General Contractor of Arkansas’s Progressive Era: Gov. George Washington Donaghey

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, April 15, 2020


Arkansas voters in the modern age have heard lots of campaign pleas from candidates touting their business experience and being able to “run government like a business.” This, however, has not been always so, because lawyers tended to dominate the upper echelon of the state’s political establishment until the early part of the 20th century. George W. Donaghey was the first politicians to bring a highly accomplished business career to the state’s chief executive’s chair. However, Donaghey contributed more than just his business experience. As Theodore Roosevelt came to personify the Progressive Era nationally, Donaghey did likewise in Arkansas.

Donaghey was born in Oakland, in Union Parish, Louisiana, just below the state line near Junction City, Arkansas. His father, Christopher Columbus Donaghey, named his son after one of our country’s founding fathers. After George’s birth, the Donagheys moved to Arkansas. When George was 5 years old, Christopher Donaghey joined the Confederate Army and was a prisoner of war by the time the conflict ended. As the family attempted to recover their losses after the Confederacy’s fall, young George’s schooling was sporadic at best. At age 15, he struck out for Texas, desiring to become a cowboy. Four years later, he returned to Arkansas and connected with relatives in Conway. While there, he raised cotton, but he developed malaria and returned to Texas in 1876. He came back to Arkansas three years later to work as a carpenter and schoolteacher. After a short stint at the University of Arkansas, Donaghey married Louvenia Wallace of Lonoke County and settled in Conway.

While building his contracting business and his personal wealth (most notably with the construction of the second Faulkner County Courthouse and several Little Rock office buildings),Donaghey began his public career with his election as city marshal in Conway. He made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 1885. He was also prominent in the fight to keep saloons out of Conway, because colleges would not locate in cities where those establishments were present.

The construction of the current state Capitol building launched Donaghey’s statewide public career, and that building has been his most enduring legacy. In 1899, Gov.Daniel Webster Jones appointed Donaghey to the new State Capitol Commission, where he became the point man in pushing for its construction in spite of the consistent opposition and obstruction of Jones’ successor, Gov. Jeff Davis.

The completion of the Capitol was Donaghey’s chief priority in his successful campaign for governor in 1908, as the dispute over it was what chiefly lured him into politics. After a brutal campaign against a former attorney general backed by now-Senator Davis, Donaghey forged ahead as soon as he was sworn in. He hired nationally known architect Cass Gilbert and appointed a non-political commission consisting of bankers and architects to supervise the construction.The governor finally pushed aside the Davis-created obstacles, and, as a result, the General Assembly met there for the first time in 1911. The remainder of state government vacated the Old State House three years later.

The state had a myriad of issues to address early in the century, and Donaghey’s administration was in the thick of many of them. Despite his sporadic formal education, the governor valued learning and made education another top priority. After bringing the Southern Education Board to Arkansas to push its campaign for public education, Donaghey persuaded the General Assembly to create a commission to investigate education conditions in the state.The commission’s recommendations prompted lawmakers in 1911 to create a new state board of education, increase support for high schools and ease the consolidation of small districts. Donaghey’s administration also encouraged the creation of the state’s four district agricultural high schools at Russellville, Jonesboro, Magnolia and Monticello. They are now Arkansas Tech University, Arkansas State University, Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

The Donaghey administration actively sought to improve the health of Arkansans and made much progress in doing so. After the death of one of his sisters from tuberculosis, he pushed for the opening of the state’s first TB sanitarium in Booneville in 1910. His cooperation with the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission in its campaign to eradicate hookworm led to progress against the condition and to the creation of a state board of health in 1913. The progress in improving public health in Arkansas continued after Donaghey left office. Arkansas was the first Southern state to mandate vaccinations of all school personnel and students, and a malaria control experiment at Crossett in 1916 proved to be a model for subsequent efforts to eradicate pests that caused the disease. (The Crossett experiment was conducted at the Old State House museum. For more information, click here to watch a“Conversation in the Gallery” about this topic.)

Although Donaghey made significant progress in the public health arena, lawmakers stymied his efforts to reform the state tax systems to meet the needs of a modernizing state government. This situation also bedeviled many of his successors.

Other than the completion of the Capitol, Donaghey’s most lasting legacy was the abolition of the convict-lease system. He requested the system be ended during his first message to the General Assembly, and while lawmakers favored the reform, they consistently refused to appropriate enough funds to create a prison farm big enough to employ all of the state’s inmates. In 1912, after Donaghey was defeated in his reelection campaign, he used his remaining time in office to force the issue. He determined how many prisoners could be placed on the existing state farm near Grady. The governor then took the surplus prisoners and pardoned them en masse to reduce the population to what was needed at Grady and no more. In doing so, Donaghey effectively ended the system, although the General Assembly’s purchase of land in Jefferson County for a prison now known as the Tucker Unit, put a formal end to the system in early 1913.

Donaghey successfully pushed through twin progressive direct democracy amendments in 1910. However, the passage of the initiative and referendum amendments did not help his long-term popularity with voters. Donaghey failed in an ill-advised third term bid in 1912, after facing not only the hostility of Senator Davis but the challenge of Arkansas’s up-and-coming power broker, Congressman Joe T. Robinson of Lonoke. Donaghey’s sponsorship of a state Prohibition amendment also proved unpopular, and as result, Robinson brushed the incumbent aside easily in the Democratic Primary. The Prohibition amendment was crushed in the general election.

Despite his rejection by the voters, Robinson’s heart for service continued unabated. He remained active in promoting education as chair of Gov. Thomas McRae’s Education Study Commission in 1921,and as president of the Board of Control of State Charitable Institutions from 1922 to 1926. He built several office buildings in downtown Little Rock, and in 1929,transferred ownership of the Donaghey Building and the Federal Bank and Trust Building to Little Rock Junior College (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock). With a value of between $1.5 million and $2 million, the gift was one of the most generous ever given to Arkansas. By the time of his death on Dec. 13,1937, Donaghey had played a role in the creation of six publicly supported universities. Having no children, he left his estate to a foundation bearing his name.