Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 12 of 12


Willie Diggin remained shocked by the Pearl Harbor attack as he walked to work the morning of December 17, 1941. He also was thinking about Christmas gifts for his wife and six daughters, now nine to 16. Nora was planning a big holiday meal for the extended family.

At the streetcar barn Willie stepped into the motorman’s cab and soon was rolling west on Second Avenue. Within a minute or two he reached the intersection of Johnston Avenue and could see his house, fourth from the corner. The house slipped from his view as the streetcar rolled in front of St. Stephen’s Church, its twin spires towering over the north side of the street.

It was the start of another familiar trip into downtown Pittsburgh. Willie probably made 100,000 runs back and forth on Second Avenue during more than 25 years of working for Pittsburgh Railways. He was familiar with many of the passengers boarding at these stops, and they with him.


A Depression era streetcar motorman in his cab. Not Willie. Library of Congress

Willie rolled through Hazelwood, past the miles-long J & L Steel mill and into the downtown district. At Third Avenue and Ferry (now Stanwix) Street he stopped the car facing the soot-covered Wabash train terminal. This was the end of the line.

To the left side of his motorman’s cab the front entrance of St. Mary of Mercy angled to the corner, the high-water level of the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood recorded by a brass marker near the front door. A white marble statue of the Virgin Mary gazed down from a red-brick arcade.

Willie opened the double doors on the right side of the car, allowing his final inbound passengers to disembark for their destinations. He tugged an interior cord to adjust the route placard outside the car until it read, “Kennywood via Second Avenue,” signaling the eastbound route to the opposite end of the line.

Suddenly, he was seized by a heart attack.

A policeman noticed him slump in the motorman’s cab and rushed to the streetcar. The cop grabbed Willie under each arm and dragged him to the long rattan bench seat at the front right side of the car.

A strand of rosary beads slipped to the floor from a pocket of Willie’s dark blue uniform.

Somebody ran inside St. Mary’s and notified a priest, who boarded the streetcar to administer the last rites. He dabbed his thumb to a small silver vessel filled with sacred oil, made the sign of the cross on Willie’s forehead and whispered, “Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed.”


The police report identified Willie by his motorman’s badge number 3018. His brother Michael was summoned to the morgue for confirmation. In the “Proof of Identity” statement he wrote that Willie had “been in good health all his life and had never complained of any illness.”


St. Mary of Mercy Church is the only building that remains from the day Willie died at this corner in December 1941.

In Hazelwood, a Pittsburgh Railways supervisor and a neighbor woman friendly with the Diggin family approached 121 Johnston Avenue to deliver the news to Nora. She instinctively knew the reason for their visit. “Willie’s dead,” she moaned before they could speak a word.

Willie’s body was released to the Leo G. Sullivan Funeral Home on Second Avenue. All the Irish in Hazelwood surely knew Sullivan, himself born on St. Patrick’s Day, God love him. The funeral home was within view of Willie’s front porch. He passed it every day.

The mortician prepared the motorman’s body, which was placed in a coffin and driven the short distance to the house for the wake. But the coffin could not fit through the narrow front entry, divided 16 years earlier to separate access to the upstairs apartments. So the men removed the large window at the front of the house and passed the coffin into the living room from the porch.

Two afternoon newspapers contained brief descriptions of Willie’s death several pages inside their competing editions. “Motorman Drops Dead After Stopping Car,” said the Press. “Motorman Dies on Downtown Trolley,” declared the Sun-Telegraph.

There were no details about the final minutes of his life from passengers or other witnesses, no summary of his employment with Pittsburgh Railways or mention of his emigration from Ireland. “Traffic was tied up for nearly 15 minutes,” the stories said.

Later that evening a motorman from the Glenwood car barn knocked on the front door. He held his uniform cap to his heart with one hand and expressed his deep regrets for the family’s sudden loss. He extended his other hand to return Willie’s black lunch box, still filled with the food Nora had packed for her husband at the start of the day.


The wake lasted two days and two nights. Willie’s open coffin was set in the living room. He was dressed in a brown suit with the rosary beads wound around his folded hands, as was customary. The mourners prayed the litany in shifts. Some whispered the prayers in Irish.

On Saturday morning the men removed the front window again, lifted the coffin outside (feet first, by custom) and placed it a hearse for the short trip around the corner to St. Stephen’s. Father Denis Murphy, himself a Kerry immigrant, presided over the funeral Mass. Willie’s daughters say the church was filled with mourners, including John Stack, who had joined Willie on the trip from Ireland.

Willie was buried at Calvary Cemetery, a mile from the church and his home.


The January 1942 issue of the Public Service newsletter was distributed about the same time Willie would have turned 48. The Glenwood report said:

It is with deepest sorrow and regret that we have to report the death of one of the finest men in our car house. William Diggin died suddenly while on duty, shortly before Christmas. His death came as a great shock, and no one could talk about anything else for days. He had almost 30 years of service; nevertheless he was a young man and appeared in the best of health. No one ever thought he would be taken so suddenly, but he lived an exemplary life, and it seems that God only takes the best. The crowds of friends who went to the home to pay their last respects, and the number of floral offerings, testified to the esteem in which he was held by all who knew him.

By coincidence, the newsletter’s next item was about “one of the unique railroads of the world,” the Lartigue monorail of County Kerry. “Many of our men come from this section” of Ireland it said, proclaiming the monorail “the only one left in the world.”

It hardly seemed to matter that the monorail had closed 17 years earlier, in 1924, the year of Willie’s marriage to Nora. An accompanying photograph showed the Ballybunion train station, where Willie began his journey to America in May 1913.


Nora lived as a widow for 42 years after Willie’s death. She missed him terribly as three of their daughters got married and 12 grandchildren began to arrive. Two other daughters entered the Sisters of Charity convent. The sixth remained single, entering a professional career. She kept the paid house deed and other family documents inside her father’s black metal lunch box, later passed on to me.

Several of the daughters began traveling back to Ireland in the late 1960s, eventually followed by some of the grandchildren. On such trips it is customary to visit the house where Willie was born in 1894. A relative living there is always gracious in her welcome.

Inside the front door is a framed image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus bearing the name of Willie’s parents and their 10 children. It is dated from May 1922, nine years after Willie’s emigration. The image is “consecrated to Christ” on behalf of all members of the family, “present or absent, living or dead.”

Outside the hillside house is an expansive view of the Atlantic Ocean looking westward toward America.


May 11, 2013…100 years after Willie’s arrival in Pittsburgh.