Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 11 of 12


In September 1932 William Diggin reached the point at which he had lived in America as long as in Ireland, his life equally divided between the two countries. He was 38 years old. He had a wife and six daughters. He was a homeowner and landlord. He was surrounded by extended family, hard-working neighbors and a strong church and civic community, even as Pittsburgh and the nation plunged into the Great Depression.

Amateur photography was becoming popular at the time and somebody snapped a picture of Willie and his six girls. One of his streetcar co-workers heard about the image and wrote about Willie’s refusal to submit a picture of his family to the company newsletter, Public Service.

“Willie is naturally shy and we cannot get him to co-operate,” the February 1933 newsletter said. “Perhaps he is waiting a few more years when he will have a real group to have published.”

In February 1935 Public Service reported that Willie was nearly killed on the job, “the victim of a hit-and-run driver as he stepped off a car at Rutherglen Street,” about a mile west of the Glenwood streetcar barn. The newsletter said a company official rushed Willie to the hospital. “His injuries proved more serious than expected and for several days his life was despaired of.” But he recovered and went back to work.


Second Avenue in Hazelwood, about a block or two from Willie’s house, 1936. Pgh. City Photographers Collection

One of the biggest events in Pittsburgh during the Depression years was the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. Heavy rain and sudden snow melt caused the city’s three rivers to overflow the downtown district. The flood halted streetcar traffic and stopped construction of St. Mary of Mercy Church at the corner of Third Avenue and Ferry (now Stanwix) Street. The location was the western terminus of the streetcar route Willie regularly operated from Glenwood.


The “point” at Pittsburgh during the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. Heinz History Center and Archive

Ancient Order of Hibernians records show he withdrew from the fraternal organization in June 1936. Government records show Willie enrolled in the new Social Security program in November 1936. On December 15, 1936, he and Nora settled their mortgage with Manchester Savings Bank and Trust Company in a lump-sum payment of $5,392.95 (about $84,000 today).

Paying off their mortgage in 11 years was a remarkable accomplishment for the couple, especially in the middle of the Depression and nine months after the devastating St. Patrick’s Day flood caused such widespread hardship throughout the city. By most any measure of the day, Willie enjoyed a happy and comfortable life. The March 1939 issue of Public Service included an item that reflected his success:

At a recent inspection of uniforms, Bill Diggins was told he needed a new cap. He dutifully attempted to obey orders but had a lot of difficulty in getting one to fit. It seems that when Bill first started with the company he took size 6 ¾; then he got married and the size jumped to 7. Now he finds, after he has acquired six lovely little daughters and a beautiful home, that the size of his cap has taken another jump and nothing less than 7 ¼ will fit. We always thought this was a joke, but we do not think so any more. With six little girls he has [the five daughters of] Eddie Cantor beat and we hardly wonder at anyone’s head doing a bit of swelling.

For all of his good fortune, however, Willie could not avoid some sorrows and hardships. His sister Annie returned to Ireland in 1938 to care for their sick father, who died in 1940. There were calls to remove streetcars from the city’s crowded downtown streets as Pittsburgh Railways began converting to buses, threatening his employment.

Pollution from Pittsburgh’s steel mills and other manufacturing plants soiled clothing and required street lights to be turned on at midday. Economic troubles lingered in America and war was erupting again in Europe.



The Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. mill on Second Avenue in Hazelwood, 1935. Pgh. City Photographer Collection