July 27, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Masons and Their Stepping Stones (Part 1)

A researcher gave us a call recently. He wanted to learn about the Irish and what kind of work they did as they arrived in America during the years of the Great Hunger, or Potato Famine. We gave that a little thought, and it seemed like a good idea to say that they did the most difficult physical work, in most cases. Working as a railroad laborer was certainly first and foremost in our minds, but many have come into our Museum circle that tell us stories of their ancestors, and certain themes repeat themselves…and are worth telling.

We hear a good bit about the generic category, “laborer”. These were men who hadn’t quite developed the skills that were required to be able to be referred to as foundry workers, boilermakers, masons, contractors, painters, draymen and other semi-skilled and skilled working titles. It’s one thing to call yourself a brick mason, and quite another to be a hod-carrier. That mason would make double the wages of the man who he worked with…and who worked physically harder than he did. That being said, a laborer was an entry level position which often led to better things, as we have elaborated on in other issues of this “Big Pivot” series. Be sure to look back to previous issues.

Masonry was a “stepping stone” into middle class life, as workers in brick, marble and granite did better than the laborers who worked under them. An example of this is William Burgan, our marble mason described below. He was making $25 a week cutting marble in 1907…maybe triple of what a common laborer would make. His income placed him in the top 2% of wage-earners at the time.

Several have told us the story of their early ancestors’ work with brick and block, and cutting and dressing stone was not only an important task, but also one where your daily work would be admired for several generations. We hope you enjoy these stories, shared by our Museum network of staff, friends and contributors. One even ties in with the Feeley family who lived at the Museum for over 20 years.

Bryan Hanrahan of Baltimore

Bryan Hanrahan (1836-1904) was born near Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland. His parents were Michael Hanrahan (1816-1862) and Ellen Conway (1801-1885). He arrived in Baltimore in September 1851, aboard the ship Scotia.

Michael was a stonemason and his family lived at 196 Raborg St. (now W. Fairmount St.), in the shadows of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in West Baltimore.

His son Bryan (pictured below) also became a stonemason. He married Catherine Griffin (1839-1911) in 1855 and they had five children. Bryan did well in his trade, and worked for important architects such as E. Francis Baldwin. He and Baldwin bought a group of five adjoining houses on North Carey St. in 1878, and Hanrahan also purchased two lots next to Bolton Hill’s Corpus Christi Catholic Church (pictured below) in 1885.

Bryan was the contractor for that structure, Baltimore’s only all-granite Church (interior pictured in introduction). It was built using granite from Gill and McMahon, who had a large quarry in Woodstock, MD (also known as Granite, MD).

Bryan eventually built homes on those two neighboring lots, and his wife Catherine lived in one of the homes until her death in 1911. Bryan’s contracting firm did many important projects in the Baltimore area, including Friend’s Meeting House at 1714 Park Ave and Laurens St., Baltimore (pictured).

Robert C. Boone of Hampden/Woodberry

Robert C. Boone (pictured) was a Baltimore stone mason and builder, with the 5th Regiment Armory (pictured) and over 100 churches to his credit.

He was from a working-class family, and several relatives worked as cotton mill workers and house painters in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. He was also a union man, serving as the president of a stonemason’s union, affiliated with the Knights of Labor, in 1886. Robert and his family were active in St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Woodberry, where he was also a member of the Emerald Society.

William E. Burgan of Homestead

William (pictured) was a marble cutter who worked for Hilgartner and Co., as well as other firms. Born in 1875, he did considerable work cutting marble for cemetery markers both in Maryland and Louisiana. Here’s a photo of him placing a marker in Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore.

His relatives were also marble cutters, and William may have learned the trade from them. Once he began working for Hilgartner, he brought home a calling card or two for his Irish born mother Bettie Agnes Burgan and sister Annie. Hilgartner specialized in grave monuments but used doorstops, complete with the potential customer's initials, as a sort of promotional piece.

Rather than giving out calendars, or some other reminder of their services, Hilgartner promoted their business by giving away customized marble doorstops. These became so popular in Baltimore that people began coming to them, asking for a doorstop of their own. Too much; so they did what any sensible firm would. They began selling them, and did a brisk business. Here’s an image (see photo above) of Bettie’s door stop that still serves that purpose to this day.

William, as with any marble cutter, went where the business was. His WWI draft registration (see Photo) tells us that he worked at the Naval Academy in 1918 as a “marble mason” for J. Henry Miller Inc., an important builder who had Baltimore’s Union Station among his credits.

William was eventually laid to rest under a marker he cut himself (see Photo), where he joined his parents, wife Mary Catherine, daughter Mary Viola and her husband, a sister and brother in law, a niece and finally a granddaughter, Margaret Mary Sullivan (1937-2006). I called her Mom.

Many thanks to those who contributed to this, our 44th issue of The Big Pivot:

Burgan, Sullivan and McCusker families

Michael Tunney and Family

Bill Carbo

Our next issue will tell the stories of a brickmaking family and a thoroughly modern brick mason.

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