Idaho History

‘Big muscled’ Ohioan oversaw construction of Idaho Penitentiary, lectured on humor

“Mr. Thomas Donaldson, Esq. of Columbus, Ohio, and lately appointed Register of the land office here, arrived with his family last Monday. He is a big muscled whole souled affable gentleman, and makes a decidedly favorable impression. We understand he will enter upon his duties today.”

This was the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman’s welcome to Boise City on July 10, 1869, of a man who would make Idaho history and write charmingly about it in a book titled “Idaho of Yesterday,” published by Caxton Printers, Ltd. Of Caldwell, Idaho, in 1941.

Donaldson dedicated his book to Christopher W. Moore, “Banker and citizen of Boise City, Idaho. I have had the honor of having his friendship for more than thirty years.”

In June 1871, “The Hon. Thomas Donaldson has consented to lecture on the evening of the 28th, for the benefit of the Sunday school under charge of Mr. C.W. Moore. It is a little rough on our stout friend to have to throw himself much this hot weather, but the laudable object justifies the exertion. Mr. Donaldson has a fine reputation as a lecturer, and we look for the orator and the subject to draw an overflowing house on that occasion.” The subject was “humor,” and the admission 50 cents.

In August 1871, in preparation for the nation’s centennial celebration in 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Thomas Donaldson and James S. Reynolds, publisher of the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman, commissioners of the celebration for Idaho Territory.

That summer the Statesman praised Donaldson for his work as Superintendent of Construction of the Territorial Penitentiary. Montana, Colorado and Idaho had each received $40,000 for construction of a penitentiary. “Mr. Donaldson is entitled to crow a little over his brother Superintendents in Montana and Colorado because they had run out of money to build a wall and a keeper’s room. He built both and had money left.”

In June 1874, the Statesman had changed its mind about Donaldson. It stated what was obviously false that “We do know that our penitentiary building is a disgraceful job and could have been built for one half what it cost the government.” The comparison was made between the penitentiary and A.B. Mullet’s U.S. Assay Office, built at about the same time. “The Assay Office is a substantial well-constructed building. It may be accounted for from the fact that John R. McBride was the Superintendent of the assay office and faithfully expended the money, while Tom Donaldson, as everybody knows, cobbled up the penitentiary job.”

On Nov. 26, 1890, the Statesman noted, “Hon. Tom Donaldson, the big Philadelphia politician, is in this city, and with his son Blaine Donaldson, are guests of C.W. Moore. Donaldson is an old Idaho man and formerly lived in this city. He was at one time Register of the Land Office and is well known here.” Two days later, “Governor Shoup has commissioned Hon. Tom Donaldson as colonel and aide-de-camp on his personal staff. We salute you, Colonel.”

When Thomas Donaldson died at 55 in Philadelphia on Nov. 18, 1898, the Statesman printed his obituary, noting that he had helped codify U.S. mining laws and was the author of two important books: “George Catlin’s Indian Gallery” and “Walt Whitman, the Man.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email
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