July 7, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Workingmen's Stories

We are fortunate to have a Museum based on the workingmen of an earlier era, namely the railroad workers that performed difficult work, and built a nation. And yet we are fascinated; who were they, and why do they inspire us so much? Let's visit some stories about Irish working men.

Our earliest arrivals often did the most menial of tasks. Mining of coal and other materials was dangerous and difficult, and thousands did what they had to do to provide for their family, and sometimes bring them to America. Boys and men did the dirty work, including the pictured "Breaker Boys" (pictured) who did the sorting, and turned big ones into little ones all day long; fathers filled coal cars for 50 cents a ton.

My earliest ancestor on my mother's side worked in a Chromium mine in southern Pennsylvania, but seems to have died on the job...no records to be found other than a widow and children to begin again in Baltimore. Perhaps you have an ancestor like that....thousands do.

Frances M. Trollope was no historian, but a society woman turned storyteller once she had done a tour of America and returned to England in 1832. Intertwined with her impressions of American society were observations on the Irish canal workers she saw during her travels. She noted that they were considered disposable.....cheap to hire, and easily replaced...paid with whiskey and a little money, and unworthy of any kind of doctoring when injured on the job. When they died they were unmourned by family, and buried in unmarked graves.

Some were remembered in markers along the canals: leaders of the work teams that opened up the West to an expanding America. Thanks to each who is listed on this marker for the C & O Canal's Monocacy Aqueduct.

The Irish who began work on America's Railroads were often "moving on up" to a better job than they imagined. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was America's first passenger and freight railroad, and thousands who wanted to overcome the drudgery and danger of mining and canal work came to Baltimore's Mount Clare Shops, and the main line that extended from it to begin jobs as laborers. They came with a bit of hope that their labor would lead to better things for themselves, and their families.

This image was given to us by Heather Grueninger a few years ago: a gathering of foundry workers at Mount Clare Shops. These images are still out there, amazingly. Let's consider that they show men who were once thought of as disposable and easily forgotten; now their images were being preserved for future generations. Men walked home and handed these photographs to their wives, to be saved. These men thought their work and affiliations were important, and worth remembering.

Laborers had possibilities in this new working life, and the man of the house at our Museum was a perfect example. James Feeley started as a laborer, but became a boilermaker due to his diligence and intellect. His sons followed in his footsteps, and next generations included a granddaughter who attended private school, and married well. We are thankful for his descendants who remember him today.

Cornelius L. Knott (below, center) is being presented as our man in blue today; difficult work that led to great things for many in the Irish and immigrant community. He was born March 10, 1827 in Barnesville, Montgomery County, a descendant of men who fought in the Revolutionary War, including a grandfather who was active militia. Shortly after the death of his mother in 1842, Cornelius set out for Baltimore. On his arrival in West Baltimore's St. Peter the Apostle parish, Cornelius worked as a bricklayer for several years. After marrying Rosalie Burroughs on June 17, 1856, he joined Baltimore’s first metropolitan police force, serving under Marshal George P. Kane (future mayor and president of the Hibernian Society) in the earliest days of the Civil War. Knott lived at the corner of W. Fayette Street and Fremont Ave. while serving at the station house on Greene Street.

Knott made sergeant on June 1, 1870. Later that year he rescued two children from a burning building. The Police Board voted him a $50 reward and presented him with a letter of thanks for his bravery. Cornelius retired from the force on April 21, 1897 after serving the Western, Northwestern and Southwestern districts. He led efforts to install gymnasiums in many police stations. He lived out his remaining days in his home at 867 W. Lexington Street with his widowed daughter and two grandchildren, and passed away on January 21, 1916.( Images and narration courtesy of Anne Vandecastle May, his 4X great granddaughter).

Many Irish did a bit of soldiering as they progressed towards firmly establishing their place among both peers and a nation. The military was a dangerous workplace, of course, and thousands of Irish chose this honorable profession. They were preserving a nation for future generations, despite the enormous cost. Carlton Burgan is featured prominently in the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. He paid quite a price, but returned to civilian life, married, had many children and even outlived his wife, in spite of it all. He worked as a gardener after the war, and is buried in Baltimore Cemetery.

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