Before Western was the Bellingham State Normal School, before there was even a campus on Sehome Hill, a house with a commanding view of Bellingham Bay sat next to what would later become Mathes Hall.
Its inhabitants, Ella and Russell Higginson, watched the campus grow. They boarded students, Ella became close friends with pioneering faculty member Catherine Montgomery, and pharmacist Russell was an inaugural member of the Board of Trustees. Today, the name of Higginson Hall recognizes the couple’s commitment to what would become Western Washington University.
But as WWU English Professor Laura Laffrado discovered, there’s an even more impressive Higginson story to be told.
At the turn of the last century, Ella Higginson was a writer so famous that her 1902 novel, “Mariella, of Out West,” couldn’t be bound quickly enough to keep up with demand. Her awardwinning short stories—with sly twists that would make O. Henry and Edith Wharton proud—were published in Harper’s Bazaar, McClure’s and Collier’s along with such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett. Her poems were widely published and set to music; she was the first poet laureate of Washington.
In her 2015 book, “The Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature,” Laffrado offers a rich showcase of Higginson’s work, from poems celebrating the beauty of Bellingham’s landscape—“Mount Baker’s noble dome,” “This cool, blue sapphire, Puget Sound”—to stories illuminating the acts of pettiness and kindness that abounded in Pacific Northwest frontier communities.
Her work drew raves—the San Francisco Examiner, in a review of “Mariella,” said: “Jack London of Oakland and Ella Higginson of Seattle are putting forth more and better works of fiction than any other writers on the Coast.” Higginson was, as Laffrado notes, “the one who put the Pacific Northwest on the literary map.”
As the local literary celebrity, Higginson was commissioned by George Williston Nash, the Normal School’s second president, to write her 1904 poem celebrating the institution. A line from it, “Here is the home of color and of light,” is etched above the main entrance to Edens Hall without Higginson’s byline; she was so famous at the time, no one could imagine anybody would forget who wrote those words.
“That poem, ‘The College By the Sea,’ does such a beautiful job,” says Laffrado. “When I first heard about it, I was very curious because Higginson did not have a college education. I wondered what it was like for her to live across from a college that was being built up around her house. And what she does is perfect: She writes about the setting as though—and I agree with this—the best place for learning anything is the setting itself.”
Just as many of today’s students and alumni acknowledge that coming to Bellingham is a critical part of coming to Western? “Exactly! The two are intertwined. You can’t separate them.”
But, like so many writers after World War I, Higginson fell into obscurity. After Higginson died in 1940, her friend Catherine Montgomery protected her literary estate, which ultimately landed at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. When Laffrado was there, researching forgotten 19th century women writers, she couldn’t believe the treasure trove she found. “At first I thought, ‘OK, this looks like some Pacific Northwest woman writer.’ But the further I got—and there were 12 linear feet of papers in her archive!—I realized, ‘Oh, this was a really prolific Pacific Northwest woman writer!’ Then I started uncovering more about her awards, and she became, ‘a really prolific, famous Pacific Northwest woman writer!’ It just kept building and building and building.”
Higginson was also highly enterprising. She managed her own contracts, negotiating—and receiving—higher fees. In preparation for a book on Alaska, she taught herself photography. She was a vocal animal rights advocate and, as campaign manager and writer, she successfully got Frances C. Axtell elected in 1912 as one of the first two female members of the Washington State Legislature. Her house, a Bellingham landmark, was featured on postcards; Laffrado keeps one in her desk from 1906 that reads: “This is where your cousin is spending her summer in the Normal School and one block from this, our famous Western author’s house. Will write soon.”
“Students would see Higginson working in her rose garden,” says Laffrado. “She walked her dogs on campus, and she donated many books to what became Wilson Library. Her connection was not just to the school, but to its students—she was part of the experience that they were having as young people in this new school. Western was part of her own backyard.”
Thanks to Laffrado’s work, Western students and others are rediscovering Higginson. Laffrado is approaching publishers about reprinting Higginson’s “Mariella” novel. A Bellingham-based film company, Talking to Crows, is producing her unpublished comedic screenplay, “Just Like the Men,” about a Frances Axtell character running for office.
A visit to the Ella Higginson Facebook page reveals two WWU students on whom Higginson has clearly made her mark: One shows off a new tattoo with the Edens Hall phrase, the other has posted a 15-second rap honoring Higginson.
Ella would be proud.