November 16, 2020
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Remembrances: Famine Survivor John Lyons and little Bill Handy

This ongoing series, known as "The Big Pivot", presents the experiences of Irish children. We wish we could tell these stories to you in person, but are pleased that we can share them using this practical, creative method while we all wait this thing out.

Our "Remembrance Room” includes the stories of Famine Survivors, generously forwarded to us by families and Museum friends. The Lyons family have quite a story to tell about their ancestor. They tell the tale of a boy from County Limerick, and all he was able to accomplish. Yes, there's hope for all of us...even when we are in the midst of turmoil.

Little William "Bill" Handy is our featured member of our display on the “High Kings of Baltimore”. Having his picture taken with all these men, and him right smack dab in the middle...he must have thought he was the King of the Universe! Many thanks to Christine Balmert Marshall for this, and several images we cherish at the Museum.

Our Remembrance Room: Elements and Elaboration

John Lyons: 1830 - 1888

John had a varied and successful career. Born in Bruree, County Limerick his father died when he was 2 years old. He came to America in 1847, at age 17, during the potato famine, apparently by himself. He got American citizenship in Shenandoah County, VA in 1856. His two brothers and a sister had also come to America by then, and were also in central Virginia, in Staunton and New Market.

An obituary says “Mr. Lyons completed the Western Maryland Railroad, constructed the Lynchburg and Danville road, the Manassas Gap road and started the work on the Baltimore and Drum Point Railroad.”

John was apparently enjoying success, because he bought a farm for his sister Honorah in Woodstock, VA in 1856. In 1857 he had moved to Baltimore, to 114 Scott Street, probably to work at the Mount Clare Shops.

In 1857 he married Catherine Lloyd from County Roscommon in Ireland. He was 27, and she 17. He was Catholic, she was Protestant. She converted.

At 1858, at age 28, he bought a building in downtown Baltimore and opened a tavern and boarding house. When philanthropist George Peabody announced the establishment of The Peabody Institute on the adjacent property, (now Baltimore’s prestigious music school) John Lyons named his tavern “Peabody House.” He operated it for 18 years. The 1870 census has him living there with his wife and four kids, and five employees with their spouses (barkeep, livery hand, bookkeeper, and domestic servant.)

At the same time, he had a contracting business. He was advertising in the Baltimore Sun to hire up to 50 laborers to work on railroad projects. The Civil War was a tumultuous time for Baltimore, but business must have been good for John during the war, because in 1865 he bought a country house — a farm near Surrattsville in Prince George’s County, MD.

By 1870, his wife Catherine’s brother and sister lived with them at the boarding house. Was he doing so well that he brought over his wife’s siblings from Ireland?

He sold the boarding house in 1876, and concentrated on building public works with three of his sons. The 1880 census has him living at 377 Gilmor St. in Baltimore with his wife, five kids and a servant (black 50-year-old female). Again, he appears to have been successful, getting some high-profile public works projects such as building Lake Montebello in Baltimore and the seawall around Fort McHenry. He and his 22-year-old son Thomas secured a contract in 1887 to build the large embankment around the Washington Monument.

He moved to Washington D.C., to 326 Indiana Ave, presumably to be near this big job. But, a year later, he died, of a “stroke caused by paralysis blood clot originating from accident at home.”

Group photo courtesy of Christine Balmert Marshall

High Kings of Baltimore: Bill Handy

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Mount Clare Shops was a workplace for thousands. Included in these numbers were men of various skills and education levels, each playing their role in 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 blue arrow...he’s the young boy above the crease).

He was born in 1862, the son of a blacksmith. Many of his age began as messenger boys: learning the buildings, various departments, and foremen who filled a huge complex that included foundries and blacksmith shops that ran along South Carey St.

Bill continued with the B & O, and was listed as a machinist in the Baltimore City Directory, around the corner at 36 S. Carey St.

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