Thursday, January 10, 2008

A look back at Schuylkill County: 1908

I originally asked this question over at 100 Years in America: Where was my family in 1908?

After taking the time to dig into some family records and to get the historical perspective of the time and place that they lived in, I've put together a look back at the Cowhey family of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania one-hundred years ago in 1908.

According to the Explore PA History website, "In the 1800s railroading was intertwined with the lives of every Pennsylvanian." That would continue to be true throughout the early decades of the 20th century.

It was certainly true in 1908, and the Cowhey family was no exception. In fact, their hometown of Mount Carbon was the very end of the original Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. This portion of the railroad had opened on January 13, 1842, when Mount Carbon was a part of North Mannheim Township (it became its own town in 1864). The P&R's end at Mount Carbon had connected with the Mount Carbon Railroad which went on to Pottsville and served as the mode of transportation for several mines in the area.

The lives of the Cowhey family revolved around those railroads. Some took jobs as railroad conductors, firemen, engineers, foremen at the round house, etc. Others did iron work, were machinists, or performed other tasks to support the industry. Their lives were surrounded by and depended upon the railroads. And as much as the railroads provided new opportunities for those that lived during their heyday in the 19th and early 20th century, the railroads introduced new dangers to their everyday lives. The very railroad on which he spent his days making a living for his family would take William Cowhey's life in 1892.


The railroad in Schuylkill County was a natural extension of its development as a center for the coal mining industry. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Schuylkill County lived and breathed anthracite coal. As the industry grew and the need for coal miners and railroad workers grew along with it, the population of the county grew also. According to census figures, in 1910 the population of Schuylkill County would surge to 207,894: about 35,000 more people than it had in 1900.

Pottsville itself, the county seat, had only had 4,345 residents in 1840, which was already twenty years after Patrick's arrival in the U.S. By 1910, the population of Pottsville would be more than 20,000 people.

Two miles south of Pottsville, Mount Carbon, on the other hand, was always a one-street town with a tiny population. Living there since at least the 1860's, the Cowhey family was a predominant portion of the little town. With a land area of 0.1 miles, it continues to be small today.

In 1908 it had already been 88 years since Patrick Cowhey had arrived from Ireland - more than likely leaving behind his relatives in Cork. Patrick and his wife Anne had lived out their lives in America - first in New York and later in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Of their nine children, only one was still living in 1908: their son John Cowhey. John was a 62-year-old bachelor, working as a train engineer. Four of his siblings had passed away as children. The other four had all died in the 1890's.

One of those four was John's brother William, who I mentioned above. You may have read my earlier posts about William's role as a volunteer in the Civil War serving alongside his brother Thomas. William's wife, Margaret, age 53 in 1908, had found herself raising her many children alone after her husband's death (not to mention acting as mother to several children from his first marriage).

Here is a look back at the William Cowhey family of Mount Carbon, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in 1908.

Children of William & Anne McWilliams Cowhey (or Catherine - there is some confusion as to her name) and their spouses & children are as follows:

  • John F. McGinley (age 44) - Husband of Annie Cowhey McGinley (who had died in 1907). John was left to raise his children, John (age 9), William (age 7) and Catherine (age 4) without his wife. In 1920 he worked as a foreman in the railroad round house, so he may have had a similar job in 1908.
  • Margaret Cowhey (age 40) - Margaret probably never married. The 1910 U.S. Census shows Margaret working as a housekeeper for a family and living with her Uncle John as a boarder. Eventually Margaret and her uncle lived with John McGinley and his three children (per the 1920 U.S. Census) and then later with John J. & Frances Owens Cowhey (per the 1930 U.S. Census).

  • William Cowhey (died in 1908 at the age of 37) - His wife remained to raise their three children: Blanche, William and another son.

  • John Joseph Cowhey (age 34) - Married to Frances M. Owens Cowhey (age 32). The couple had their first child, William F. Cowhey, in 1908. Six others would follow. John may have been a railroad conductor in 1908. Eventually John's sister Margaret Cowhey and brother-in-law John McGinley would come to live with John and Frances and their children (per the 1930 U.S. Census).

  • Richard Cowhey (unknown) - Might be age 32 or might have passed away by 1908.

As I mentioned above, William's 2nd wife (Margaret Foley Cowhey) was 53 years old. Children of William & Margaret and their spouses & children are as follows:

  • Mary Cowhey (age 30) - Married to either 1st husband Robert Warden or 2nd husband (surname Stokel).

  • Elizabeth Cowhey Brown (age 27) - Married to Alec Brown (not sure what year) and probably living in Philadelphia.

  • Thomas Patrick Cowhey (age 26) - Probably married to Bess Hossler (age 17). The couple may not have been married by 1908, but certainly were married shortly thereafter. They went on to have four children, beginning in 1910, before Thomas died at the young age of 34 in 1916.

  • Ambrose Paul Cowhey (age 25) - A bachelor for life, Ambrose was probably a brakeman on the railroad by 1908 as he was during the 1920 U.S. Census.

  • Clara Cowhey Rodgers (age 22) - Probably married already to William Rodgers.

  • Charles William Cowhey (age 21) - Charles would marry Agnes Donnelly several years later. In 1908 she was 17 years old. By 1913 Charles and Agnes would marry. In that year Charles was working as a foreman. He would go on to work in various odd jobs throughout his lifetime, including machinist at the railroad round house, railroad laborer, employee of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), train runner and crane operator, among others.

  • Blanche Cowhey (age 19) - Blanche married relatively late. She and her husband, John Mokelar, had two children. In her early adulthood she lived with her brother Charles and his wife Agnes. I assume that she was still living with her mother, Margaret, in 1908.

What kind of world did this family see around them in 1908? You might enjoy reading this excerpt from History of the County of Schuylkill published just a few years later in 1911, the centennial anniversary of the founding of the county.

Here is its description of Pottsville in Brief. If these glowing facts about the Schuylkill County seat 2 miles from the Cowhey family homes are to be believed, theirs must not have been too bad a life back in 1908.

Its railroad facilities are such as to carry a passenger to Philadelphia in slightly more than two hours, a distance of 94 miles.

Its churches are commodious, the pulpits being filled with learned theologians, whilst music of the highest order intersperse the services.

Its merchants are men above the average, with stores equal to those of metropolitan cities, the Dives, Pomeroy & Stewart Department Store holding the honor of being the largest and most popular store in the city. [Editor's note: This information was published by the Dives, Pomeroy & Stewart Department Store, so readers would be wise to take this statement with a grain of salt.]

Its streets are paved with chemically treated wood block for eight squares, running from Union Street on the south to Harrison Street on the north; West Norwegian and West Market for several squares being paved with brick; Railroad and all other streets for eight squares mentioned above, running east from Centre to Railroad being paved with Belgian blocks, whilst the other streets of the city are macadamized, making motoring or driving a delightful recreation.

Its hills are picturesque, and from their summits give a view of beauty rarely found within a city’s limits.

Its homes are well constructed, roomy, commodious, and of superb architectural design, the homes of workingmen being far above the average city home.

Its water, whilst not filtered, is the purest that nature can produce, clear as crystal, pure and wholesome, and in quantities much in excess of the city’s requirements.

Its homes are heated with Anthracite coal burning methods, furnaces, steam heating and hot water appliances, whilst, the central portion of the city is supplied with steam heat from a corporation.

Its streets and home are lighted by gas and electric light, from the best known methods, and in sufficient quantity to give entire satisfaction, the same being furnished by the public corporations.

Its farming products are brought to the city fresh from mother earth in large quantities almost daily from nearby rural districts.

Its fruits are largely produced near its door, and the quantity and quality is steadily improving.

Its future prospects of becoming a city of 60,000 is admittedly bright, and the project can be carried out by annexing the suburban towns and villages.

It’s a city, first and last and all the time, ready with open arms to welcome the stranger within its gates.

Image of the Conestoga Bridge courtesy of American Premier Underwriters, Inc and Explore PA History.

Image of the Philadelphia & Reading and Pottsville Railroad announcement is from Images of America: Pottsville by Leo Ward and Mark Major.

Image of the train courtesy of Philadelphia Reflections.

Image of the Schuylkill County Courthouse in 1906 courtesy of Northeastern Pennsylvania Photo Collection.

2 comments:

Colleen said...

Great post, Lisa. Both sets of my ancestral grandparents were born in Luzerne County, also in the anthracite coal region. My dad's lines were coal miners, my mom's railroaders (though I suspect there was some intertwining of laborers in there).

As for your question about my McCUE line from PA, no, we haven't figured out where in Eire they originated. Haven't figured that out for any of my lines, yet. I actually know nothing about my McCUE line other than it was my great-grandmother DOYLE's maiden name (Jennie (known as Jane) McCUE married John J. DOYLE in PA. I do have a speculation on Jane's family, though no proof yet.

barbara said...

Thank you Lisa for a very informative post .

I can relate to the rairoading part, although my ancestors took employment in Philadelphia, rather than in Schuylkill Co.In the County, my family was of coure employed in the mines around Shenandoah.

It's nice to have thE historical links as I never grew up in this county. I can use all the help I can get for learning about my ancestral place .

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