The Irish Railroad Workers Museum focuses on a particular type of railroad worker. James Feeley began his railroading career as a laborer, and later became a boilermaker…building those grand cylinders where water and steam were transformed into horsepower. He, like many B & O men, brought his sons into the company, and each lived their lives within shouting distance of the Mount Clare Shops (See Photo above, circa 1872: a view James Feeley might have seen daily).
We can’t help but admire these men, whose individual contributions towards the building of a nation were compounded by thousands of others who led simple and yet significant lives.
Life for the working man was not always such. The earliest Irish who arrived in Baltimore provided essential labor to the coal, canal, shipping and railroading industries, but many thought of them as disposable. One Irishman was as good as the next, they reasoned; a strong back and a pair of hands were all that was really needed. They lived anonymously, and often died unmourned.
Railroads such as the B & O were universities of sorts. Men who came to work there labored alongside the skilled and semi-skilled, and careers were available to each as they developed into all their talents and wits allowed. Railroad men approached their work body, mind and soul, and developed a self-respect that was communicated to management and executive board alike.
Railroad laborers told executives that they were not mere pawns in their financial wrangling with investors and financiers, and the 1877 Railroad Strike said something that management needed to hear. B & O President John W. Garrett began a slow path towards asserting the value of the working man, albeit at a glacial pace. He established the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Relief Department during the 1880-1884 era. This funding developed over the years into one that provided a measure of hospitalization and death benefits, as well as savings and pension funds.
The establishment of benefits was an important step in the creation of loyalty and a work-family atmosphere at the railroad. More rapid progress became possible in 1910, when Daniel Willard (see photo) was named the railroad’s President. He brought a tremendous background to the job, beginning his railroading career as a track laborer. Once he got off the ground, Willard became a fireman, brakeman, engineer and conductor. He joined working crews in the support buildings themselves, and eventually became white-collar, serving as Superintendent and Foreman among other positions. These jobs were held on several railroads over 25 years, until he became President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad: a position he held for 30 years.
Willard was the right man to develop a family atmosphere among the workers, and modeled loyalty to his work force: usually reciprocated. As a man who had held most every position that a railroader could hold, he saw the value of every man who was part of the work force.
He displayed that by beginning the Baltimore and Ohio Employes Magazine in October 1912. The publication was considered one of the finest in the industrial world, and its well written articles and promotions encouraged the work force to develop their minds, their knowledge of the company and consider the opportunities available for those with the drive to pursue them.
An important feature of the magazine was honoring the employees whose efforts were noticed and appreciated.
We’ve all seen the image of the laying of the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad on July 4, 1828, featuring Charles Carroll of Carrollton, but how many remember the work of 18-year-old Larry Cosgrove that day (pictured). He was featured in the Magazine’s 5th issue of 1913. He was born in Ireland in 1810, and was an early émigré to America: likely from Ulster.
Larry dug the foundation for the placement of the cornerstone of America's first passenger and freight railroad. Cosgrove eventually moved his railroading work westward to Cumberland, and raised a family with wife Theresa that included a son. Peter was born in 1856 and eventually became the oldest motorman on the B & O’s electric railway through Baltimore’s Howard Street Tunnel.
Larry also served as the groundbreaker for the B & O’s Rolling Mill in Cumberland (pictured below). The above photo of Larry was taken just a year later, in 1870.
Interestingly, Larry seems to have been a laborer all his life. He did not climb the corporate ladder, and yet his employer thought his work holding a shovel was honorable and memorable. Anyone could have done what he did in 1828 and 1869, but those around him remembered the role he played, and placed him into the company’s shared repository of remembrance.
Edward B. Doyle (pictured below) was another Irishman whose contributions were honored in the Employe’s Magazine in 1913 (pictured). He was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland in 1831 and made his way to America during the days of the Great Hunger, working as a fisherman in Nova Scotia.
Doyle took a position with the B & O in 1854, beginning as a track hand for $1.00 per day. His career developed as he traveled the rails, and Edward became a fireman on a camel locomotive, moving to $1.75 a day. Edward’s skills were eventually rewarded with a position as engineer, earning an initial rate of $2.50 per day. He continued in this position until 1900, when he retired after 46 years of service. He enjoyed slower days with his wife Emily and three children, and they took advantage of an annual pass from the railroad. Edward B. Doyle’s railroad benefits included a pension, collected until his death in 1922.
He also had a $1,000 life insurance policy issued by the Baltimore and Ohio’s Railroad Relief Department. A widower at his time of death, his benefits were shared by his children. He also owned a home, free and clear, in Cacapon, West Virginia that was left to his daughter and caregiver, Ellie.
The lives and work of Larry Cosgrove and Edward B. Doyle might seem modest to us modern men, but each was honored by their employer and peers. Their work’s significance was shared by multiple thousands of Irish whose lives were transformed by the challenges of heavy industry, while America developed into a thriving nation.
Men with dignity and a purpose for each day played an important role in securing the respect of America’s first European immigrant people group by those who came to America in earliest days. Many of those early immigrants and their descendants were still learning the meaning of “All Men are Created Equal”.
Our Museum continues to express our thanks to these men, and honor them.
Perhaps you would like to honor an ancestor as well. Our brand new web site has a place for them. Be sure to see our Shamrock Legacy section, where their story can be told while you support the work of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum.
Many thanks to these sources that contributed to this article:
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Employees Magazine, 1913.
Library of Congress
Vrooman, David M. Daniel Willard and Progressive Management on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Ohio State University Press, 1991.