Wakes, Voyages, and Locomotives

January 17, 2018

Irish immigration and railroads in the 19th century

The following post is inspired by Amy Johnson Crow‘s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, a 2018 program of writing prompts related to genealogy and investigating family history. The theme for this week’s post is “Longevity.”

When Thomas Pidgeon entered the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s yard office, he must have been quite a sight.

The yard master, I imagine, would’ve shook his head, puffed a dismissive cloud from a cigar full of Kentucky tobacco, and wondered who’d just strolled in off the street.

Now, I cannot in any way describe for you what Thomas Pidgeon looked like. Nothing remains regarding his appearance, his physical stature, or his facial features.

All I have, all most of us have for people like Thomas, is an imagination.

Thomas sometime in 1889 strolled into the L&N yard office, located at the railroad’s expansive railyard in western Louisville, at the frail age of 74 years old. Today I’d get my bell wrung for calling someone 74 years old frail, but life expectancy for Irish immigrants in America a century ago was about 60, according to the University of Cincinnati.

Thomas wanted a job, not a cemetery plot.

Louisville & Nashville Steam Locomotive No. 1889, L&N, Railroads,
L&N’s steam locomotive No. 1889 (SOURCE: https://digital.library.louisville.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/heraldpost/id/1031/rec/1)

And he would get one, along with his two adult sons, who’d come to America from a meager life of tenant farming in County Tipperrary, Ireland. They traded spades and plows for shovels full of coal and the roar of steam locomotives.

How long could a 74-year-old man endure the black dust and soot-filled air of 19th century railroad?

Thomas’ journey to becoming a 74-year-old steam locomotive engineer began in 1815, when he was born in central Ireland. No record I’ve come across yet identifies his parents or parish, but I know he married a woman named Rebecca Newton, and together they had two sons and two daughters.

His first born, Thomas Jr., arrived in the world when Thomas Sr. completed his 45th year.

Thomas and Rebecca welcomed each child curiously in different small towns across County Tipperary, and one in neighboring County Kilkenny, suggesting to me an impoverished life drifting from one workhouse to the next.

Irish Immigration, Louisville & Nashville Railroad, L&N, Employee Magazine, Railroad, Retirement
Retirement notice for Thomas Pidgeon Jr. in a November 1927 L&N employee magazine (SOURCE: https://digital.library.louisville.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/ln/id/9906/rec/1).

What did they ponder lying awake at night? What aspirations did they have for their young family? What risks were they willing to take for something better than a famished Ireland struggling through recession and boiling with revolution?

Thomas Jr. made the journey to America first at a mere 18 years old in 1878, and soon afterwards, found housing in a Louisville, Ky., neighborhood known as “Limerick” for all the Irish immigrants who’d settled there and took railroad jobs.

Alone but young and ambitious, Thomas took jobs for a decade as a brakeman and then shoveling coal into locomotive furnaces as a fireman before finally gripping the throttle, brake, and valves of steam locomotives as an engineer. He earned money to send back to Ireland so Thomas Sr. and family could eventually join him.

Chain migration, my friends, is nothing new to America.

Back in Tipperary more than a decade later, family and friends presumably held what was known as an American wake the night before Thomas Sr. and his son Benjamin, 21, departed for America in 1889.

An “American Wake” according to Jay Dolan’s The Irish Americans: A History included:

The evening would be spent telling stories; singing songs, most often sad ballads; dancing to the music of the fiddle and the flute: and exchanging gifts. Then, in the early morning hours after a night spent devouring large amounts of food and putting away liberal  amounts of whiskey or beer, both provided by neighbors and friends, the emigrants friends would accompany him or her to the train station, of if that was too distant, they would wave their last good-bye at a nearby cross roads or hill.

Like the Irish wake of the dead, this ritual was filled with both sadness and gaiety. But sadness was the prevailing emotion, for there was little chance that the emigrant would ever again return home. As one person put it, “It was as if you were going out to be buried.” In fact, traditional Irish countrymen “made very little difference between going to America and going to the grave.”

Thomas Sr. would have danced and sang that night with a heart heavier than others. The old man may have danced with his two daughters or a neighbor, but the sweet memory of Rebecca, his wife, would have never been far from his mind. She died at the age of 63 in late 1886.

The 74-year-old Thomas and his son boarded a steam ship, probably out of the port of Cobh, with two tickets worth the same price as a pair of cows. It took two weeks to cross the Atlantic, stopping first to disembark passengers at Canada (tickets were cheaper than those for America), before arriving in the United States.

Finally, Thomas Sr. and Benjamin met Thomas Jr. at the train station in Louisville and led them to a boarding house near the L&N’s railyard, in a lively neighborhood teeming with Irish immigrants who took jobs with the railroad.

When Thomas Sr., after walking into the yard office, heard the yardmaster ask if he could handle the rigors of the job — 16-hour work days on your feet during all manner of weather, and at any moment, a derailment or inattentiveness could get you killed — what else could Thomas say?

He’d known poverty. He’d known work as a farmer. He’d known the journey across an ocean and a significant part of a continent. And he knew he needed to earn more money. His two daughters, Jennie and Fannie, waited back in Ireland for their turn to sail the Atlantic for Louisville and a better life.

Yes, he’d take the job.

Thomas Sr. worked as an engineer for an unknown length of time, and then on Aug. 26, 1903, at his Louisville home, he succumbed to pneumonia. He was 88 years old.

Dave is a professional writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. His writing podcast, Creatively Genuine, is available on iTunes and Google Play.

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1 Comment
    1. Thank you for sharing this story, and the information about an “American Wake.” I was talking earlier this week with some friends. We were talking about how, years ago, a long distance move like this meant you were leaving everyone and everything behind. Today, it is hard to understand the enormity of that decision. If we move halfway across the world today, we can keep in touch with email, texting, Facetime, and even jump on a plane for visits. How amazing (and/or desperate) our immigrant ancestors were to leave their world behind and travel to America.

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