners repainted it, and the 1987 fire destroyed La Creperie – now the Black Cat.
Through domestic house intrigue, Wardner’s spirit continues to create legends.
where are they now?
James Wardner died in 1905, carrying a simple tombstone in Milwaukee. However, he finished his autobiography asking that his grave be read: “Oh, where, and where, where did Jim Wardner go? Oh where and oh where is he? With his tales of gold and its ancient anecdotes, and its new discovery?”
Wardner Castle awaits new uses. After a century of renovations, it was painted turquoise green, then violet, and finally blue.
No remains have been found from Wardner’s black cat farm on Eliza Island. But these local friends continue to cross paths with Fairhaven, running wild in the fantasy world unleashed by Wardner.
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