B   M   W   E
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 Four and the end 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 Three in the March issue.


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. The 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." 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. Hodges, 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 assiduous attentions on the part of those who assisted in waiting upon him, the nine hours thereafter, this terrible disease had runs its course, and its victim lay a lifeless corpse!

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." The Illinois Central lost 130 workers at Peru in two days in 1852, delaying construction of an Illinois River bridge. 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:

CholeraŚWe regret to learn from the offices of the Regulator that the cholera has again made it 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.

If the area newspapers mark cholera deaths, did the workers buried at Funks 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. 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 were 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 track side graves. Thus workers over an extended period could have been added to those already interred at Funks 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 Price, was a "Know-Nothing," frequently attacking the growing Irish community on Bloomington's west side. Perhaps the Funks 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 rememberd 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, along 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 populars 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.


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. 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, where workers often took violent retribution against unpopular contractors or foremen. This is not to say the workers were continually violent, but did react to a perceived injustice. 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.

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.

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. Thirty-two 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.

This resistance continued, even after the rail lines were completed. As the A&S line was completed to Chicago in 1959, workers again struck. This time the predominantly 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 Footboard in Michigan, which became the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Irish immigrant son Patrick H. Morrissey of Bloomington would salvage the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen as their Grand Chairman, after the 1894 Pullman strike, rebuilding tha 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 Funks Grove Cemetery is a stark reminder of the harsh condition these workers faced. Although a difficult situation, these workers survived through systems of 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.

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