Consider the Irish-American railroader

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, March 13, 2017

Until recently, I never made much of my ethnic background, which is three-quarters Irish. I grew up in a small Midwestern industrial town where ethnicity didn’t seem to matter much, at least outwardly.

In the Keefe house, being Irish was an afterthought, a footnote. Perhaps that was because, at some point lost in our history, the Keefes stopped being Catholic, which they almost certainly were in Ireland. Instead, I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, hardly a Gaelic institution.

Things changed when I moved 29 years ago to Milwaukee, where people wear ethnicity on their sleeves. Here, the various tribes are celebrated, almost fetishized, frankly, in a summer-long ritual of ethnic festivals and parades. That’s what you get in a city that calls itself “old world.” So with St. Patrick’s Day approaching this week on Friday, I got to thinking about my ancestors’ contributions to railroading.

A big caveat here: I know it’s specious to call out the Irish, because every single ethnic or racial group in American history had a profound impact on railroading. But hey, the Irish have a holiday, and millions claim it, even when they haven’t the slightest tie to the Emerald Isle. So, a toast to the Irish!

Irish fingerprints are all over railroading, of course. The massive Irish diaspora of the 19th century had a profound effect on railroads, initially by providing a large construction force. Later, as resentments diminished, the Irish influence began to be felt elsewhere in the industry, even in executive suites.

Irish immigrants built many of America's early railroads, including the Union Pacific. UP Museum photo
Perhaps the most famous appearance of the Irish on the railroad stage was the building of the transcontinental railroad. Irish paddies were a big part of the veritable army Gen. Grenville M. Dodge assembled to build the Union Pacific westward from Omaha. Many had come to the U.S. in the 1840s when they fled the Irish potato famine, first working for the Erie and other eastern roads.

They were known to be rowdy, no surprise if you’re anywhere near a bar district this Friday. “These laborers were top rate — when they were working — but they were a constant source of trouble in their free time,” observed George H. Douglas in his book All Aboard: The Railroad in American Life (Paragon, 1992).

The Irish put their backs into UP’s competitor, too, the Central Pacific. It is said that Charles Crocker, one of the CP’s Big Four, hired thousands of Chinese laborers to send a message to the Irish he’d already hired — troublemakers who were clamoring for higher wages. Thus Crocker tapped into a grand American tradition, pitting one ethnic clan against another.

But the Irish wouldn’t be confined simply to labor. There was too much talent and ambition for that to remain the case.

David Moffat, from a Scots-Irish family, made his mark on American railroading by building the road that became the D&RGW. Classic Trains collection
Perhaps the first prominent Irish-American railroad scion was David Moffat, who physically put his mark on Denver and the Colorado Rockies. Moffat was the product of a Scots-Irish family that moved to the U.S. from Ireland in 1729. His grandfather founded Washingtonville, N.Y., where Moffat was born in 1839.

Moffat moved to Denver in 1860, got involved in banking, and parlayed his financial power into the building of the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific, the D&RGW predecessor that in 1904 conquered 11,680-foot Rollins Pass with a series of switchbacks and loops. This engineering nightmare was supplanted in 1928 by 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel, still a wonder of American railroading.

William McAdoo headed the World War I-era U.S. Railroad Administration, which placed the rail system under federal control. Classic Trains collection
It was an Irish-American who presided over the only complete nationalization of the railroads. William G. McAdoo was a southerner whose great-great-grandfather was born in Ulster in 1738 and emigrated to the U.S. later in the 18th century, ended up in North Carolina.

McAdoo was born during the Civil War in Georgia. His involvement in the law and in city transit later led him to the presidency of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad, which in 1908 completed two routes under the Hudson River from New Jersey, both in use today.   

As World War I engulfed American politics, President Woodrow Wilson appointed McAdoo as director-general of the hastily organized United States Railroad Administration, a nationalization that was controversial partly because McAdoo had married Wilson’s daughter, and partly because the USRA’s work was quickly discredited. But the USRA did inspire one handsome family of steam locomotives.

Patrick McGinnis' thoroughly Irish name won't be found in any railroad hall of honor, but his NH and B&M paint schemes are well remembered. Classic Trains collection
The Irish would probably just as soon play down another prominent son, Patrick B. McGinnis, a flamboyant, infamous 1950s railroad executive and all-around scoundrel. McGinnis was born in 1904 in Palmyra, N.Y., to Irish immigrants. His father, Patrick Sr., was a track foreman for the New York Central.

After college, McGinnis worked in New York City in the investment trade, becoming an expert in railroad bonds. He later served as both president of the New Haven and the Boston & Maine. McGinnis’ various financial shenanigans eventually landed him in a federal prison on a graft conviction.

So the Irish might not be quick to claim McGinnis, although he did give the world a couple of terrific paint schemes, first for the New Haven, and later a similarly striking one for B&M. Railfans everywhere know them as “the McGinnis-era colors.”

Perhaps it’s best to consider the Irish railroader in a quiet, contemplative place. That would be Duffy’s Cut, a place along Amtrak’s Keystone Corridor near Malvern, Pa., where in 1832 some 57 railroad workers from the Ulster counties of Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry died in a cholera outbreak during the construction of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, a Pennsylvania Railroad predecessor.

In recent years, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of several victims, some of which were relocated to a nearby cemetery. Evidence suggests some of the men may have been murdered, perhaps victimized by the locals’ fear of disease and anti-Irish prejudice. Meanwhile, a state historical marker has been erected at the site of Duffy’s Cut. Several cut stones also mark the site, bringing to mind an 1865 verse from Henry David Thoreau, said to refer in part to the Irish: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us.”

Editor’s note: In the April 2017 issue of Trains, Keefe explores his Irish family’s railroad roots on the Chicago & Eastern Illinois.  

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