History exhibit showcases trove of materials about Bellingham civic leader J.J. Donovan


Some business leaders involved in Fairhaven's turn-of-the-century boom pocketed their money and left town.

Not J.J. Donovan.

An engineer and executive involved in numerous business enterprises. Donovan remained a prominent fixture in the community until his death in 1937.

"Unlike a robber baron, he was a beloved man," said Brian Griffin, the Bellingham history writer who spearheaded "Treasures from the Trunk," an upcoming exhibit about Donovan at Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall building, 121 Prospect St.

A serious-minded teetotaler, Donovan moved to Fairhaven in the late 1880s to become chief engineer for Nelson Bennett's coal, railroad and land ventures. In time, he became an executive of several major companies, including the Blue Canyon coal mine, several local railroads, the company that logged the Lake Whatcom area, and the massive Bloedel-Donovan Lumber Mills at the north end of the lake.

"J.J. Donovan was intensely involved in so many things that this exhibit covers a huge range of historical topics," said Jeff Jewell, the museum's photo archivist. "It may be quicker to name what he wasn't involved in."

Donovan made money, to be sure, but he also gave money away, from small amounts to people in need to substantial support for the fledgling St. Joseph Hospital.

The son of poorly educated Irish immigrants, Donovan put himself through college on the East Coast to become a teacher. Then, after teaching a few years, he went back to school to become an engineer.

He was an accomplished speaker, a polished writer, and a devout Catholic who took a strong public stance against local elements of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I really like the man," Griffin said. "He was sensitive, honest as hell, moral as can be."


If anyone these days knows John Joseph Donovan well, it's Griffin. He has spent hours upon hours reading a dozen of Donovan's 42 diaries and going over thousands of Donovan's personal and business letters. Griffin has put together an illustrated catalog for the upcoming exhibit and plans to write a biography of Donovan.

The trove of materials began arriving at Griffin's house last summer after he met with a distant relative of Donovan's, Albert Riggs of Sag Harbor, N.Y., who agreed to donate thousands of Donovan papers and artifacts in his possession.

Recently, 17 boxes of letters, photographs and other materials were delivered to the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, at Western Washington University, to be archived and made available to researchers and the public.

"It's pretty amazing stuff," said Elizabeth Joffrion, executive director of heritage resources at WWU Libraries. "It's going to open up a lot of avenues for future research."

Gayle Helgoe, a retired reference librarian at Bellingham Public Library, spent many hours helping Griffin plow through the paperwork. She and Griffin read and sorted Donovan's letters, many of which were personal letters handwritten in ink.

"It was sometimes a grueling process," Helgoe said, "but it was so rich in history you just had to be excited about it."

Helgoe was especially struck by the near-daily letters between Donovan and his bride-to-be, Clara Nichols, the Congregationalist daughter of descendants of early Puritans. As their friendship deepened, she hesitated at the prospect of marriage.

"She was worried that the differences in their backgrounds, especially their religions, would be an impediment to anything further in their relationship," Helgoe said.

But they did marry in Massachusetts, and soon settled in Fairhaven, where her husband became involved in all facets of the community.

"He was a marvel," Helgoe said. ""Donovan crossed all boundaries of influence."

Contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2291.


- "Treasures from the Trunk: The Story of J.J. Donovan," an ongoing history exhibit, opens at noon Sunday, July 28, at Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall building, 121 Prospect St.

- People interested in the Donovan collection at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies should contact archivist Ruth Steele, 360-650-7747 or cpnws@wwu.edu.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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