Tag Archives: pittsburgh railways

Irish-American president and streetcar workers

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 trip to Ireland is getting a lot of attention. Part of the commemoration has included bringing a flame lit from the eternal flame at Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. to New Ross in County Wexford.


Image from ABC

Kennedy’s trip was a triumph for Ireland, for Irish-Americans and for Roman Catholics. Thirty-two years before his 1960 election, Irish-Catholic Democrat Al Smith was crushed by Herbert Hoover in his bid for the presidency. The nation was still too mired in its prejudice against Smith’s ethnicity and faith. (As it turned out, missing the 1929 stock market crash and start of the Great Depression might have saved Irish-American Catholics further hatred in the long run. It sure helped the Democrats.)

As Kennedy made his historic visit to Ireland in June 1963, a small group of Pittsburgh-area politicians and volunteers established the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum. They realized that street railways in Pittsburgh and other parts of the nation were fading from regular use as buses became the preferred public transit to serve far-flung, rapidly growing suburbs.

What does that have to with Kennedy?

Irish immigrants dominated the labor force of street railways in urban America from the time the systems were created in the late 19th century. They joined the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, formed in 1892, to push for higher wages and better working conditions.

“The streetcar workforce and the union were composed entirely of men, many of whom were Irish,” says the National Streetcar Museum in Lowell, Mass.

The same was true in other Irish immigrant hubs such as nearby Boston (where Kennedy’s ancestors settled), New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh. My Kerry-born grandfather, his brother-in-law and three cousins were among many Irish immigrants employed by Pittsburgh Railways Co. as motormen and conductors.

Like cops, the Irish had a big advantage over other immigrants in obtaining these big city jobs, which required frequent public contact. They spoke the language. In both professions, these unionized, uniform-wearing jobs helped first-generation Irish immigrants build middle-class lives that provided even better opportunities for their children and grandchildren.

And that’s another important part of what JFK’s trip to Ireland symbolized in June 1963.


Early 20th century Pittsburgh Railways Co. streetcar workers.

DISCLOSURE: I am a member of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.

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.


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

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