The Irish in Bradford County
For the past eighteen years I have been writing stories of Bradford County Irish History for The Daily Review. This year I thought I should go back to the beginning of the story of the great Irish migration to the area and the reasons that the Irish kept coming for more than seventy years.
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 opened an era of water navigation in the United States. The success of the Erie Canal roused the people of Pennsylvania to the need for a great system of waterways to open up commerce to all parts of the commonwealth.
The Act of Feb. 25, 1826 authorized the construction of a great transportation system to be called "Pubic Works." Work was started at Harrisburg on July 4, 1826. The work progressed rapidly and the success of the canal in other parts of the state was of great interest to the people of Bradford County.
In 1836 construction began on The North Branch Extension (1836-1872). This was a 92 mile link between Pittston and the New York State line where the Junction Canal (1854-1872) connected the North Branch Canal with the New York State canal system.
In June of 1836 Mr. Harris, the principal Engineer of the North Branch Canal arrived in Towanda with a corps of engineers to start surveys. In November of that year allotments were made for the construction of 58 sections of the canal between Athens and Wyalusing. Work was started that fall and all winter laborers worked on the difficult "rock sections" at Milan, Ulster, Rummerfield and Standing Stone. The contractors depended largely upon Irish immigrants to do the hand labor, dirt and rock being moved by horse and cart. Blasting powder was used to break up the rocks. Along the rocky bluffs the bed of the canal had to be made, largely of rock blasted from the cliffs. The Irish were very strong, hard-working, determined people. They were strong and tough from digging the bog in Ireland. The Irish played a major role in the progress of America.
To give you an example of the population growth during the canal years the population of Bradford County in 1839 was 19,746. It increased by 13,023 people in 1840 to 32,769 and by 9,612 people in 1850 when the population was 42,381. When examining the naturalization (citizenship) records for those years almost all of the petitioners for naturalization were from Ireland so it is safe to say that thousands of Irishmen and women immigrated to Bradford County in the 1800s.
William Griffin's "The Irish in America" has an editorial to Irish Emigrants from "The Truth Teller" New York:
"We give the following information with pleasure, for the benefit of emigrants and others wanting permanent employment. The Legislatures of Pennsylvania have made a recent and liberal appropriation for the prosecution of the "North Branch Canal." The canal will not be completed in less than three years, and runs perhaps through the healthiest region of the country in the Union. It commences at the mouth of the Lackawanna in Lucerne County, and terminates at Tioga Point (Athens), near the state line in Bradford County. Five hundred men will find employment at this work at $1.12 Â½ per day. The cheapest and shortest route from New York is by Newark, Morristown, and Carbondale, and from the northern part of Pennsylvania or New York, by Tioga Point, Bradford County. The most numerous Catholic settlement in Pennsylvania is in the vicinity of this workâ¦.Rev. Mr. Fitzsimmons is the pastor at Carbondale, on the way from New York, fifteen miles from the Lucerne division of the Canal - Rev. Mr. O'Reilly is pastor at Silverdale (Silver Lake) and the Towanda division. This is mentioned for the benefit of the laborer, as they are zealous and anxious to extend to emigrants and all others soliciting it the most accurate information in relation to the honesty or dishonesty of the several contractors on this immense work."
The Irish had only one thing to bring with them from the "Old Country," their Catholic faith. They were shepherded in the early years by Father John Vincent O'Reilly. John Vincent O' Reilly, was born in Drumhalry, County Longford, Ireland, Oct. 20, 1796. Little is known of his early history before coming to America, further than that he received a classical education preparatory to his entering the priesthood. In 1830 he was ordained a priest of the Catholic Church, at Philadelphia, by the Right Reverend Bishop Kendrick. He was soon after assigned to missionary work in Northern Pennsylvania and Southern New York. Father O'Reilly settled in Susquehanna County and traveled throughout this area on horseback ministering to the needs of his scattered flock.
On March 17, 1841 a great Saint Patrick's Day Celebration was held in Towanda. According to the Towanda newspaper the "Bradford Porter," "At an early hour of the day the genuine sons of the Emerald Isle manifested how deeply they felt, in celebrating the day sacred to the Irish men all over the world. They collected in large forces, dressed in their emblematic colors (the colors of their home County in Ireland), with music they paraded through the borough. The number dressed in regular uniform amounted to about 500. At 5 o'clock the group met for dinner and toasts were offered by John Desmond, Philip O'Sullivan, Timothy O'Sullivan, John O'Reilly, Daniel Keefe, Hugh O'Hara, J. Griffin, Thomas McGowen, Patrick Lonagan, Eugene O'Sullivan, Patrick O'Hagen and Mr. Fitzpatrick."
The canal had many ups and downs during its construction and work was shut down several times leaving the men out of work. Father O'Reilly a colonizer prevailed upon hundreds of Irish immigrants whom he found engaged on the public works to leave the more populous districts and settle upon the land. This was the beginning of the Irish settlements that sprang up along the canal route from Brown town near Wyalusing to Athens on the New York state border. The Irish immigrants tended to settle in groups with people from their particular area of Ireland. The Lake Wesauking or "Pond Hill" settlers came from County Cork, while the settlers at "State Road" in Standing Stone Township are more from the central counties of Ireland. Other settlements were in Cummiskey, Sugar Ridge, Ridgebury, Overshot, Browntown, Barclay, South Mountain. Warren Township, South Waverly and the towns of Towanda and Athens had "Irish Patches." Viceroy Leroy De Chaumont of France, through a land agent, owned and sold large tracts of land in Bradford County. The land agent managed the lands and held the mortgages on the land the Irish settlers were purchasing. These small farms throughout the countryside grew and prospered under the ownership of the Irish. My great-great-great-grandfather James Donovan purchased a 40 acre farm in Rome Township in 1840. That little farm stayed in our family for nearly 150 years and when it was sold the well-managed farm, with purchases of other farm land around the property, was 900 acres.
The settling of the early Irish workers did not stop the immigration from Ireland. The canal continued to be built and, for every worker who purchased land to settle on, a new one would come from Ireland. During the 1850s laborers required to do the work in Bradford County could not be provided by the population. Charles F. Welles, Jr., became the agent whereby another great migration of Irish into Bradford and Wyoming Counties was accomplished. The Irish agent, Sir Gerald Alymer of Donodea, Ireland, upon instructions from Welles would recruit the necessary people. Welles paid for their passage and upon their arrival would be assigned to the various projects upon which they worked. A census for Spring Hill, Bradford County dated Oct. 5, 1850 lists 92 Irish men (many of the surnames were prominent in the area for years) as laborers in that section. Another influential person in the lives of the Irish workers was Victor E. Piollet. Piollet and his brother Joseph were involved in just about every phase of growth in early Bradford County. The Piollet's were supervisors during the construction of the canal and they were responsible for the construction of the Barclay railroad. Victor Piollet saw to it that as soon as possible the Irish were naturalized and became voters. They looked to him for guidance.
There are tributes to those early Irish settlers scattered across the county, those being the churches they built in their settlements. During the recent re-organization of the Diocese of Scranton we lost a few of those reminders of our heritage but some of the more outstanding examples of the churches are Saint Philip and James, Sugar Ridge, Overton Township, this church was dedicated as a shrine to Saint John Neumann Sept. 4, 1966. The Catholics of the Sugar Ridge area had to walk to Deep Hollow Road four or five miles from their homes to attend Mass in St. Patrick's Chapel on the McGovern Farm. It was in 1854 when Bishop John Neumann was visiting the area that he went back into the Sugar Ridge settlement and gave permission for the settlers to build a church. The first church was replaced in 1883. The cornerstone for the current church was laid on June 21, 1883 by Bishop O'Hara. The St. John Neumann Shrine is now a mission of St. Basil's in Sullivan County and is open to the public four times each summer for Mass. The grave yard that is in the church yard is filled with the final resting places of the early Irish settlers, the church and cemetery are a lasting tribute to those hard working Irish settlers who made the ridge their home. Another church that stands out as a monument to the early settlers is Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ridgebury. The church sits high atop Wolcott Hollow and has been knows as the "Chapel on the Hill" or "The Irish Chapel." The first church, a log cabin type structure, was built in 1843. That church was replaced in 1852 at a cost of $750. The church was a mission of Towanda until the Towanda parish was divided in 1852 at which time it fell under the jurisdiction of Holy Ghost in Athens. In 1894 the contract was let with Frank P. Case of Troy for the construction of the current church building, the cost of the new church would be $3,980. The work was finished in 1895 and the church renamed Our Lady of Perpetual Help. In 1894 St. Ann's parish was formed in Bentley Creek, Pa. and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church became a part of that parish. Today Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church is a worship site of Epiphany Parish in Sayre. There is Mass there each Sunday. When one walks into the Irish Chapel you get a sense of traveling back in time as very little has been done to change the original 1895 appearance of the inviting little church. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church has been one of the most celebrated Roman Catholic Churches in the area due to its connection with the early canal workers from Ireland. I have collected news articles some from as far back as the 1870s that talk about the Irish settlers there and their church. The most impressive and oldest of the Irish Churches is SS. Peter and Paul in Towanda. The parish was founded in 1841 by Father John Vincent O'Reilly to serve the growing numbers of Irish canal workers and their families in the county. A small wooden church was built on the corner of Lombard and Third streets in the exact spot that the current church now sits. SS. Peter and Paul's was situated in the heart of Towanda's Irish Patch known as "Kingdom Hill." The cornerstone for second church, a magnificent Gothic style church, was laid on Oct. 27, 1867. The 100 feet long and fifty feet wide structure was completed externally and dedicated Dec. 12, 1870. It was not until 1879 that the interior was plastered and frescoed. The parishioners had been using the church in an unfinished state for nine years. On Sunday, Dec. 14, 1879, the interior of the church was dedicated. Three bishops were on hand for the dedication Bishops McQuaid, Shanahan and O'Hara. SS. Peter and Paul's Church was the first permanent Roman Catholic Church in Bradford County. The French Refugees had a chapel in their settlement at Azilum 1793-1803. For the past 173 years there has been a Roman Catholic presence in Towanda that was founded and populated by the Irish settlers. Two of my great-great-great-grandfathers John Sullivan and James Donovan were founding members of SS. Peter and Paul. Our family is now in its eighth generation in Towanda and I know that when I go to SS. Peter and Paul's for any reason I feel a sense of awe knowing that so many of my ancestors have been there before me. Other Roman Catholic Churches founded by the Irish were St. Luke's, Warren Center, Saint Luke's closed in 1944 and was moved to Wyalusing in 1950. The church is now known as St. Mary of the Assumption, Holy Ghost (later St. Joseph's) Athens, now closed, St. John the Evangelist, South Waverly now closed, Immaculate Conception Ulster, now closed, St. Francis Overton, now closed, St. Francis Cummiskey, now closed, St, John's, Troy, St. Michael's Canton and St. Patrick's Barclay closed in 1900.
Bradford County continued to grow and workers were needed to build the railroad, mine the coal at Barclay and later staff the Lehigh Valley rail yards in Sayre, The Irish continued to come well into the 1900s and the descendants of those hard working early settlers are still prominent in Bradford County today.