Building a Railroad: 1850s Irish Immigrant Labor in Central Illinois
by Mike Matejka
The McLean County Historical Society published a 76-page book in 2000 entitled Irish Immigrants in McLean County, Illinois which features almost 20 pages about Irish workers on the railroad. This book is available for purchase from the McLean County Museum of History, 200 North Main Street, Bloomington, Illinois 61701 for $12.00 which includes tax, shipping and handling.
A section of the book written by Mike Matejka, Building a Railroad: 1850s Irish Immigrant Labor in Central Illinois, discusses the building of the Alton and Sangamon Railroad which was incorporated in 1847. Matejka is a member of the Laborers' Union and Director of the North Central Illinois Laborers' and Employers' Cooperation and Trust. Long an award-winning writer, Matejka recently completed a Master's Degree in Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
This is Part Three of the reprint of this section of the book. Part One was printed in the November/December 2000 issue of the BMWE JOURNAL, Part Two in the January/February 2001 issue and Part Four will appear in a future issue.
Workers' Diet and Housing
For all of the detailed construction accounts, the daily progress of the track marked, little is said of the workers who actually completed the lines. If accident or illness took their life, rarely is a specific name listed in newspaper accounts; usually the workers are referred to by their ethnic origin, as either an "Irishman" or a "German."
Writing in 1934, Bucknell University professor Paul Wallace Gates reflected many of the previous century's Irish stereotypes in his history of the Illinois Central. Gates wrote:
When construction began most of the laborers were Irish, and they were important as a laboring force throughout. They were, however, a turbulent lot, fond of whiskey, prone to fight, and anything but docile. Their frequent outbreaks in riot and violence made them unpopular with the natives of Illinois, and the high labor turnover among this racial group caused a great deal of annoyance and delay to the Illinois Central.
What Gates misses in his stereotypes is the context of the immigrant's life and the reason why an Irish immigrant might be a "mite resentful" at times. Uprooted from a traditional homeland by landlords beholden to colonial British power; surviving a perilous ocean voyage; and finally, intensive labor at low wages in a not-always welcoming land were all ingredients for rebellion and reaction. Although the railroad needed their labor, established local communities did not necessarily welcome immigrant labor. The early 1850s were the height of the political power for the nativist "Know-Nothing" party, an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement that emerged in reaction to growing Irish and other European immigrants.
After facing all these travel and social obstacles, the immigrant laborer then experienced intensive hand-labor with crude tools, building a smooth right-of-way for the new railways by his back-breaking work. Swedish immigrant Hans Mattson left this memorable story about his 1852 efforts to help bridge an Illinois river for a new railroad:
During my healthy days I stood on the bottom of Rock River from seven o'clock in the morning until seven at night, throwing wet sand with a shovel onto a platform above, from which it is thrown onto another, and from there to terra firma. The most disagreeable part of the business was that one-quarter of each shovelful came back on the head of the operator... After a couple of weeks the company's paymaster came along, and upon settling my board bill ($1.50 a week) and deducting for the days I spent in bed, shaking with ague and fever, I made the discovery that I was able to earn only fifteen cents net per week in building railroad bridges.
When not on the job with pick, shovel or spike maul, the railroader repaired to either a camp car or a track side hut. The track laying gang had a mobile home, a converted box car with bunks and a kitchen where the worker rested for the next day's labor, pushed to the end of track each day. Those grading or excavating probably inhabited a track side shanties, a word derived from the Irish word "shantees," meaning "old house." The Illinois Journal included a description of the rail camp cars and the crew that was laying track into Bloomington in 1853:
Mr. W.W. Carson, the Contractor for laying the track, is progressing rapidly with his work. His entire force will consist of nearly one hundred persons, who live in cars fitted for the purpose of boarding the men, which are pushed along as the rails are laid; —thus securing the important advantage of always having his own men near their work. This locomotive board house or village compromises some fifteen large covered cars, with all the necessary conveniences for cooking, eating and sleeping.
Railroad construction was an opportunity for area merchants and farmers, supplying food to the rail crews. Moore's Mill, a McLean County grain mill, sold flour to the railroad construction contractors. The railroad also proved the water mill's undoing, as improved transportation changed the market for wheat flour, put Moore out of the wheat flour business by 1860. John Busher advertises in Springfield Daily Journal in 1852 that he has "Beef, Fresh and Corned," available for daily delivery "at any of the shanties for twenty miles along the line."
These crude conditions continued for railroad builders for years. Thirty years later, when the Denver and Rio grande Railroad was building through Colorado, a local reporter noted his visit to an 1880s camp car during the evening meal, as immigrant workers poured in from a long day's labor:
There were swarthy Italians, Irishmen with carroty locks—men of a score of nationalities, begrimed, tattered, gnawed at by the appetite given by labor in the bracing Colorado air. They swarmed into the old freight cars which had been fitted up with long planks for benches and tables. On the tables were tin pannikins, iron knives and forks, and pewter spoons. Mounds of coarse bread, pans of some strange stew, and pots of rank black tea appeared and disappeared. Words were not wasted. Every act had a bearing upon the business of satisfying hunger...
It was a sample of a hard, cheerless life that I had seen; but as I turned to go back to the construction train, someone struck up a rollicking Irish song, and others joined until the canyon walls gave back the chorus.
What the laborers of the 1850s ate is not readily apparent, though one hint is in classified advertising of the time period, calling for bids to provide foodstuffs to the work camps. There were calls to sell beef and pork to the railroad company and their contractor. Perhaps this is where the Funk family, prominent McLean County hog farmers at the time, first made their acquaintance with the rail workers and helped build the connection which led to the burials at Funks Grove cemetery. The Funks also purchased land from the Illinois Central. Between 1848- 51 the family acquired over 3,000 acres and between 1853-1863 4,713 acres. Much of the later purchase was from the rail company.
Another hint at housing conditions is found in an excerpt from the famous American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, in his 1854 work, "Walden." Thoreau bought the wood for his famous cabin on Massachusetts's Walden Pond from an Irish family settled along the Boston and Fitchburg railroad. Thoreau wondered about the new railroad and its promises of prosperity, while it left those who built it in poverty:
I should not need to look farther than to the shanties which everywhere border our railroads, that last improvement in civilization; where I see in my daily walks human beings living in sties, and all winter with an open door, for the sake of light, without any visible, often imaginable wood-pile, and the forms of both young and old are permanently contracted by the long habit of shrinking from cold and misery, and the development of their limbs and faculties is checked. It certainly is fair to look at that class by whose labor the works which distinguishes this generation are accomplished.
Poor housing, over-exertion at work and poor diet could often lead to disease, particularly infectious diseases. Although the cause of death that led to the mass grave at Funks Grove Cemetery is undocumented, cholera is remembered through the local oral tradition.