One of our major historical themes at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum is how railroaders’ wives and mothers were the heart of their homes, and contributed in huge measures. Their efforts are often what we might think as traditional roles even today, but careful examination shows us how remarkable these women were in raising families, caring for the home itself and making important financial contributions to the families’ success, and that of generations to come.
Rural Farming Lives in Ireland
Irish women came from a hardy stock, and an overwhelming number were rural dwellers at the time of the Great Hunger. “Keeping the home” was a rather understated way of describing their main task in life, as they were also entirely responsible for outdoor tasks such as milking the cow (if there was one), barn feeding, and gardening.
Seasonal needs brought them alongside their husbands and older children for turf cutting (see photo), planting, cultivation, harvest of the families’ potato patch, and helping to make hay each Fall.
Living Alongside America’s Railroads
Irish women and children often accompanied their husbands as they worked along the railroads and canals of a young America. Shanties or dugout homes were built trackside, and a family was given a barrel of flour and a good measure of bacon for the women to turn into meals. Pigs and poultry were provided at the temporary camps that were established to house laborers and their families, and a “drop of the creature” was rationed each day to give the men some relief and solace as they sought a good night’s rest.
We welcome writings by Museum friends and colleagues who help us describe those difficult days our ancestors endured, and send special thanks to Reuben Rajala for this compelling writing (in quotes) and image found below.
Glimpses of Gorham’s Past: Railroad Builders Endure Harsh Living Conditions
Reuben Rajala, Gorham Historical Society (N.H.)
Railroad Worker Dugouts by Randolph Ravine House, Circa 1861
Photo Source: Gorham Historical Society
“The recent donation of this unique photograph, most likely from 1861 or so, illustrated exactly how tough it was for the builders of the Concord and Montreal Railroad (later known at the Boston and Maine Railroad) as it came into the Androscoggin Valley. The photo shows three crude dugouts built by railroad workers, apparently near the Ravine House.
It appears that the workers probably dug into the gravel bank to create simple living quarters, with A-frames made of logs, brush and covered with soil to break the wind and provide some insulation to create an entrance. One can find many references to the use of dugouts of different types by railroad workers and their families. You might also remember the term “sod busters” during the Westward expansion, where many went underground on the flat treeless prairies.
While reading the “History of Shelburne” (1882) by Mrs. R. P. Peabody I came across the following description of the earlier construction of the Grand Trunk Railroad (GTR) towards Gorham and beyond in 1851:
The building of the Grand Trunk Railroad through Shelburne began in 1851. Most of the workmen were Irishmen who camped along the way with their wives and children. They only required limited quarters, Mr. Hubbard’s woodshed affording ample accommodations for three families. The houses or hovels rather, which they made for themselves were simply four posts set in the ground, boarded over and banked, often up to the eves, with earth. A barrel stuck in one side allowed some of the effluvia to escape. There were two classes or clans of these workmen, Corkmen and Fardowns; and a fight always signalized their meetings.
The work in those days was brutal, very labor intensive and long, typically six days per week. Workers who were able to find a woodshed or barn to use were probably considered lucky. Guy Gosselin said that he had heard years ago talk about dugouts being used by the GTR laborers near what is now Dublin St. in Gorham.
Thousands of railroad workers were recent immigrants who had escaped the devastating potato famine in Ireland between 1845-1850. They and many other immigrant laborers built the canals, railroads, and so much more infrastructure that were important to the growth of America!"
Other resources tell us that these shanties and dugouts were not all that different from 4th class housing in Ireland: walls and roof made from earth and thatch, fire for heat and cooking on the floor, with poor ventilation and little light coming in (see photo of an example of 4th class Irish housing).
A high majority of Irish immigrant women headed for America’s large cities, rather than urban settings farther west. Perhaps the difficulties of farming life was thought best left behind. New lives were formed in the close quarters of American cities and towns. Here’s some of the important elements in their new lives:
Urban Life for Single Irish Women in America
• Single Irish women actually outnumbered single Irish men in immigration rates…the only European group to do so.
• Single Irish women had financial freedom, and developed skill with money in a cash-based society.
• They worked as domestics; in very high demand as other European immigrant women's groups thought it was demeaning to work in another woman’s home.
• They competed with “Colored” or “Protestant Only” domestics, as some who brought in help advertised for one type or another…”No Irish Need Apply” .
• They lived with the families they worked for; their wages were considerably higher than women in sweatshops.
• They were free to spend money as they wished, and spent money on:
Urban Married Irish Women in America
In Ireland and America, urban married women rarely worked outside the home.
The money she earned was her own to manage. She could raise her own family and still have some of the financial freedom of a single woman. Many financed their family vacation by saving a little each week, and having the funds ready come summertime… remember what Sarah Feeley, woman of the house at 918 Lemmon Street, did with her savings? Time to take the family on a Chesapeake Bay Excursion (see photo above).
Dilts, James D. The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio, the Nation’s First Railroad, 1828-1855. Stanford University Press, 1993.
Diner, Hasla R. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the 19th Century. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Gorham Historical Society and Railroad Museum (New Hampshire)
Kennedy, Robert E. Jr. The Irish: Emigration, Marriage and Fertility. Berkeley: University of Colorado Press, 1973.
Sharon Knecht and Family
Library of Congress
Lyons, Mary. The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad. Charleston, S.C. History Press, 2015.