Building a Railroad: 1850s Irish immigrant labor in Central Illinois
by Mike Matejka
A light car, drawn by a single horse,
gallops up to the end of a rail and starts forward,
the rest of the gang taking hold by twos,
until it is clear of the car.
They come forward at a run.
At a word of command the rail is dropped
in its place, right side up with care,
while the same process goes on at the
other side of the car.
Less than thirty seconds to a rail for each gang,
and so four rails go down in a minute....
Close behind the first gang come the gaugers,
spikers and bolters, and a lively time they
make of it.
It is a grand anvil chorus.'
It is played in triple time,
three strokes to the spike.
There are ten spikes to a rail, 400 rails to a mile. (Late 1860s description of the construction of the
Union Pacific Railroad.)
The shovel's scrape and the spike hammer's metallic ring marked the railroad builders' life. Although the railroad was the 19th century's most important and newest technology, its construction methods were centuries old and dependent upon a key ingredient -- the back breaking work and sweat of immigrant labor. In the rural cemetery at Funk's Grove, Illinois, are two mass burials of Irish laborers from the early 1850s, probable casualties of rail construction. Funk's Grove is a tiny hamlet, approximately 12 miles south of Bloomington, Illinois and about 40 miles north of the state's capitol, Springfield.
These workers were honored on Workers Memorial Day, April 28, 2000, with the dedication of a monument over their gravesite. Led by the McLean County Historical Society, almost $20,000 was collected from Irish heritage groups, unions and local citizens to pay for a four foot Celtic cross, which sets on a two foot base, overlooking the mass grave site. With Irish pipes playing and a blessing from a priest, the cross was unveiled to finally mark the resting places of these 19th century rail workers.
Uncovering the specific details of the workers buried at Funk's Grove is difficult, but much is known about the brutal conditions these immigrant workers faced and the infectious diseases that challenged their already precarious position.
Building a railroad network through rural Illinois in the 1850s meant incredible logistical efforts. Streams and rivers needed bridging, wooden ties were cut, sawn and hewed, iron rails, spikes, tie plates, shovel, picks and mauls were imported from eastern cities or across the ocean from English foundries, spending months in water passage before reaching the rail head, where they were assembled by work crews.
And in sparsely settled Illinois, the other critical component needing importation was labor. The farms and small towns did not support a ready labor pool -- that also came across the ocean. Germans fled repression following the failed revolts of 1848; many of these individuals were skilled tradesmen or educated professionals, and thus had marketable skills. Scandinavian immigrants were already known in Illinois, but their biggest exodus would come after the Civil War. Famine ravaged Irish families became the key foundation for pre-Civil War railroad and canal building in America. 75 cents to $1.50 cents a day was the standard wage rate, minus room, board and other expenses.
"Railroad Fever" inflamed 1850s Illinois communities, feeding the need for imported laborers. In 1850 there were 110 miles of Illinois railroad. Ten years later there were 2,867 miles, making Illinois the nation's most railroad intensive state, establishing Chicago as the nation's rail center. What was then the world's largest construction project, the Illinois Central Railroad, laid 700 miles of north-south track in two separate lines across the state. The Great Western (Wabash) built from Danville to Jacksonville. The Chicago and Rock Island was connecting those two cities, while the Burlington and Quincy reached from Chicago into Iowa and Missouri. The Michigan Central was connecting Chicago with New York. (1)
The southwestern river town of Alton, its prosperity linked to St. Louis and the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers, saw increased opportunity in a direct link across the open prairies to Chicago, tapping farmlands and communities that were not on river systems and building an all-weather link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Incorporated in 1847, the Alton and Sangamon Railroad (A&S) built first to Springfield and eventually to Bloomington and onto Chicago.
On line communities eagerly awaited the new line, sure their presence would guarantee economic prosperity and access to wider markets. As the Alton and Sangamon completed its initial stage, from the river city to the state's capitol, Springfield eagerly projected its coming wealth. Looking at the recently completed 1850 census for agricultural data, Springfield's Daily Journal quoted the American Railroad Journal in meticulous detail, enumerating the produce and cattle raised within 15 miles of the new line. Totaling the projected freight, mail and passenger traffic, minus the construction and operating costs, the Journal predicted the new line would have an initial annual profit of 18 percent, or $188,640. By projecting the new line north into Bloomington and a connection with the Illinois Central, Springfield would mark its course along an important corridor of commerce:
We may set it down as a fixed fact that the Central road will be completed, at an early date. Bloomington, a town about sixty miles north of Springfield, is to be a point in this road. From the latter place, active measurement are in progress for the construction of a railroad to the former. ...A line neatly drawn from Chicago to St. Louis would very nearly pass through the three towns of Alton, Springfield and Bloomington. ....The Alton and Sangamon must, therefore, for aught we can see, forever constitute the lower and most profitable part of the main trunk line between Lake Michigan and Springfield, Alton and St. Louis. (2)
This railroad construction boom fueled the need for workers, and the largest construction project, the Illinois Central, advertised in port cities New Orleans and New York, offering $1.25 a day and a transportation rate of $4.75 to procure workers. By the winter of 1852-53 6,000 to 8,000 laborers were on the Illinois Central's payroll, with thousands of them recruited in eastern ports. Germans made up a substantial number, but the greatest number were Irish (3).
Railroad work proceeded in a number of stages. First the right-of-way was surveyed and land acquired. The actual roadbed was then graded and established, including the construction of bridges, earthen fills and excavations. Finally, the ties were laid with the iron rail spiked to them, at a rate of approximately one mile per day. If the construction was being done properly, a layer of rock or sand ballast completed the line. Although horse and oxen teams could aid in the grading and transportation of dirt and the newly completed railroad would transport materiel to the end of track, much of the work was back-breaking hand labor.
The actual roadbed was hand dug, along with any excavations or fills. Workers labored in creeks or waterways to establish bridges and crossings. Once the heavy cross ties were placed, the iron rails were hand carried and connected to the previous rail. They were hand-bolted to the adjoining rail and the spikes were hand-driven. Ballast or fill was then hand-shoveled into the rails, while workers leaning on heavy metal track bars helped align the track.
In July 1851 the Daily Journal reported in detail the construction technical specifics, the A&S's second building season. The paper praised the new line's first actual ten miles of rail from Alton:
...at the present time there are twenty-eight miles graded and nineteen miles in addition nearly completed; over ten miles of the track is permanently laid; and from one and a half to two miles is being laid weekly. The ties and iron for over one half of the road are upon the ground; and the balance of the ties and iron are being received -- (the ties from Cumberland River, and the iron from New Orleans, where they are in readiness for shipment.) The ties are all of red cedar, except every seventh or 'spike tie,' is of white or post oak, and of double size. The ties are acknowledged by all to be the finest ever laid. The iron is the H rail, weighing a fraction over fifty-six pounds per yard. The ties are laid thirty inches from centre to centre. The masonry thus far has been of the best character, and has attracted the attention of everyone who has visited the work. (4)
As Springfield residents eagerly awaited the railroad's fall 1852 arrival, grading commenced northward toward Bloomington. The northern survey was completed by July 1851 and the following summer the now named "Chicago and Mississippi Railroad" was advertising for contractors to grade and bridge the extension from Springfield to Bloomington, divided into two miles sections per contract. The contracts called for all but the actual tracklaying, asking "Rail-Road Contractors" to bid, for cash payment, for the "grading, masonry, bridging and cross-ties of that division of this road extending from Springfield to Bloomington." (5) That spring the Illinois Central was building southward from LaSalle to Bloomington. Bloomington's David Davis reported that 25 workers were already at work with another 250 expected shortly. (6)
Meanwhile, the quest for labor continued. The Springfield paper quoted the Alton Telegraph in October 1852 that 4,000 - 6,000 laborers arrived in St. Louis, recruited from Buffalo, New York at a transportation cost of $5 each, to aid in constructing Illinois and Missouri railroads. (7)
As Springfield had awaited the line the previous summer, 1853 was Bloomington's turn to anxiously watch the construction progress. By August 1853 the line reached Lincoln, after long delays in constructing a Sangamon River bridge. The Springfield paper's correspondent rode along on the daily supply train, ferrying materiel north to the rail head, marveling at the changed landscape the new line wrought; he also noted the mechanics maintaining the locomotives at Springfield's roundhouse, characterizing them as from the eastern U.S. and worth a visit from the capitol city's "fair damsels;" on the new line he found:
We shall not fail to mark the more recent indications of our new rail road, the long cuts; the forests strewn as if by the breath of a tornado; the new bridges; high water tanks; well places dug; shantees 'to let'; relics of 'auld dacency'; corn fields invaded; the ambitious weeds; fences not up; 'Pat' taking a rest; and herds in a fright, as the steam horse is screaming and rushing on over its iron path. (8)
Despite severe weather in 1852-53, grading continued throughout the winter months. Construction of a branch to Peoria from Bloomington was contemplated. As track was laid, grading crews continued northward from Bloomington to Wilmington, already at work on the next extension. Bloomington anticipated the railroad and its promised prosperity throughout 1852. Writing in the Bloomington Intelligencer, Jesse Fell promoted the line's importance:
...it becomes emphatically the road of the State. This, we are happy to know, has become the general, if not unanimous opinion, of intelligent observers, not only of the West, but of the whole country. How can it be otherwise when we reflect that Chicago on the one hand, and St. Louis on the other, are the great commercial centers of this part, if not indeed of the whole Mississippi Valley; and that this road will constitute the nearest practicable connection between those two great cities? Looking at it from this point of view alone ....the Chicago & Alton road assumes an importance that does not attach to any other road. (9)
By the fall of 1853 the A&S reached Bloomington, which the Illinois Central reached the previous spring. The Intelligencer rhapsodized about the new rail connection. It praised the Alton road's engineer O.H. Lee, contrasting that firm's demeanor in comparison to the Illinois Central, which the paper accused of being "controlled by land sharks and town-lot speculators." With the two rail lines meeting in Bloomington, a rail trip was possible between Chicago and St. Louis, though it was a laborious 15 hour, 45-minute trip. The passenger would leave Chicago on the Chicago and Rock Island; disembark at LaSalle and switch to the Illinois Central for Bloomington; after a carriage ride across Bloomington the passenger would board the new A&S to Alton; and from there a Mississippi River packet boat would complete the journey to St. Louis. The Intelligencer celebrated not only the Chicago - St. Louis connection through Bloomington, but the new access to the east coast afforded through Chicago:
The connexion is had! The work is consummated! For the first time in the world's history, a continuous track is opened up for the Iron Horse, between the great commercial cities of the East and the mighty Father of Waters!! -- Starting on the eastern shore of that majestic river, in fifty hours thereafter he can slake his thirst in the great Atlantic! What a mighty achievement! How striking the commentary on the age we live in! In what bold relief does it present the genius and indomitable energy of the American people! (10)
Even before the line's completion into Bloomington, the State Register was marking new economic activity along the new line: "In anticipation of the opening of the improvements, immigrants are flocking to all points contiguous to the road. Lands are advancing in price, villages are growing, and universal prosperity prevails." (11)
On October 19, as the newspaper was celebrating the road's opening, a fatal derailment marred the celebratory air. The train hit two cows on the tracks, derailing the locomotive and throwing it and the train 15 feet down an embankment. The engineer, Mr. Bramwell, suffered numerous broken bones and the fireman, George Smith, was scalded to death by the steam. A second, unknown fireman was decapitated in the accident. No passengers were injured. (12) By August of the following year, the rails were extended from Bloomington to Joliet, where a connection was made into Chicago.
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 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. (13)
What Gates misses in his stereotypes is the context of the immigrant's life and the reasons 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. (14)
When not on the job with pick, shovel or spike maul, the railroader repaired to either a camp car or a trackside hut. The tracklaying 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 trackside shanties, a word derived from the Irish word "shantee," 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. (15)
Railroad construction was an opportunity for area merchants and farmers, supplying food to the rail crews. Moore's Mill, McLean County's first grain mill, sold flour to the railroad construction contractors. The railroad also proved the water mill's undoing, as newer steam-powered mills, locating along the railroad right-of-way, put Moore out of the flour business by 1860. (16) 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." (17)
These crude conditions continued for railroad builders for years. Thirty years later, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was building through Colorado, a local reporter visited 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. (18)
What the laborers of the 1850s ate is not readily apparent, though one hint is 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 contractors. Perhaps this is where the Funk family, prominent McLean County hog farmers at the time, first made their acquaintance with the rail workers and formed the connection which led to the worker burials at Funk's 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. (19)
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 Funk's Grove Cemetery is undocumented, cholera is remembered through the local oral tradition.
An infectious, bacterial disease, cholera was little understood in 1850s America. Cholera is an acute, diarrheal illness caused by bacterial intestine infection. In an epidemic, the disease is passed by human feces which can infect water supplies. Death can occur within a few hours of exposure.
Asiatic Cholera appeared in the U.S. in 1832, brought to Illinois that summer by troops coming for the Black Hawk Wars. The disease was not a constant, but appeared irregularly, with another upsurge in 1849-50. Various ineffective patent medicines were sold for its relief and the disease was frequently blamed on "miasmas," hot weather or swampy conditions. Although these early medical theories pointed to conditions where brackish water could nourish bacteria, the connections were not apparent in the 1850s. It was a feared disease, not understood, whose outbreak could frighten a community. In 1850 Bloomington residents were warned the disease had broken out again. Chicago lost 1,184 residents in 1854 to a cholera outbreak. 1850s newspapers report not only local outbreaks, but outbreaks in other communities. In some cases, the names of local residents infected are named, but immigrants are often referred to simply by their ethnic origin, as the Bloomington Weekly Pantagraph reported five cholera deaths in August 1855, noting among the victims "Mr. Joseph Clark...three of the others were Germans, one man and two women, and the other was an Irish woman." (20) The speed of cholera infection is apparent from an 1852 Bloomington Intelligencer piece about the death of William Hodges, a young man in his 30s:
The deceased arrived here in the Peoria stage, on Friday evening, apparently in the enjoyment of his accustomed health, and on Saturday morning breakfasted with his friend, Mr. Hodge, as heartily as usual. About seven o'clock, the diarrhea, which had been arrested the previous evening, returned with such increasing violence, that notwithstanding the administration, by skillful and experienced physicians, of the most efficient remedies, aided by the most assiduous attentions on the part of those who assisted in waiting upon him, in nine hours thereafter, this terrible disease had runs its course, and its victim lay a lifeless corpse! (21)
Amongst the newspaper reports are frequent mention of cholera outbreaks in work camps along canals and railroads. The Weekly Pantagraph noted a story from the Galena Jeffersonian in August 1854 about 150 rail laborers that died of cholera in Galena. The contractor encouraged his workers to flee, but even with that half of them were killed. Reflecting current medical theories which blamed cholera or bad air or "miasmas," the newspaper wondered how these deaths could take place 450 feet above the Mississippi in a place with "ground dry and air pure." (22) The Illinois Central lost 130 workers at Peru in two days in 1852, delaying construction of an Illinois River bridge (23) The social separation between established settlers and immigrant rail workers is apparent in an 1852 Weekly Pantagraph article, reprinted from the St. Louis Intelligencer, that notes rail worker cholera deaths in the LaSalle-Peru area, but reassures the reader that the established community is safe:
Cholera -- We regret to learn from the offices of the Regulator that the cholera has again made its appearance among the laborers on the railroad and public works in the neighborhood of Peru on the Illinois. Sixteen deaths had occurred, nine at Peru and seven at LaSalle. None of the citizens had been attacked, and no great alarm was felt of the disease spreading to any great extent. (24)
If the area newspapers mark cholera deaths, did the workers buried at Funk's Grove die of cholera or some other cause? Why are there no newspaper notices of epidemics along the rail line building into Bloomington? The answer is unknown. The only existing records are the 1920s cemetery map, which marks the Irish workers' burial, and the local oral tradition, which notes the workers' death and mass burial.
The Funk and Stubblefield families had similar oral traditions, noting an outbreak of cholera led to the mass burial. They also reported other communities did not want the workers buried near them, for fear that would spread infection. L. Jane Canfield, a Funk's Grove native, remembered what her grandmother, Emily Jane Van Ness Wilcox, told her:
She talked about how the young Irish men, some were fourteen or fifteen years old, who worked on the railroad in the early 1850s had migrated to the U.S. because of the famine in Ireland. They worked hard and lived in primitive conditions along the building site of the railroad. In the summer of 1853, many men, both young and old, came down with cholera and a large number of them died in a few days. Fear of the spreading disease, they were buried in a mass grave west of the Funk's Grove church. (25)
Two possibilities exist: one, the workers did die of cholera, dysentery, or some other infectious disease. With a new rail line building into Bloomington, the local papers ignored the deaths, fearing stirring up fear or fermenting a negative image of the new rail line. Or, because immigrant deaths were so common, as the other reports note, their deaths was beyond official recognition. Or, a second possibility is that the workers died not at once, but in smaller groups. Because of the Funk family's generosity in sharing their cemetery space, the workers had an official burial spot, rather than scattered trackside graves. Thus workers over an extended period could have been added to those already interred at Funk's Grove. The existence of two separate burial spots in the cemetery records may point to two separate, or multiple internments. The Funk family broke social barriers of the times in allowing Irish burials in their cemetery. Bloomington did not have a Catholic Church until 1853 and a cemetery until 1856. The reigning mayor, Franklin Pierce, was a "Know-Nothing," frequently attacking the growing Irish community on Bloomington's west side. Perhaps the Funk's Grove cemetery was a sanctuary for the growing Irish community, until they were able to establish their own burial spot, outside city limits, in 1856. Frequent cholera outbreaks in work camps, mentioned in newspaper dispatches during this era, could have been another source for anti-immigrant antipathy. Immigrants coming into town could have been classified and stereotyped as disease carriers.
Whatever the immediate facts, there was undoubtedly some solace to these workers in a burial in an established cemetery. Immigrants in a strange and unwelcoming land, death was an immediate reminder to these workers of their poverty and isolation. Carl Sandburg quotes a song fragment in his 1920s "American Songbook," which echoes the experience of many early rail workers:
There's many a man killed on the railroad, the railroad, the railroad.
There's many a man killed on the railroad, and laid in a lonely grave.
Fifty years later Macedonian immigrant Stoyan Christowe remembered burying his father on the Great Plains, while working in Montana for the Great Northern Railroad. Christowe went on to success as an author and eventually a Vermont State Senator, but his poignant remembrance echoes what the 1850s Illinois Irish workers might have felt:
Slowly and silently the band of men moved across the open plain behind the coffin of rough pine boards borne by a farmer's cart. The farmer on the driver's seat, with his team of horses, alone seemed of this place. ....
The procession through the treeless plain was unreal and unbelievable. There was something incomplete, unfinal, about my father's death, and about his burial. This was no way to return a man to his eternal resting place. No bell tolled; no priests in vestments swung fuming censers or intoned funeral chants. And there was no avenue lined with tall poplars and cypresses leading to a chapel shaded by ancient oaks and walnut trees. ...How my father would grieve if he knew that he had become the cause of every man in the gang losing a day's wages in order to bury him. (26)
Although facing adverse conditions, immigrant workers did not passively accept their situation. Already used to dogged resistance to British colonial rule and fights with absentee landlords, immigrant workers struck against poor working conditions or to force wage payment. In examining over ten work stoppages on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal between 1834-40, Peter Way credits the Irish work force with resistance skills polished for centuries against the English, transferring those skills to the American wage system: "The methods the Irish had developed at home, secret societies and collective violence, were imported to the New World and adapted to its developing capitalist social system." (27) Although not necessarily organizing trade unions, the early laborers depended upon collective action to right a perceived injustice. Since the rail and canal companies often used contractors for construction, these actions were often taken against contractors who were perceived to be unfair or who shorted workers' pay. Ethnic unity helped maintain a code of secrecy when workers took violent retribution against unpopular contractors or foremen. This is not to say the workers were continually violent, but they did react to perceived injustices. The already constructed Baltimore & Ohio Railroad complained in the 1850s that Irish workers not only mobilized for higher wages, but also to protect their job security and would not permit the company to replace them with other workers. (28)
Although submitting to the arduous work day on the railroad, laborers did respond when faced with an unjust condition, usually with a refusal to work, or often an outbreak of violence. In April 1853, as the A&S was building from Springfield to Bloomington, there was a strike, workers demanding $1.25 per day. When one gang refused to join the walk-out, a fight ensued. The Springfield Daily Journal reported that "Nobody was killed, though blood flowed freely and legs done their duty." Hauled before the local magistrate, the workers maintained their secrecy and their solidarity, refusing to answer questions. One worker was sentenced to jail on contempt charges for this refusal. The papers are quiet as to an outcome, whether or not the higher wages were won, or whether any workers were dismissed over the issue. (29)
That winter there was an outbreak of violence on the Illinois Central in LaSalle on December 15, 1853, after a contractor, A.J. Story refused wage payment. He was attacked by a group of workers and murdered after he shot an Irish worker. Supposedly $5,000 was taken from Story's safe and distributed amongst the waiting workers. Approximately 600-700 Irish workers filled the city's streets, until a local militia marched on them and dispersed them. 32 workers were imprisoned the next day, followed by another 150 after the local police spent the night searching Irish shanties, with one man wounded when he refused arrest. (30)
This resistance continued, even after the rail lines were completed. When the A&S line was completed to Chicago in 1859, workers again struck. This time the predominately Irish surname workers were not track layers but were engineers, firemen and conductors. The company was in precarious financial condition and the workers protested a wage cut and payment in low-value company script. In 1863 Bloomington workers were amongst the founders of the Brotherhood of the Footboard in Michigan, which became the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Irish immigrant son Patrick J. Morrissey of Bloomington would salvage the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen as their Grand Chairman, after the 1894 Pullman strike, rebuilding that organization and stabilizing its membership.
Immigrant workers, facing a strange land, brutal working conditions, and unhealthy living conditions, survived through their hard labor and their collective support of each other. The mass grave at Funk's Grove Cemetery is a stark reminder of the harsh condition these workers faced. Although a difficult situation, these workers survived through mutual support. Through this they developed their systems of resistance, learned survival tactics and laid the foundation for later generations which would profit from their experience and legacy to win full citizenship and rights in American society.
Livingston & McLean Counties Bldg & Trades Council