Recalling Irish muscle that built Mass. Railroads
BY JENNY HALL
HATFIELD- Town historians celebrated the wearing of the green
a few days early Thursday with tales of Irish derring-do, fiddling and a colorful
array of shamrock-inspired goodies.
Members of the Hatfield Historical Society gathered in the parlor of the Congregational
Church to enjoy St. Patrick's Day with a program about the role of Irish laborers
in the construction of the Massachusetts Great Western Railway linking Boston,
Worcester and Springfield to New York between 1838 and 1841.
Some 40 people gathered for the program, presented by Dennis Picard, director
of Storrowtown Village Museum in West Springfield. Picard was dressed as an
Irish immigrant, in vintage vest, trousers and cap.
Tidbits of train trivia peppered the presentation.
For example, artist James McNeil Whistler made his mother famous in his 1871
portrait, now known simply as Whistler's Mother. But who's heard of his father?
Fact: Whistler's father was the chief engineer on the Massachusetts Great Western
Railroad in 1848.
Or who knew the cruel and ironic twist of fate that awaited the stone mason-
one Bemis by name- who supervised the construction of the stone bridges and
embankments that carved out rail beds in Chester's mountain sides?
Fact: He retired to New Jersey and blew himself up in his own backyard while
detonatng a rock that was in the way of a goldfish pond he wanted to build.
Or this: After the completion of the railroad in 1841, crews of Irish laborers
followed the railway west. Some met a cruel fate. Experts have always believed
that the mass grave dug beside a railroad spur in Michigan- known as McCarthy's
Cut- contained the bodies of Irish labors fallen victim to a cholera epidemic.
Fact: When recently exhumed, forensic scientists confirmed that most bodies
showed signs of blunt trauma wounds. It's now believed that McCarthy murdered
most of the laborers and retired with the proceeds of the considerable sum paid
to him by the insurance on the loss of his crew.
Picard's presentation ended with a rousing performance of Irish ballads by
fiddler Stan Svec and Picard on the mouth harp.
After the program, audience members snacked on green-themed desserts as they
perused Historical Commission Secretary Frederick Martin's extensive collection
of antique photos of local trains and train scenes.