Irish Immigrants in Early Doddridge County & the West Union Catholic Cemetery
The stretch of railroad that once ran through Doddridge County was one of the oldest railroad branches in the United States. It was chartered as the Northwestern Virginia Railroad by the Virginia Legislature in 1851 and financed by the B&O Railroad Company. The financial impact the railroad had on Doddridge County was immense, but there was a significant cultural impact as well.
Between 1845 and 1852 there was a series of famines in Ireland that led to a huge migration of Irish families to the United States. Simultaneously, the United States was experiencing an enormous railway building boom. Always on the lookout for cheap labor, the B&O Railroad Company established a practice of hiring Irish immigrants as soon as they came off the ships in Baltimore.
Construction of the Grafton-to-Parkersburg branch, which ran through Doddridge County, started in 1852. Before tracks could be laid, crews had to build bridges and carve out tunnels. Therefore, railroad laborers, predominantly Irishmen, started pouring into Doddridge County almost immediately.
According to census records, there was only one Irish resident living in Doddridge County in 1850. But by 1860 there were over 62 Irish households, with approximately 281 combined family members living in Doddridge County. The majority of these families lived in West Union, Long Run (near Salem) and Central Station, where there were train depots. Besides laborers, there were also several Irish businessmen. Of the Irish-born residents of Doddridge County in 1860, the census shows that there was one grocer, two shoemakers, one physician, three hotel keepers, a school teacher and a whiskey seller named Margaret Tagg.
There were apparently a few unpleasant encounters between the established residents of Doddridge County and these new Irish residents very shortly after their arrival. I found a Virginia Legislative Petition dated December 29, 1852, in which citizens of West Union were begging for more local law enforcement to help control these immigrants with their questionable “moral character and practices.” The petition reads:
To the General Assembly of Virginia -
Your petitioners represent that in consequence of the unprecedented form of the districts as they were laid off in Doddridge County for the election of county officers, no constable has been, nor probably ever can or will be, elected in West Union, nor within five miles thereof. Your petitioners represent that the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad through this county and town has brought many strangers together at this point with whose moral character and practices your petitioners are unacquainted, and as there is no peace officers in West Union but the Sheriff of the county who is constantly absent on business, your petitioners pray that a law may be passed without delay to authorize the voters within the corporation of West Union to elect two constables to reside in said town with jurisdiction over the county, clothed with the same powers and subject to the same penalties that the constables elected by the law now in force are subject to, with an express clause requiring them to reside in West Union, and as in duty will ever pray....
Obviously West Union was granted their wish, because by 1860 there were two constables in town: Holdridge Sayre and Jacob Keister. Constables have now been replaced by town cops and city policemen.
In 1853 Ephraim Bee sold a piece of land to Bishop Richard V. Whelan from Wheeling for the purpose of building a meetinghouse (church) and a Catholic graveyard. That church was St. Patrick’s, and the location is now a part of the Blockhouse Hill Cemetery. Many of those buried in the Catholic cemetery were born in Ireland and died tragic deaths from railroad-related accidents or from one of the many epidemics prevalent in those early years. Through obituaries, death records, and earlier cemetery readings, I have found that there are at least 51 unmarked graves at this cemetery. If you go there in the fall or winter, you can see depressions in the ground where some are buried. I feel that’s it only right to mention their names here, as there is no monument or even a field stone to mark their passing. They are:
Margaret Ames O’Brien
John Henry O’Brien
Mary Ann McGuire Ames
Andrew William Mason
Alice Ann McGraw
Catharine Monahan McGraw
Mary A McGraw Fallon
Michael Fallon, Jr
Catherine Flatley Doyle
Catharine McDonald Mulligan
John W Mulligan
Mary E Faulkner Mulligan
John Joseph ‘Joe’ McHugh
Rose Ann Mulligan McHugh
Charity Gallagher Harper
Alice Hanley Zeller
Bridget Connelly King
Bridget Mullen King
William H Manley
Ann Reilly Manley
Bridget Ann Faulkner Coulehan
male infant Coulehan
female infant Coulehan,
Joseph Frank Coulehan
Ellen Phelaw Coulehan
In 1889, with the cemetery remaining intact, the church building was moved closer to downtown to be near the railroad tracks. This was done to accommodate parishioners coming by train from the outlying areas to attend church services. For the same reason, St. Anne’s Catholic Church and graveyard was built along the railroad tracks on Long Run in Doddridge County, near Salem. Only a few Irish families stayed in Doddridge County after the completion of the railroad. The majority moved on to bigger railroad towns like Clarksburg, Grafton and westward locations.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the hard-working Irish immigrants who were instrumental in helping form the infrastructure and character of the Doddridge County that we know today. Although the railroad tracks were taken up in 1988, the impact of those Irishmen will always be a part of Doddridge County’s history. They built the railways that carried Union troops and supplies during the Civil War. Much of the equipment for the gas and oil industry boom in the 1890s was brought here by freight cars. Huge numbers of cattle were transported to and from our communities by railway. The scope of people and supplies that could be moved by rail cars brought about a level of wealth and productivity that had never been seen before and that we can only hope will be seen again.
(NOTE: This article, written by Heritage Guild member Jennifer Wilt, originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent as part of her weekly column “Our Heritage: The REAL History of Doddridge County.”)