Irish on Railways


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A pier of the Victoria Bridge (1853-59) was constructed on the graveyard used for Famine victims who died in Montreal. The “6,000 immigrants who died of ship fever A.D. 1847-8” were relocated to this spot marked by the largest rock removed from the River during the construction. It was inscribed by an artist paid for by the navvies and placed near the Bridge. This is probably the oldest memorial to Famine victims in the world. It is also a testimonial to the mostly Irish workers who built the Bridge from 1853-1859. Contrary to their reputation as wild and lawless, the navvies who erected this unique memorial showed an unusual civic and national sensibility seldom seen elsewhere.

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The 1850’s in Canada saw the start of factories as well as a railway-building boom. The Grand Trunk Railway and the Victoria Bridge were the longest in the world at that time. Infrastructure projects such as the enlargement of the Lachine Canal shown above were massive undertakings, employing thousands of men over many years. The surplus water from the Lachine Canal was used to power giant sugar, flour and iron mills that also required labour to build.

Many myths surround the Irish workers on these huge building projects. They were not built by starving Famine victims of the late 1840’s. Starting in the 1820’s, canal workers were imported from Ireland specifically to build the Rideau, Welland, and first Lachine Canal. Work was hard but well paid for the times.In the 1850’s, Montreal was scandalized that some of the skilled navvies working on the Victoria Bridge earned more money than British officers stationed nearby at the fort on Ste. Helen’s Island.

Nor were the Irish merely the “brawn”. The political force and brains behind the grand Trunk Railway was Francis Hincks (1807-1885) from Cork in Ireland. Francis Shanly (1820-1882) and his brother Walter Shanly (1817-1899) came to Canada with their parents and became important railway civil engineers. They completed the Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts, probably their most famous project. As regards the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) later in the 1880’s, Thomas Shaughnessy (1853-1923), was probably the most important Irish figure. Born in Milwaukee of Irish parents from Limerick, he became President of the CPR, and in 1916, Baron Shaughnessy, a peer of the realm. He introduced himself as “the Peer that made Milwaukee famous”.