J.J. Donovan was hired by Nelson Bennett in 1888 to build a railroad and open up the town of Fairhaven to development. After purchasing the property acquired by Dan Harris who originally platted the town in 1883, Donovan, with the Fairhaven Land Company, aggressively promoted the town’s development with an eye to becoming the western terminus of the Great Northern Railroad. Even though this honor went to the city of Seattle, Fairhaven experienced a significant building boom during the years 1889-1892.
A few years ago, an exhibit was being planned for the Whatcom Museum highlighting the contributions of J.J. Donovan to the history of our community. Researcher, Neelie Nelson tracked down a descendant of J.J. Donovan who lives on the East Coast. Historian Brian Griffin pursued this contact and was able to negotiate the acquisition of thousands of personal letters and business documents handed down through the family. These documents formed the basis of the museum exhibition, Treasures from the Trunk, which recently closed.
The bronze statue on the corner of 11th and Harris commemorates the contributions of this important historical figure. Donovan is depicted writing a letter to his wife in Tacoma in which he describes the four towns surrounding Bellingham Bay. She would soon join him, and together they would help mold the city of Bellingham.
Here we have some photos of the statue in construction and in place at the central corner of our historic district. You may sit down with J.J. and read the love letter over his shoulder – and not be considered rude.
We thank the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies and the Western Libraries Heritage Resources at Western Washington University for the use of the high quality photograph of J.J. Donovan. It is from the Galen Biery Collection and is photo #228.
More information about J.J. for historians and those who enjoy history.
The J.J. Donovan papers are now housed at WWU’s Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. The collection includes a wealth of Donovan’s personal and professional correspondence, daily diaries recording his work, travels and business, and a significant number of family photographs. Additional gems include courtship letters between Donovan and future wife Clara Nichols, and film footage documenting the Bellingham waterfront and Mt. Baker Lodge during the 1920s. Although CPNWS staff are still working to organize and describe this collection in detail, access by advance appointment is possible. Please contact Archivist Ruth Steele at Ruth.Steele@wwu.edu for more information.