Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 8 of 12


Willie Diggin’s first job in America was as a clerk, according to Polk’s City Directory, which did not indicate where he worked or exactly what he did. He was lucky to avoid more dangerous jobs in the mills, mines and railway switchyards that caused widespread death and injury among the city’s immigrant population.

Pittsburgh was a place of stark contrasts, “between the prosperity on the one hand…and, on the other hand, the neglect of life, of health, of physical vigor, even of the industrial efficiency of the individual,” according to the Pittsburgh Survey, a Progressive era report aimed at urban reform. “Certainly no community before in America or Europe has ever had such a surplus, and never before has a great community applied what it had so meagerly to the rational purposes of human life.”

By 1915, Willie began working as a motorman for Pittsburgh Railways Company, the city’s streetcar system. He joined several of his cousins and friend John Stack at the Glenwood streetcar barn on Second Avenue, just a few blocks from where they lived.


The Glenwood streetcar barn on Second Avenue in 1919. Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

The starting wage was about 28 cents an hour, an annual rate of $875 or about $20,000 in today’s money. Motormen typically worked six days a week with 10 hours on duty during a 12-hour shift. Lunch and other breaks were unpaid. Working conditions gradually improved through representation by the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America.

In April 1917, the United States was drawn into the Great War in Europe and Willie was required to register for the draft, though he was not yet a citizen. Nearly 3,200 men signed up at the police station a few blocks from the Glenwood streetcar barn. Willie left blank the line requesting a deferment, but he was not among 60,000 Pittsburgh men selected for the military.

Pittsburgh Railways distributed a booklet about the war that contained speeches by President Woodrow Wilson and other patriotic material, such as the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner. Streetcar workers were reminded that “to prevent any accidental injury is a form of patriotic action, as well as a moral, a humane, a civic and an economic duty.”


Streetcars, horse carts and a few automobiles on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, 1917. Pgh. City Photographer Collection.

On August 21, 1919, nine months after the armistice ending the war in Europe, Local 85 of the streetcar union voted 2,521 to 61 to strike against Pittsburgh Railways. The labor dispute involved violent clashes with police and outside workers hired to operate a limited number of routes.

The day of the strike vote, Willie filed his Declaration of Intention to become a United States citizen. His friend John Stack had completed the application a day earlier. Willie listed his occupation as “laborer,” either due to uncertainty about whether he would rejoin Pittsburgh Railways or to avoid association with the strike unrest.

Over the next three years Willie likely attended some type of citizenship classes toward naturalization. He became an American on June 15, 1922, slightly more than nine years after his arrival.

The next day in Ireland, voters approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty in a general election that ratified the Irish Free State, ending the war of independence against England short of achieving a republic. The northern part of the island was partitioned and the stage was set for a bitter civil war.

Willie’s views on Irish nationalism are believed to have leaned toward the republican cause, but there is no record of his opinions. Once he became an American citizen, his thoughts turned toward having a family.

Tomorrow: HUSBAND