Awoken at 2 a.m. by a rapid, loud thumping noise, Edward Davidson rose out of bed, threw on a bathrobe and went to the foot of the stairs. Thump, thump, thump. It sounded like the noise was coming from the upper level of the house. Davidson was alone in the castle, sleeping in the mural room on the mezzanine level. Only 18 steps lead from the mezzanine to the third floor of the historic Jim Wardner’s castle. The noise continued. Thump, thump, thump.
“I waited to see who would emerge, who would come out,” Davidson said. “Nobody came out. It just kept going. And I thought, this is a funny story, there aren’t that goddamn many steps.”
Davidson said the event left him quite shaken.
Scattered with tombstones and busts of statues peeping through melting snow, Davidson’s front lawn looks as much like a museum as the inside of his house, located on the outskirts of Sumas, 20 miles north of Bellingham.
Davidson, 72, said many of the statues, books, ceramics, artifacts and oil paintings decorated the walls of Wardner’s Castle when he owned it for seven years at the turn of the century. He operated the castle as a bed and breakfast for about five years, and he lived in the castle the whole time.
The three-story mansion has 23 rooms, seven fireplaces, a sunroom, a three-story turret and a porte cochere, or a carriage porch, among other extravagances. The castle has passed through the hands of various owners since it was built in the late 19th century, and it was already a bed and breakfast when Davidson bought it in 1998.
Davidson denied belief in the paranormal, but said he experienced three strange happenings while he lived at Wardner’s Castle.
“From time to time I would be sitting in my office, which is on the second floor in the turret room,” Davidson said. “And I would smell — and I can’t smell — damp pipe smoke.”
Davidson said he has anosmia, the inability to perceive odors, but recognized the smell as pipe smoke from its taste.
“Jim Wardner smoked a pipe,” Davidson said.
Wardner has not lived in his castle for well over a century.
Wardner’s morbid whimsy: Cattibolism
Wardner finished constructing his estate in 1890 at what is now 1103 15th St., south of Sehome Hill, according to City of Bellingham records. Wardner only lived in his castle for a year, but a year was all it took for it to become known as “Wardner’s Castle,” or, to some, “Hilltop House.”
Wardner, a wealthy silver miner from Idaho, bought 135 lots in Fairhaven. According to city records, he used these lots for many investments, including an electric company, a logging and milling company and the Fairhaven National Bank.
Davidson said he is familiar with the local legend that Wardner also owned an island off the coast of Bellingham — one he delegated to raise black cats, skin them and sell their fur to unsuspecting customers as otter pelts.
In Wardner’s autobiography, “Jim Wardner, of Wardner, Idaho,” he devoted an entire section to his black cat skinning operation: “My Cat Ranch.” A New York Tribune article referred to Wardner’s ranch as the “Consolidated Black Cat Company, Limited.”
“Then I started my cat ranch,” Wardner wrote in his autobiography. “Much has been said and much has been written about my celebrated cat ranch, located on an island about six miles from Fairhaven, Wash.”
Davidson said Wardner gained infamy from making soup from skinned-cat meat and feeding it to other cats on his island.
Davidson said Le Chat Noir restaurant in Fairhaven might be named after the cats, but no one at Le Chat Noir was available to comment on the rumor.
Stray cats wandering throughout Fairhaven could be related to the infamous ranch cats.
“Some folks to this day swear the black cats in Fairhaven are descendants of Wardner’s,” said Jackie Lynch, Bellingham city planner and historical preservation committee member.
There seems to be no official consensus as to whether or not the black cat ranch was real or a hoax. Davidson chose not to believe it, and Lynch said she is not aware of any documentation.
John Schuck visited the Castle Gatehouse Bed and Breakfast with his wife, Liz.
“Edward [Davidson] mentioned it and I did some research out of curiosity,” Schuck said.
Schuck said he discovered that Wardner supposedly sold cat pelts for $2 each to fur traders, who turned them into coats and hats.
During Schuck’s stay at the castle, it was decorated in a Victorian fashion with antique cookware, an English silver collection and many paintings. Schuck said he was especially impressed by British artist-crafted caricatures of spy cartoons.
Davidson said he is a collector and has an eclectic taste in art, which is reflected in every surface of his current home and was the theme of the bed and breakfast. Wardner said he covered up some murals that were not to his taste when he bought the castle.
“They’re still there, but I covered them with sheetrock,” Davidson said. “But before I covered them with sheetrock, I tacked bed sheets over them. If anyone decides to take off those walls, those murals are still there.”
Davidson said he chose to protect the murals in case future owners or visitors would have an interest in seeing them.
Wardner’s Castle overlooks downtown Fairhaven and is currently being remodeled into a single-family home, Lynch said.
Davidson said he chose to keep one mural, a self-portrait of the artist. Davidson cut out the sheetrock bordering the picture, making it stand out.
Paranormal or profoundly natural?
Davidson said his niece also had an unusual experience during her stay at the castle. The two were getting ready to go out, and he said he would meet her down the stairs. Davidson estimated he was 25 feet away from his niece when she called at him to stop trying the door.
“I wasn’t trying the door!” Davidson said.
But Davidson said the most “unnerving” instance was when he heard the thumping above him on the third floor while sleeping in the mural room.
Davidson said the mural room received its name from the way the ceiling is painted to match the purple sunsets that Bellingham residents sometimes see.
He said the mysterious thumping in the staircase stopped after about five minutes, after which he returned to bed and lay in thought.
“Then I realized it was an attack of high blood pressure. Far from being paranormal, it was my own imagination,” Davidson said dismissively.
The “thump, thump, thump” Davidson heard could have been his pounding heart, or it could have been something else entirely. Since he has now moved away from the castle, we may never know.