Visual

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.

ICU Roof #2
More Visual...
River's Edge
Seasonal sights in Mount Vernon

The River Gallery on Landing Road near the lower Skagit River, once a commercial greenhouse, is a natural home for art. The light is perfect and it’s roomy enough to show off works by 38 artists—more than most museums.  I always look forward to the harmony and balance of the exhibition…

more »
Studio Stats
An abundance of art

As the Whatcom Artist Studio Tour has grown near, organizers of the event that sees dozens of area artists opening their creative spaces for public perusal for two weekends every October have been highlighting on their Facebook page the various painters, sculptors, journal-makers, jewelers,…

more »
Stitching Stories
Twenty years of fiber art

The classy Gaches Mansion atop the hill in La Conner has a new name, but it’s the same institution. Now known as the Pacific Northwest Quilt and Fiber Arts Museum, it continues to host exhibitions of the best fiber art in the northwest—and Oct. 6-8, will celebrate two decades of…

more »
Events
Today
MVHS Fall Concert

4:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Book Group Mixers

5:30pm|Village Books

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Life of the Arctic Polar Bear

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Creekside Open Mic

6:30pm|South Whatcom Library

Anyone for Stew?

6:30pm|Gretchen's Kitchen

Seasonal Beers

6:30pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

Birds and Plants

7:00pm|RE Store

Thriving in the Middle

7:00pm|Village Books

Jeremy Kahn Quartet

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Scottish Dancing

7:30pm|Fairhaven Library

Mt. Baker Theatre Undersea Bubble
Tomorrow
Book Group Mixers

5:30pm|Village Books

Bringing history into sharp focus

10:00am

Fall Craft & Antique Show

10:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

U.S. Citizenship Class

6:00pm|Lynden Library

3MB

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

The Women of Lockerbie

7:00pm|Lynden Christian High School

Balkan Folk Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Summer Bike Stories

7:00pm|Cafe Velo

Young Frankenstein

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

CWWarrenMiller Village Books
Friday
Fall Craft & Antique Show

10:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

3MB

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

The Women of Lockerbie

7:00pm|Lynden Christian High School

Young Frankenstein

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Book and Bake Sale

10:00am|Lynden Library

Grand Opening and Open House

11:00am|Social Fabric

Books and Bites

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Clean Eating

2:00pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

Coffee Tasting

3:00pm|Camber Cafe

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|downtown Bellingham

Art Night

5:00pm|SpringHill Suites by Marriott

12 Minutes Max Auditions

5:00pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Amber Sky CD Release Party

6:00pm|Presence Studio

Gore & Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven, downtown Bellingham

Falliday Vintage Market

6:00pm|Port Transit Event Center

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Wild & Scenic Film Festival

6:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Poetry Party

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Upstream

7:00pm|Village Books

USA Dance

7:00pm|Majestic

Thriller Dance Class

7:00pm|Moles Farewell Tributes

Halloween Movie Night

7:00pm|BHS Performing Arts Center

Friday Night Flicks

7:30pm|Van Zandt Community Hall

Sanford-Hill Piano Series

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Hellingham

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Holding the Light

8:00pm|Honey Moon

see our complete calendar »

Mt. Baker Theatre Undersea Bubble Village Books Bellingham Farmer’s Market Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Trove CWWarrenMiller