John Joseph (J.J.) Donovan
Fairhaven Builder
Today, Bellingham residents drive along Donovan Avenue, sit on the bench at 11th and Harris with the bronze statue of J.J. Donovan, and they swim and picnic at Bloedel Donovan Park. 
J.J. Donovan arrived in Fairhaven in 1888 at the invitation of Nelson Bennett for the purpose of building a railroad which would transport coal from his mine on the Skagit River to be shipped from the newly-settled town of Fairhaven.  Donovan joined other Bennett partners in building the infrastructure of this booming town where he was to spend the rest of his life and contribute in multiple capacities to the development of this area that was to grow into the city of Bellingham.   

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 J.J. Donovan was born on September 8, 1858, in Rumney, New Hampshire, to Irish immigrants, Patrick Donovan and Julia O’Sullivan.  Raised and educated in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Donovan graduated from the State Normal School, taught for three years in public school and subsequently enrolled in the Worcester Polytechnic Institute to become a civil engineer.

Upon graduation in 1882, Donovan accepted a position with the Northern Pacific Railroad as it completed its push to unite the Great Lakes in the East with Kalama, Washington Territory, in the West.  In September 1883, Donovan attended the Golden Spike ceremony at Gold Creek, Montana, marking this successful connection of the railroad’s main line.

Donovan then began work on the Cascade division of the Northern Pacific as it crossed the mountains to bypass Portland and connect directly to Puget Sound. It was on this project that Donovan made the acquaintance of Nelson Bennett who held the contract to build the challenging Cascade Tunnel across Stampede Pass.

Throughout the six years of his work for the N.P. Railroad, Donovan maintained a courtship with Clara Nichols, piano teacher from Melrose, Massachusetts.  Their correspondence is preserved along with many other documents in the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies at Western Washington University.  They married on April 29, 1888, and moved to Fairhaven at the beginning of 1889.

Donovan engineered the construction of the Fairhaven and Southern Railway as part of Nelson Bennett’s plans and joined Bennett’s newly incorporated Fairhaven Land Company which platted the expanded properties of Dan Harris’ Fairhaven claim and the purchase of Eldridge and Bartlett’s old Bellingham property immediately to the north.

In 1890, Fairhaven was organized as a city, and Donovan served on the first and second city councils.  He was now firmly entrenched in the town’s development, building a home at 13th Street and McKenzie Avenue and spear-heading the development of a sewage system to serve the booming townsite.

Further railroad construction included an extension of the Fairhaven and Southern to the north into Blaine and New Westminster, British Columbia.  The Bellingham Bay and Eastern Railroad was developed to Lake Whatcom, serving the Blue Canyon Coal Mines, and finally to Wickersham where the line met the Northern Pacific Railway.  Donovan’s biggest disappointment as a builder of railroads was his failure to engineer a rail line across the North Cascades linking Bellingham with Spokane.

Beyond Donovan’s accomplishments in civic, business and economic ventures, his influence extended into philanthropic and educational achievements.  It was Donovan whom two Catholic nuns from New Jersey approached in 1890 for help in building a new hospital in Fairhaven.  With land donated by the Fairhaven Land Company and funds raised within the community, St. Joseph Hospital was built high on the hill overlooking Fairhaven and Bellingham Bay.  Ten years later, an expanded facility was constructed at a midpoint lower on the hill between Fairhaven and the neighboring town of Whatcom, also with the aid of J.J. Donovan and his business partners.

Donovan served for eight years on the Board of Trustees of the Bellingham State Normal School (now Western Washington University), and he was a founding member of the Washington Good Roads Association along with such notables as Sam Hill.

J.J. Donovan was a man of character and principle.  In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was influential in the Pacific Northwest, and when they tried to enter a float in the 1926 Tulip Festival parade, Donovan, as parade chair that year, denied them entry.  The Klan, however, countered by forming their own parade a week later.  Earlier, Donovan had written a particularly scathing article, published in the Seattle Daily Times, castigating everything the Klan stood for and imploring his fellow citizens to denounce such bigotry and vile demonstrations of intolerance.

These are just the highlights of a life that in so many ways influenced the development of the towns of Fairhaven and Whatcom as Washington Territory became Washington State, and as the four towns around Bellingham Bay became the city of Bellingham.  In the words of Lottie Roeder Roth (History of Whatcom County, vol. 2, pg. 5-9), "His activities have touched life at many points and his efforts have been productive of great good.”

J.J. Donovan and Clara Nichols Donovan had three children:  Helen Elizabeth, born in 1889, who married Leslie Craven in 1921; John Nichols, born in 1891 and was married to Geraldine Goodheart in 1914; and Philip, who was born in 1893 and married Hazel Hart Prigmore in 1916.

Clara died of cancer in 1936, and J.J. Donovan died of dementia on January 9, 1937, in his home at 1201 North Garden Street, which is now on the National Historic Register.  

The descendants of John Joseph Donovan are scattered throughout the country, but his great grandson, Patrick Donovan, has now returned to Fairhaven, the town where J.J. Donovan made such a deep and lasting impression.  

A new biography about J.J. Donovan is in the works by Brian Griffin, author of the recent book, "FAIRHAVEN, A History". 


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