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Friday, June 29, 2007

Like father, like sons

Charles Cowhey had just turned five years old when his father passed away in the train explosion of Engine No. 563 on November 14, 1892. He and his older brothers Ambrose & Thomas, ages 9 & 10 respectively, probably had mixed feelings about trains for awhile, since their father had been killed in such a horrible accident. However, both Charles and Ambrose, and possibly also Thomas, went on to spend much of their working lives in and around the railroad.

The railroad was their world. It's true that coal was king, but coal needed transportation. The railroad provided that. The Schuylkill county canals, which had transported coal by water, had seen their peak in the 1850's and slowly lost significance as the railroad took over. Trains were in their heyday and they were the world of the Cowhey men and their families in the late 19th century and early 20th century. See Images of America: Pottsville by Mark T. Major & L. Ward for great pictures of the time period from the collection of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County.

From various records that I have found, here's an idea of what Charles Cowhey's resume might have looked like:

Charles W. Cowhey

  • 1913 Foreman, Atlantic Refining Company
  • 1920 Machinist helper
  • 1930 Laborer on railroad
  • 1939 W.P.A.
  • 1946 Train runner
  • 1957 Crane operator

His daughter Anne (Cowhey) McCue's address book lists his work address as: 129 E. 7th Street, Chester, Pennsylvania.

Here is a Chester to Philadelphia train ticket dated 1942:

Here is a photo of the old Chester train station:

Ambrose also spent alot of time around the trains, certainly as a brakeman (recorded on the 1920 U.S. Census) and also possibly as a "caboose man" (as remembered by his grand-niece, Nancy).

William Cowhey's childhood was spent during what could also be called the childhood of the steam engine. He lived his life in and around the railroad and those engines puffing steam into the air as they carried coal and passengers around Pennsylvania.

His sons also knew the steam engine well. Ironically, in 1957, the year that Charles Cowhey died, was the very year that the Pennsylvania Railroad ended its use of steam locomotives. The steam engine's era was over, and many of the most historic locomotives retired to a life of preservation at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. By 1959 the national rail network had dropped to 220,000 miles. By 1971 the Reading Railroad Company had declared bankruptcy.

The era of the railroad was over. And life would never be the same for the Cowhey family and their descendants.

Riding the rails: the life and death of William Cowhey

The L-class train pictured here is very similar to the types of trains that my great-great-grandfather William Cowhey spent his life in and around.

William was born on April 29, 1834 in New York. His family arrived in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania not too long after that: possibly at the same time as the railroad did in 1842, or shortly afterward. This was a time when railroads were new and trains were every boy's dream (that doesn't seem to have changed much).

In 1830 there were only 23 miles of railroad track in the United States. By the year 1840 nearly 3,000 miles of track had been laid.

In 1834, the year William was born, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad opened as part of the "Main Line of Public Works". It was a combined inclined plane, rail and canal route stretching 395 miles through the interior of Pennsylvania.

In 1842 the Philadelphia & Reading Railway was opened to transport hard coal from mines in Schuylkill County's southern anthracite field to tidewater Philadelphia. William was 8 years old at the time. Whether his family had arrived in Pennsylvania yet or not, as a young boy at the dawning of the railroad era in the U.S., he must have spent alot of time daydreaming about riding the rails.

1870 is the date of the oldest record I have found to indicate William's employment with the railroads, although my guess is that he was working for them earlier. By 1870 he was already 36 years old and had served his duty in the Civil War on the Union side with a Pottsville regiment.

In 1870, William was a brakeman on the railroad, according to the 1870 U.S. Census. The year before, on May 10, 1869, the nation had celebrated the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Promontory Summit, Utah was the in the news with the driving of a golden spike. Schuylkill County newspapers would have shared the news with William and his fellow railroad men in Schuylkill County.

By 1880, William was now fireman for the railroad, according to the 1880 U.S. Census. By this time he had lost his first wife, and married his second wife, the young Margaret (Foley) Cowhey. He and Margaret were raising the children from William's previous marriage and now had a new baby of their own, Ellen.

Fourteen years of marriage and ten children later, William went to work one day in November 1892. He had now been promoted to Engineer and was riding home from his duties on locomotive No. 73 on the Reading & Pennsylvania Railroad when tragedy struck. Here is the report of the accident as told by the Pottsville Republican newspaper, Monday, November 14, 1892 edition:


Another Reading Locomotive Blown Up. Five Old Railroaders Killed! Another Fatality Injured - Gathering Up the Mutilated Remains - Sketch of the Victims - A Big Loss Entailed Upon the Company - Details of the Occurence.

It is our sad duty today to chronicle another exposion of a locomotive of the Philadelphia & Reading railroad company, which occurred this morning near Connor's Crossing, about three miles south of this place in which five strong able bodied men were blown into eternity, and one seriously if not fatally scalded.

The ill fated engine was known as one of the L class and was No. 563. The killed are the following:

HENRY C. ALLISON, of Palo Alto, aged 44 years; married, leaving a widow and a married daughter; engineer of the ill-fated engine.

CHARLES J. C. MACKEY, of Port Carbon, aged 28 years; married, leaving a widow and one small child; fireman of the ill-fated engine.

CHARLES H. KENDRICK, of Port Carbon, ages 32 years; married, leaving a widow and four small children; conductor.

WILLIAM COWHEY, of Mt. Carbon, age 59 years; married, leaving a widow and twelve children. Engineer of locomotive No. 73.

WILLIAM H. MOYER, of Palo Alto, aged 26 years; married, leaving a widow and two small children; fireman of engine No. 73.

The injured man is: MICHAEL DOBBINS, of Mt. Carbon, single. Badly scalded, and unconscious.

The ill-fated engine, with a large draught of empty cars and manned by Engineer Allison and Fireman Mackey, were on their way from Port Richmond for Palo Alto, and after arriving near the overhead bridge of the Lehigh and Schuylkill Valley R.R., a short distance this side of Connor's Crossing, the locomotive exploded with the above horrifying results.


It is difficult, yes, impossible, at this time, if it ever can be done, to give the true cause of this very disastrous explosion. Michael Dobbins, the only surviving witness up to noon, lay suffering and unconscious at the residence of his parents at Pinedale or East Mt. Carbon. The attending physician regards his condition so critical that he has placed his patient under chloroform to alleviate his sufferings and has refused any to see him excepting those in attendance upon him.

Persons who were in close proximity, however, say this: the train stood still at the time because the engine had run out of steam. The blower had been put on to accelerate her steaming up and it was during this process that the boiler exploded. Dobbins alighted prior thereto and evidently it was to this cause that he escaped being hurled into the future, as were the rest of his more unfortunate companions.

Cowhey and his fireman, Moyer, had just returned from a trip from Reading, for which place they left about 10 o'clock yesterday morning. They had, shortly prior to the accident, taken their engine, No. 73, and placed it into the round-house at Cressona. After their return trip, and, as was their custom, they went to the office at Schuylkill Haven to board the first engine north bound, so that they could ride to their respective homes, which they, however, never reached alive. Their bodies, with the other victims, now lie cold in death, with the bereaved widows and orphans gathered about their biers, whose only support and heads of families have gone forever. The scene is heartrending.

[I've omitted the details about the other victims]

William Cowhey resided at Mt. Carbon, and was in his 59th year. He was twice married. Four grown up children created by that union survive him. His second wife he leaves a widow, with eight small children ranging from 14 to an infant of but a few months old to mourn his sudden death. The deceased was a soldier on the Union side in the late rebellion, and a prominent member of Gowen Post No. 23, G.A.R. [Grand Army of the Republic]


The explosion occurred immediately under the overhead bridge of the L. & S. V. railroad. The engine 563 was of the L class, which are used to draw freight. Although she was running north the force was so great that she was lifted completely from her frame and turned southward, in the opposite direction. Everything about her has been shivered to pieces and she was, to use a "railroader's" term: "turned completely inside out". The railroad track for a short distance was also torn up. It is truly wonderful when the wrecked condition of the engine is taken into consideration that the bodies of the victims were not more badly mutilated. Excepting Cowhey and Moyer, whose bodies and faces were somewhat battered, the others were not so badly mangled or defaced.


At four o'clock this morning, Deputy Coroner, Dr. H.G. Weist, of Schuylkill Haven, was aroused and immediately summoned a jury. The Coroner B.C. Guigin (?), also appeared as early as possible and they with the jury viewed the scene of the accident. No testimony will be taken for a day or so to await the condition of the injured man, Michael Dobbins.

The jury consists of Messrs. Hock, Fry, Greisinger, Jones, Brown and Brennan.

The steam crane which is used to remove debris and other material in the event of a collision or any other accident on the railroad, was broken a few days ago, and the wreck crew was therefore very much hampered in removing the wreck. The wreckers under Yardmaster Wm. Sebold worked very faithfully notwithstanding their great drawback.


The Reading railroad has been very unfortunate during the past year, with the number of explosions of locomotives which have occurred. One old railroader this morning assigned the following as the prime cause why these engines have exploded. He said in substance the crews are compelled to run their engines at a very high pressure to draw the very heavy trains which are put behind them for the past year. That to keep up the great pressure of steam and the quantity used the fires are forced and the exterior of the boilers are burned out, and something must give way, he added.
Another newspaper account of the accident gives less detail. The Shenandoah Evening Herald Monday, November 14, 1892 edition, has a short description, but with quite a few errors. They appear to have made some corrections and added more details in their Tuesday, November 15, 1892 edition of the newspaper:
The Boiler Explosion on the Reading Near Schuylkill Haven.
Pottsville, Pa., Nov. 15 - The cause of the boiler explosion on the Reading near Schuylkill Haven, is a mystery that will be cleared up only by a thorough investigation.

The report of the explosion was heard several miles distant, and the shock caused the buildings in the neighborhood to tremble, awakening the occupants and causing much excitement.

The residents of Schuylkill Haven flocked to the scene, and a sad sight met their gaze. Pinioned beneath a mass of broken machinery was Dobbins, and his groans and cries for relief were frightful. The men set to work, and he was soon liberated, placed on an engine, and taken to his home.

The killed were:

WILLIAM COWEY, engineer, of Port Carbon [this residence is an error].

WILLIAM MOYER, fireman, of Palo Alto.

HARRY ALLISON, engineer, of Palo Alto.


C.J.C. MACKAY, fireman, of Port Carbon.

MICHAEL DOBBINS, a brakeman, badly injured.

The engine had just finished making a shift and coupled up to a train. The moment the steam was applied the explosion followed.

Cowey was hurled against rocks and every bone in his body was crushed.

Moyer was hurled one hundred yards away into a field.

The others lay near the wreck.

The engine was No. 563 and belonged to the freight trade.

On Sunday she was put on the coal trade and at the time of the accident was on her way to Palo Alto.

The others belonged to the engine which exploded.

The boiler was hurled 75 yards.

Some of the dead were horribly mutilated.

In 1893, less than a year after William Cowhey's death, Congress passed the Railway Appliance and Safety Act. It outlawed the use of link-and-pin couplers and mandated the use of the Janney coupler and the Westinghouse air brake in interstate service, saving hundreds of lives each year. It is not clear from the information that I have found if the new technology would have prevented this particular accident, but it is clear that over time a new focus on safety saved the lives of many railroad men.

But it was too late for William Cowhey and his widow and many young children. He lived in the heyday of the American railroad and in the heart of Pennsylvania rail country. On that fateful day in 1892, he thought he was riding home. In a way, he was. William Cowhey died as he had lived, riding the rails of Pennsylvania.

For more information about the history of U.S. railroads, see the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Under the shadow of the Cross

This is the steeple of the third St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Pottsville, Pennsylvania, whose cornerstone was laid was laid in 1891. This church (and the previous St. Patrick's Churches) has looked down upon many of my family's days. It watched as they walked into it's church for many Sunday Masses, as brides and grooms walked out to start their new lives together, as they visited again carrying new babies for Baptism, and again and again as they prepared to bury their loved ones.

William Cowhey married his second wife, Margaret Foley, in the 2nd St. Patrick's on February 23, 1878. The wedding was attended by Maurice Ryan and Clara Kitchen. They walked into St. Patrick's many times after that day for Baptisms of their new babies: Ellen (no date recorded), Elizabeth in 1881, Thomas in 1883, Ambrose in 1884, and Lena in 1891 and Isabella in 1892, among many others, whose Baptism records have not been as easy to find. (William had 12 children in all, counting both marriages.)

Sadly, the family would attend both Lena's and Bella's funerals shortly after their Baptisms. Both baby girls died very young.

Charles Cowhey, one of William & Margaret's children, walked through the doors of St. Patrick's in 1913 to wed Agnes Carmelita Donnelly. The couple found themselves there celebrating the Baptism of their baby daughter Anna Cowhey in 1914, who would one day be my grandmother.

Thanks to St. Patrick's for keeping good records so that I could learn a little more about the lives of these family members, most whom I never knew. Thanks also to the kind and generous staff at the church. As the older records become brittle and fragile, the church is protecting them by restricting access to them. A few years ago someone was working on entering the data into computer files, but has since passed away. I'm hoping that someone new will take on this volunteer task sometime in the near future, for the benefit of all those whose families lives passed under and around the steeple of St. Patrick's Catholic Church of Pottsville.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

One big happy family

William Cowhey (1834-1892) was the proud father of at least fifteen children - born to his first wife (whose name I have yet to confirm) and to his second wife Margaret (Foley) Cowhey (1855-1913). Can you just imagine the family gatherings? What a bunch of cousins.

Here's a photo of one of those gatherings, circa early 1940's. The family is gathered on the porch of the home of John & Frances (Owens) Cowhey at 75 Main Street in Mount Carbon, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Among those pictured are John & Frances, Charles & Agnes Cowhey, their daughter Molly, Kit McGinley and her family, Helen Cowhey Miller's two children Eileen & Joan, Bill Rogers, Blanche Cowhey and possibly Nan Cowhey, Grace Cowhey, Pat Cowhey, Mary Cowhey, Jim Cowhey, Fran Cowhey Chapman and Ann Marie Mokelar.

If you recognize anyone in the photo, please let me know and I'll post their names along with the picture. I'd like to be able to identify everybody and indicate who's who.

Three's a crowd

This tombstone at the grave of our beloved family members doesn't tell the story, so I'll share the family legend as I've heard it. Charles & Agnes Cowhey, husband and wife (and my great-grandparents) are buried side-by-side in Mount Carbon, Pennsylvania's Calvary Cemetery. It is a beautiful little cemetery at the top of the hill in Mount Carbon - a place that invites introspection, prayer and maybe even a little racing down the hill (depending on your mood at the end of your visit).

Charles died of heart trouble at the age of 69. Agnes died at the age of 89. Nothing unusual about the story so far. What is interesting is the man buried alongside them: Ambrose P. Cowhey, Charles' brother. A railroad caboose man known for eating cereal with coffee poured over it instead of milk, he never married. He is remembered fondly by a grandniece of his, who enjoyed nature walks with him as a little girl. Not so fond of him was poor Agnes, who, because of his bachelor status and brotherhood to Charles, had to accept him as part of her household for many years.

And now, laid to her eternal rest, who must she and her husband share a gravesite with? That Ambrose again. When she married Charles, did she know she was getting Brose along with him?

Source: Calvary Cemetery (Mount Carbon, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania), Charles W., Agnes C. & Ambrose P. Cowhey marker; photographed 2004, privately held by Lisa [address for private use].

One-hundred forty-six years ago today...

...my great-great-grandfather, William Cowhey, was playing his part in the Civil War as a Union soldier in Pottsville, Pennsylvania's 16th Regiment, Company I. He was part of the first company from Pennsylvania that volunteered for the long term. The group was mustered into service in April 1861 and only had a brief tour (if you could call it a tour) until they were mustered out in July of the same year. Alongside William was his younger brother Thomas. (The entire regiment is listed here.)

It is fascinating to think about what these men saw during their brief time as Union soldiers. William, father of a large family, was a fireman on the railroad. Thomas, who never married, was an iron worker. They left their homes and families to face the unknown and defend their country when they were needed. You can read about the travels of their regiment at this site.
"My God, what misery this dreadful war has produced, and how it comes home to
the doors of almost everyone!"

~ George Meade in a letter to his wife, April 13, 1865

Amazing how digging into your own family's story can bring such an appreciation for history in general. With another celebration of Memorial Day in our memories this week, it is a good time to stop and remember the men in our own family who volunteered to serve our country.


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