Treasures from the Trunk

Time traveling with J.J. Donovan


I love to snoop around and investigate all sorts of old things. The older and more obscure, the better. Ghost towns. Forgotten trails. Abandoned mine tunnels—you name it. If it’s at risk of vanishing off the face of the Earth forever, I’m all over it like a monkey on temple ruins.

Especially, I seem to have a hard time keeping my paws off old trunks.

My parents—no timid history buffs themselves—have undertaken to curate an antique immigrant trunk full of family mementos dating to the late 1800s and every time I get back home to visit, I relish the opportunity to re-familiarize myself with the telling array of cross-generational artifacts from various European homesteader forebears sequestered within.

Even though I’ve sorted through the contents of that huge, weatherbeaten repository at least a couple dozen times (and counting), it never ceases to inspire me beyond compare.

From the hefty bundle of my grandparents’ Montana love letters to the small cedar box full of glass beads my great-grandma received from a neighboring encampment of Sioux Indians in North Dakota, these priceless heirlooms tell stories that help shed perspective-enhancing light on my heritage by bringing their former owners more vividly to life.

All Americans come from somewhere. And we owe it to each other to understand why.

It was the Northern Pacific Railroad that first brought a young, energetic New Hampshire-ite named John Joseph (J.J.) Donovan to the semi-isolated shores of Bellingham Bay during the salad days of 1888.

But Donovan wasn’t merely a passenger on that line. He actually helped build several of its most crucial and difficult sections, working primarily as a survey engineer through the deep, rugged wilds of western Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

Fortuitously, his was a profession (and an era) that afforded bounteous opportunities to serve both himself and his community at large exceptionally well in many significant, community-building endeavors.

Whether he was hard at work drafting plat maps for the Fairhaven Land Company, throwing in with some investment partners to start Lake Whatcom Logging Company, surveying bridges and grades for local railroad lines or helping to secure initial startup funds for St. Joseph’s Hospital and Assumption Catholic Church, J.J. Donovan proved game and business-savvy enough to germinate the tender seedlings of local industry into a full-fledged diversified economy that have ushered the emergent townships in Whatcom County into varying degrees of respectability ever since.

I learned these, plus many other definitive insights about this truly exceptional, extraordinary man while I perused the inspiring array of his personal property currently on display at Whatcom Museum of History and Art’s “Treasures from the Trunk” exhibit.

Having first encountered Donovan’s adventurous entrepreneurial spirit in the seminal local history book, 18 men and a Horse, I am glad to note that my initially dubious impression of the man who underwrote the whole scale denudation of virgin old-growth forests in Lake Whatcom watershed has been sufficiently subverted.

Even during the apex of the Gilded Age—when unscrupulous robber barons like J.P. Morgan ran rip-shod throughout the nation, building and wrecking entire communities at will—J.J. Donovan decided to plant his fortune in Bellingham and steadfastly held to his course.

If you’re curious about a seminal “founding father” who helped drive a nearly two-mile-long tunnel through the Cascade Mountains at Stampede Pass and wasn’t afraid to lock horns with the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, then I kindly suggest you visit Old City Hall before J.J.‘s stuff gets sealed back into the trunk.

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