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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Three-generation-old questions about a coal miner's life

Anyone that knows anything about the history of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania knows about the Mollie Maguires. Back during the hard time of transition to industrialization, men often gave their lives because of dangerous working conditions while trying to eke out a meager living for their families. The Mollies were an almost inevitable result of the clash between the hugely rich, hugely powerful industrial giants and the very men whose day to day labor supported their success.

It has long been a goal of mine to learn about my own ancestors' roles during the 19th century in Schuylkill County, particularly with regard to the coal mining industry. Ever since I was a child I've known that several of my ancestors were Irish coal miners there. The more questions I've asked about that side of the family, the more intrigued I have become.

You see, this side of the family didn't take kindly to questions about the past. For many generations children's questions have been hushed, certainly since my grandmother's childhood in the early 1920's. In the midst of this secrecy, the questions asked have become family legends themselves.

Could our John Donnelly have been in with the Mollie Maguires? He was of the right time period, the right age, the right occupation, and the right ethnicity. He even shared a surname with some of the prominent Mollies themselves. What was his story?

Unearthing the life story of John Donnelly, my great-great-grandfather, would be a great genealogical find, indeed. I have found he and his wife's marriage record, and what I believe to be the story of his accident in the Shenandoah Evening Herald and the Pottsville Republican. If I have the right John Donnelly, he and his brother died in an explosion at Bear Ridge Colliery in Shenandoah. Could he also have been involved with those that were fighting to improve the conditions that eventually cost him his life?

The questions remain after three generations. Will I be the one to set them to their final rest?


John Donnelly & Michael Donnelly (Miners, Bear Ridge Colliery, Mahanoy Plane), Report of the Inspector of Mines for the Sixth Anthracite District of Pennsylvania, Schuylkill County, 1893; Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Mining & Reclamation, Harrisburg.

“Boilers Explode. One Man Killed at Mahanoy Plane – One Injured.,” Shenandoah Evening Herald, March 20, 1893.

“Buried To-day,” Shenandoah Evening Herald, March 21, 1893.

“Frackville Gossip: At about three o’clock Sunday morning…,” Pottsville Republican, March 20, 1893.

“Frackville Notes: Michael Donnelly…,” Pottsville Republican, March 21, 1893.

"Known ‘Mollie Maguires’ (AOH) Membership List Mentioned in Trial Transcripts," Ancient Order of Hibernians St. Brendan Division #1 (Online: Berks County, Pennsylvania AOH) [Pinkerton Detective Agency], <http://www.angelfire.com/pa4/berksaoh/pdf/mollies.pdf> , accessed 3 January 2008.


The above image of the Bear Ridge Colliery coal mine in Shenandoah is courtesy of the North Eastern Pennsylvania Photo Collection. Bear Ridge Colliery is the site where John Donnelly was believed to have died in an explosion. This photo was taken a little over a decade later in 1907.

This post was inspired by Craig Manson's question: What's your version of The Greatest Genealogical Find Ever? posted at GeneaBlogie.


Colleen said...

Great Post. My ancestors on my paternal lines were also coal miners, in nearby Luzerne County. My great grandfather is rumored to have been among the Mollies. It hasn't been proven, but stories tell that he was. There is also a possibility that a Peter McHugh, who was hanged for a role in a Maguires related death, was an ancestor. I guess we all may find a black sheep in our lines.

barbara said...

Hi Lisa,
You have hitten a sensitive spot here...
In my Carroll family, I have a member who was active in the Mollys.
His name was Big Jim Carroll, and boy, would I have known to hear his stories.He actually fled Schuylkill Co with his family on foot, mind you. They walked to Cook Co,IL where they settled. This was to escape the hangings.
You can read about Big Jim on my blog, if you look at the label "Andrew & Catherine Carroll".

I'am currently awaiting the arrival of the book " Making sense of the Molly McGuires".

See you again soon.

Lisa said...

Looks like we might have quite a group among our forefathers, ladies. :)

Thanks for sharing your stories. I'm looking forward to hearing how you like the book about the Mollies, Barbara.

If you like, join our Genealogy list at GoodReads and we can discuss it there.

Anonymous said...

It is certainly interesting for me to read that post. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to them. I would like to read a bit more on that blog soon.

Anonymous said...

This is a gem of a site. I came across you through the pdf about the Molly Maguires on angelfire.com. My ancestors are from Pittston, Pa., in Luzerne County.

The AOH list has Clarkes, Delaneys Doughertys, Fergusons and a Mangan...all members of my family. We also grew up with the rumors and lack of information. It will be interesting to dig into this subject.

I know from my genealogy research, that all that oppression was for nought, as we have many lawyers, doctors, University professors and entrepreneurs in each line. I am proud of them all. Especially proud to know that they stood up for what was right at a time when it meant their lives and livlihoods.


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