November 9, 2020
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

James Feeley: Our Golden Issue

We are thankful for the opportunity to reach out to our supportive Museum community during these difficult days. Who knew that this frustrating lull would open doors for us, previously unresearched? Time has been a gift, and we have delved a bit more deeply into the Irish story, focusing on the immigrant ancestors who found their way to Baltimore. The stories from historical records, both public and private have enriched both this writer and our readers, and we rejoice.

These stories are common among our shared ancestors. The Irish who came here usually left a life of persecution and despair. Some came for religious and economic reasons, while others were just trying to survive. They relied on fellow expatriates once they arrived in Baltimore, in various capacities, and began new lives where they established homes, found meaningful work, shopped and socialized among their own and worshipped freely. They sometimes had professional success, but often found their significance in their associations with others. These could have been church related, through their workplaces, in the political world or via membership in fraternal organizations.

We’d like to dedicate this fiftieth issue of “The Big Pivot” to the man who inspired our Museum itself. His name was Seamus “James” Feeley (pictured above with his family, as they enjoyed a Chesapeake Bay Excursion, circa 1871). They lived at our Museum building, now known as 918 Lemmon Street. His life seems to have been a simple one, but he and his wife Sarah accomplished a transition from the ways of the Old World to the New that we are bound to admire. Thanks for joining us as we do so.

James Feeley was born in December, 1826 in County Tipperary North, son of Michael and Johanna Feeley. Michael was listed as late as 1852 as being a tenant on Lord Ashtown’s lands in Lissadonna, a townland of 400 acres in the Ballingarry Parish. Michael ran a tenant farm there of just over eight acres, and he and Johanna raised a family that had at least six children.

The Feeley family was aware of many tumultuous incidents and times in their home parish, which was centered at the Church of the Assumption (pictured). It had been established in 1828, just on the cusp of Catholic emancipation days led
by Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator”. While their religion became a recognized one in the eyes of English authorities, many Protestant institutions continued to discriminate against their ethnicity and faith traditions.

Ballingarry Parish was rural, as were so many in the County. Once productive farmland, Tipperary (pictured) was viewed by many landlords as better suited for grazing purposes, especially when the Poor Laws went into effect in 1838. Landowners were now expected to pay a poor tax to cover the costs of the creation of several workhouses in the county, where the starving Irish would arrive en masse in coming years.

County Tipperary’s fertile fields produced large harvests, and grazing lands were just as productive. Potatoes were grown by Catholic tenant families for their own subsistence. The volatile crop was the only choice for a large population trying to sustain itself on the small plots available to them.

Abundant harvests were interspersed with famine years, but no simple remedy was known to eliminate dependency on the healthful but erratic potato crop. Landlords saw far higher yields from raising cattle than from rents collected from Irish who lived simply among these acres, and many sought to rid their land of them.

The potato blights of 1845-1852 gave landlords an opportunity to remove poor Irish once and for all. They applied for judgments against tenants in arrears, and once receiving a notice of eviction, ancient earthen homes were destroyed, never to be inhabited again (pictured).

The rural parish had nothing in the way of industry beyond a single coal mine, and families like the Feeleys relied on the diminishing value of agricultural work to keep body and soul together. This became stretched to the extreme when the Great Hunger began its devastating effects in 1845, and continued several years into the future. In our mind’s eye we can conceive of the family becoming convinced of the grim realities facing them, as they considered the breakup of a farming family that relied on each other.

Political turmoil was also part of their lives, even in a rural section of Ireland like County Tipperary. An association known as the Young Irelanders, led by Protestant M.P. William Smith O’Brien (pictured) flew the illegal tricolor flag in Ballingarry on July 28, 1848, gaining the attention of police authorities who sought to arrest the leaders. The table was turned on the police by a considerable crowd who chased them into a nearby home and demanded their surrender instead. O’Brien was eventually captured, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death, but Queen Victoria intervened and sent him to a penal colony instead.

The family saw the realities set before them: little in the way of work, land ownership, or position in the greater structure of their homeland, and looming starvation. They were convinced that their only option was to flee.

James Feeley and his sibling Cathan/Catherine (records vary) traveled northward to Londonderry and began their journey to America, boarding the Bark Margaret Hugg. The sailing ship was built in Baltimore’s Fells Point area. It took on 122 passengers for the long trip to Philadelphia and Baltimore. The ship arrived on May 22, 1847 and docked at the Quarantine Station at Lazaretto Point (lower Canton), as did all ships of the era. Once passing civic and medical inspections, passengers (see image above) and freight continued into the harbor proper, where they disembarked and began new lives in America’s most vibrant shipping port.

We continue our search for the earliest records of James’ life, but census records tell us he married Sarah Liberty and began a family. She worked within a community of butchers in Baltimore’s 7th Ward near Belair Market, and must have met James nearby. Daughter Mary Ann was baptized at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church on October 19, 1854. Eventually Sarah and James moved westward into present day West Virginia, with James likely doing railroad work that was available there.

More children were born, and eventually the family realized a better choice was to move into West Baltimore, where both the extended Feeley and Liberty families had settled. This culminated with the arrival of Feeley parents Michael and Johanna, who found themselves a home in the neighborhood. Sarah’s parents and brother were also living there, and extended family was in place to both give and receive support.

James lived just a block away from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Mount Clare Shops (pictured above, circa 1872) and would have seen this intriguing view on a daily basis. He and his wife established a home at 18 Lemmon Street and raised several children. Both James and brother-in- law John Liberty became naturalized citizens in the 1870’s, and James’ work as a laborer for the B & O led to better things. He became a boilermaker, and worked with many others who did mighty work in the Mount Clare Shops.

Among their accomplishments was the building of locomotive No. 600, known in earlier days as the “Big Mogul”. This Class K, 45-ton locomotive (pictured) was completed in the Mount Clare Shops in 1875, under the supervision of Master of Machinery John C. Davis.

It was known for its attractive design and color scheme, and was used primarily for freight service. The locomotive was a showpiece of sorts for the B & O, and went on display at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, touted as the heaviest locomotive in the world.

This locomotive can still be viewed today. Once displayed to all at 1927’s Fair of the Iron Horse, it is now part of the permanent collection of the B & O Railroad Museum, known as the J.C. Davis. It was restored to former glory in 2015, after considerable damage was done when the Roundhouse that sheltered it collapsed during a severe snowstorm in 2003.

Information available about James Feeley includes several indicators of a productive life. His career with the B & O Railroad shows him being a trustworthy capable worker, receiving a promotion to Boilermaker. His sons were brought into the business as well, indicating that there was the hope of a good example being transferred from father to son.

James and Sarah had rented 918 Lemmon Street for twenty years, but became the owners of the property on October 22, 1884 (pictured). They purchased the property from Sarah’s cousin Odes Boland for $450, apparently with the aid of James McColgan, a lawyer and nephew of their legendary Pastor, Rev. Edward McColgan.

Their first house was quite small, with approximately 715 square feet in living space. It was located on a parcel of land measuring 10 feet 9 inches wide and 48 feet deep: some 516 square feet. There was also a four-foot alley just beyond, and the owners were responsible to pay an $18 annual ground rent.

They now owned their former rental property, but it would not be their home in just a few days. The Feeleys also purchased 119 S. Arlington Ave., just eight days later (deed pictured). The Feeleys were suddenly both homeowners and landlords, renting to both Irish and German tenants for the next 28 years.

Their move a few blocks west was an upward one. Their new plot measured 12 feet 9 inches wide and 90 feet deep, ending at a 10-foot-wide alley. James and Sarah paid $1,230 for the property, almost triple the value of their former residence. The land was considerable, relatively speaking, measuring 1,147 square feet, with a $31.87 ground rent. The new home itself was a full three stories, rather than the “two story and attic” style house on Lemmon St. It remained the Feeley home for approximately thirty years.

The story of James Feeley is one that is typical for many of our successful ancestors. They left a troubled land, venturing out on an open sea they had never seen before. Once arriving in a new land, filled with industry and opportunity, they became part of a community that embraced a new urban form of Irish life. Successes both large and small were the reward for hard work, thrift and profitable associations with others. We thank James for his example and honor him today.

Many thanks to several who contributed to this article, with a special recognition and remembrance of Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward, Museum Curator for 22 years. She did so much work to discover the Feeley story at our Museum, and is dearly missed.

We also thank:

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum Baltimore Sun
Jacqueline Frank (Docent)
Sharon Knecht

Patrick McCarthy, Ph.D. (Board Member)

Cecilia Wright (Board Member)

See the J.C. Davis locomotive on display in 1927's Fair of the Iron Horse (See 17:43)

Click here for a Resource for Old Photos from Southern Methodist University Library; our thanks to them.

Thanks to each who continue following as we send out issues of "The Big Pivot", and many friends who contribute stories and images for our use.

Do you have historic images that you would like to share? We just might use them in a future images can be sent to

Your donations keep us going, for sure; send your tax deductible gift to:

Irish Railroad Workers Museum
PO Box 20627
Baltimore, MD 21223

Receive your Baltimore Irish History fix directly to your inbox

Get more ideas on what to do on the
Baltimore Travel Guide.