The Irish Railroad Workers Museum began as a preservation project of a different form.
A group of concerned citizens formed the Railroad Historical District Corp, a 501(c)3 organization in 1997. The organization was formed to save a group of alley houses slated for demolition. While the City saw condemned buildings as a nuisance, the group recognized them as monuments to the Irish families who worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Located across from the B&O Railroad Museum, this row of 1840 residences housed poor Irish Immigrants who worked in the “yards” of what is considered to be the nation’s first great railroad.
Local historians and preservationists, led by Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward sought to preserve this group of historical rowhouses. These were known as “two-story-and-attic” houses, and had served as homes for the arriving Irish who flocked to West Baltimore in the 1840’s, in the wake of the Great Hunger. The desire to preserve a particular style of Baltimore rowhouse and the historical importance of these homes in Baltimore’s Irish heritage and story was particularly compelling to Judge Tom Ward, founder of Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) in Baltimore. He was joined by William Adler and other early Museum leaders who formed the Railroad Historical District Corporation with the goal of saving the group of rowhouses from demolition by the City of Baltimore.
After a court battle led by pro bono attorney Barry Steel, the group successfully kept the City from tearing down the buildings. Neighbors volunteered labor and donated materials to stabilize the buildings. Funding from the Maryland Historic Trust, Preservation Maryland, Irish organizations and private donors made the buildings’ restoration possible. The museum’s early leaders and the City of Baltimore were both determined to win the day, but ultimate victory was won by the group of historians and preservationists who purchased five rowhouses along the block. Three houses were restored and sold for private ownership while two houses became the Irish Railroad Workers Museum.
During the next five years the facades were restored, and the Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Historic Shrine was completed under the leadership of Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward, Judge Tom Ward, project leader Bill Adler and artist Wayne Nield. The Museum was opened to the public on June 17, 2002 when Mayor Martin O’Malley and State Comptroller William Donald Schafer cut the ribbon with Tom Ward and fellow Board members. The buildings have been officially declared a Baltimore City Historic District and are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Irish Railroad Workers Museum continues to develop and present the story of Baltimore’s Irish community in several aspects. We are the only 19th century working class, original urban house museum in the United States, and a fine example of where our immigrant Irish ancestors established homes, found meaningful work, shopped and socialized and worshipped freely within a vibrant ethnic community. It is our desire to illuminate our visitors and community with the remarkable story of our immigrant Irish forebears, who wondered if they would survive at all. Rather, they thrived within one of America’s great cities.
Visitors can make the Irish Railroad Workers Museum part of an Irish Heritage walk, combining the B&O Railroad Museum, Irish Railroad Workers Museum, St. Peter the Apostle Church, and the Hollins Street Market. The Irish Railroad Workers Museum is a unique, staffed interpretive site that includes a house furnished to depict daily life for the Irish immigrant living in the late 1840s. Our clear back wall gives visual indoor access to those who cannot enter the Museum, while those inside can view our outdoor Memorial Shrine and Garden.