Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Village Blacksmith, 1841.
“ Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan:
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man…..”.
Considerable historical research has been done during the last two decades of the administration of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum here in Baltimore, and a particular fella keeps showing up. He is known as a blacksmith, and his work has played an essential role in the development of America’s first railroad, and second largest city in the middle of the nineteenth century. We are constantly challenged to consider the vocation in a broader context, as many of these men lived lives considerably more significant than what we might assume would be the case for a laboring profession.
Everyone needed them, and paid them well for their essential services. These working men often invested in their community at large, and within their own families in particular.
The production of iron has been essential for centuries, and the colony of Maryland passed "An Act for the Encouragement of an Iron Manufacturer, within the Province” in 1719. Baltimore County had an abundance of the base natural resources needed for the production of iron, including iron ore, timber, limestone and waterfront for taking the smelted product to market.
Blacksmiths are wrought ironworkers who work with the product of the smelter who takes iron ore, found underground, and purifies it through the use of heat. The smithy receives the iron in a malleable state, with barely traces of carbon within, and once reheating it, transforms the iron into all manner of products for public purchase. His workplace is a dynamic one, where fire, spark and the sound of his mighty hammer creates products as simple as nails and as complicated as wrought iron gates, hinges and homegoods. His work was essential to the development of a young nation, where axes and farm implements tamed a wilderness. Wooden wheels that headed westward were covered in iron bands and turned on iron axles: built by a cousin profession known as wheelwrights.
Multiple millions of horses relied on shoes formed by a specialist trade, known as horseshoers. These animals pulled wagons and carriages of every description, bringing people, materials and food to market and other destinations. None of this would be possible without the fire of the foundry, the striking of the hammer and the might of the smithy. No wonder they did well in a developing nation, and in a boomtown like Baltimore.
These included men such as Charles V. Bamberger, who helped run a family blacksmith and wheelwright shop along Baltimore’s York Road. He is pictured here on his wedding day: November 17, 1887 at St. Ann Catholic Church.
He and his newlywed, Annie Jane Burgan, just might have met in the Catholic Church they both attended, or perhaps her family’s farm had need for the services of the Bambergers. Charles and his brothers must have done well, as they attended a church that had a bit of a reputation of having a wealthy congregation.
The Bamberger Brothers firm was one of 150 blacksmiths in greater Baltimore, and the brothers had the good sense to combine their foundry work with the wheelwright trade…one of ten in the city in 1905. A wooden wheel was not long for this world without the reinforcement of an outer forged metal band, known as an iron tire, and an inner iron axle and hub hoop to give the wood wheel strength and stability.
A beautiful example of the workplaces of such men was made public by Barb Henry, who shared this remarkable photograph and narration that helps us to understand the settings where such men thrived:
”My third great-grandfather, John Baker Henry had a Blacksmith and Wheelwright shop on York Road in Waverly (then in Baltimore County). This photo is undated, but I estimate it was taken in the mid-1880s.The business was dissolved in the early 1890s: probably due to the health of John. John is on the left, John's oldest son (and my second great-grandfather) Charles Dorsey Henry is in the middle and John's youngest son William R Henry on the right.”
“Week in, week out,from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing floor.”
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Mount Clare Shops was a workplace for thousands, including foundry men. Included in these numbers were men of various skills and education levels, each playing their role in performing the diverse needs of a huge complex that supported a system known as “Railroad University”. This photograph, circa 1875, shows rustics and well-dressed men of various ages, including little Bill Handy, likely 13 years old or so (see the blue arrow…he’s the young boy above that nasty crease). He was born in 1862, the son of a B & O blacksmith. I’m thinking he was fascinated.
Bill must have just been starting his career, and was a dapper dresser of sorts. Many boys his age began as messenger boys, learning the buildings, various departments and foremen who filled a huge complex, including the foundries and blacksmith shops (in image below) that ran along Carey St. (far left).
Bill Handy continued with the B & O in the massive complex, and was listed as a machinist in the Baltimore City Directory, 1895…. living around the corner at 36 S. Carey St.
Railroads were built on the backs of laboring men, and the horses that brought supplies to them trackside. An example is found on the western extension of the main line, in 1851. 5,000 men and 1,250 horses were working on the last section of track to get the Baltimore and Ohio to its major goal; the Ohio River at Wheeling. Both men and horses needed considerable support, and horseshoers and foundrymen were essential personnel, among others.
Treasured photographs have been shared with our Museum over the last several years. These are now close to 150 years old, and each was preserved by families who saw these men as important, and their work as honorable. Heather Grueninger shared a photo of a group of blacksmiths (below) who worked in the Mount Clare shops, complete with a few fellas who still had their leather aprons on…keeping metal sparks off of their clothes.
Successful blacksmiths became entrepreneurs in their own right, and their names and trades have presented themselves as we have done research on the modest homes along Lemmon Street. Our Museum, centered on 918 Lemmon Street, was owned by both John R. Jordan and Odes Boland between 1856 and 1884: two successful blacksmiths who owned the home and served as landlords to others, including the Feeley family. Odes was a relative of theirs, and eventually sold the home to them. His massive book of Bible stories is a featured exhibit at the Museum today.
The companion trade of horseshoeing was particularly essential for a nation and city who relied on horse hooves to get places, or to bring items to market. Once the needs of many arrived in ship’s cargo holds, and placed on dry land by stevedores, draymen and horses were the means of transportation of cargo along the systems of roads. Baltimore boasted a population of 508,957 by 1900, and a reasonable estimate, in keeping with the known horse population of New York City, tells us that Baltimore had approximately 24,730 horses in its streets and stables. That’s a lot of hooves to be shod, and the city had 120 horseshoers listed in the 1901 City Directory.
The Museum’s historic Feeley family was the beneficiary of the success of a particular horseshoer. Daniel S. Shanahan Sr. was both a horseshoer and lay veterinarian for the Baltimore City Mounted Police, and caught the eye of Joanna Feeley. They were married on May 29, 1896 and had a daughter together, named Rita Cecilia Shanahan.
Her future included studies at Mount de Sales Academy; a half-brother, Daniel S. Shanahan Jr. eventually became an important physician after attending Georgetown Medical School. These wonderful advances for a family that had just left Ireland two generations earlier were in no small part made possible by the success of blacksmiths and horseshoers in the family.
Michael J. Heagerty is a perfect example of the esteem held for the horseshoers of an earlier generation. He was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States, where he met and married Helen Dunn at West Baltimore’s St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church (pictured).
Helen gave him seven children, and they worked towards their successful future. It was made manifest in the lives of son John M., who became a physician, and a daughter known as Sister Mary Kostka, a Sisters of Mercy nun who served as Directress of St. Peter’s Male School at the time of her father’s death in 1906. They were an active church family, both at St. Peter’s and St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, an Irish parish several blocks west:
“He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.”
Michael Heagerty’s obituary was written as one would do for an important member of West Baltimore’s railroading community. He had served them for 41 years at his shop at W. Baltimore and Carlton Streets, just a few blocks north of the Mount Clare shops and the Carlton St. Arabber’s stables (still exist today). He was considered an expert in his field, and had received a gold medal in 1868 from the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanical Arts for his precision work. He served on the State Board of Examiners for horseshoers, and been a member of the Master Horseshoers Union. He passed away on July 10, 1906.
This brief glimpse into the lives and workplaces of our immigrant ancestors, and the dignified work they did, is an inspiration to us. Thanks for coming along for this fascinating look.
Onwards through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought”.
Many thanks to these sources and individuals that contributed to this writing:
Baltimore City Directories, various
Baltimore Museum of Industry staff and volunteers
Census of the United States,various
Library of Congress; E. Sachse, &Co.'s bird's eye view of the city of Baltimore, 1869 (https://www.loc.gov/item/75694535/ (Accessed 8/30/2023)
Dun na Si Amenity and Heritage Park: Westmeath, Ireland
https://www.farmcollector.com/company-history/avery-wages-in-the-early-1900s/ (Accessed 7/18/23)
Mary Ellen Hayward, Ph.D. (in loving memory)
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Village Blacksmith, 1841. (passages shown in italics)
Christine Balmert Marshall and Family
Peden, Henry and Jack L. Shagena Jr., Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree: the Village Blacksmith in Rural America as Evidenced by Early Smiths in Harford County, Maryland. Private Printing, 2007.
Stover, John F. History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad(West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1987).
McCusker, Burgan and Sullivan families