Treasures from the Trunk

Time traveling with J.J. Donovan

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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.

Ticket Cascadia
More Visual...
Indelible Images
Worlds of wonder at Whatcom Museum

Thanks to a recent viewing of the exhibit “Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates,”  I’m now convinced that an underwater denizen dubbed the “stubby squid” (Rossia pacifica) is my new spirit animal.

Like the dozens of other up-close-and-personal photographs taken by marine biologist…

more »
Story Paintings
David Kane’s tall tales

“Where does one go after reaching the pinnacle of artistic achievement—a solo retrospective at the Frye Museum?” asks the promo flyer for David C. Kane’s exhibit of his paintings at i.e. gallery in Edison.

Kane, a lifelong teacher of art, is a master of technique. His touch is light,…

more »
Skagit Scene
River Gallery’s seasonal visions

Twice a year, Sylvia Strong pulls together some of the best painting, sculpture, glass and jewelry from the Skagit region to show in her gallery, a well-lit former greenhouse. It affords plenty of space to display a selection of small, affordable pieces by 38 invited artists.


more »
Handling the truth


City Club Meeting

11:30am|Northwood Hall

Finger Painting for Grownups

3:00pm|Hops 'n Headz

Salish Sea Origins

4:00pm|Wilson Library

Marry Shelley's Frankenstein

6:00pm|Blaine Library

Wildlife Photography

6:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Winter Camping Basics


Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Basic Nutrients

6:30pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

WJMAC Concert

7:00pm|Unity Spiritual Center


7:00pm|Village Books

Family Game Night

7:30pm|DUG Theater

MBT Once Swinomish 2016
Handling the truth


Creepy Cabaret

6:30pm|Bellingham High School

Costume Party

6:30pm|Blaine Library

Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Berlin is My Paris

7:00pm|Village Books

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Lynden Pioneer Museum

Everybody’s Store Swinomish 2016
Handling the truth


Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Lynden Pioneer Museum

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Spanish Storytime

10:00am|Lynden Library

Ferndale Farmers Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Final Ferndale Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Scary Bake Sale

1:30pm|Blaine Library

Gates and Fires

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Talk

5:30pm|Syre Student Center

Gore and Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

Art Party

6:00pm|Tillie Lace Gallery

Hamster Ball

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Panic Squad

7:00pm|Lynden Middle School

Ben Folds and a Piano

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Back to School Catechism

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre


8:00pm|Old Main Theater

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre

Ghosts of Concrete

11:00pm|Skagit County Community Action Center

see our complete calendar »

MBT Once Swinomish 2016 MBT Ben Folds Northwood Steak and Crab Everybody’s Store Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books Lydia Place Artifacts Wine Bar Bellingham Farmer’s Market Andrew Subin