The S.S. Celtic arrived at New York Harbor on March 1, 1913. It had begun its journey 28 days earlier from Liverpool, England with 854 passengers on board, mainly Irish and English immigrants looking for new hope in a new land. They were escaping joblessness, poverty and possible religious persecution. The dreams and hopes for a better future were contained within the names of the ship’s manifest.
John Francis O’Connell had just completed customs in this new land, and was waiting for a train to a city called Pittsburgh. This was the third country he had been in during the last two decades. Was this going to improve his life? With no job and no permanent place to stay he wondered what the future had for him. He remembers back to the 20 plus years that brought him to this point. His older sister Susan’s brother-in-law John Daniel McGonigle with his son, and a man by the name of Pete Mullen persuaded him to leave the coal mines in England and come to this new land, America. John’s thoughts went back to his childhood where he grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland. He could remember his grandparents Hugh O’Connell and Mary Kalley on his father’s side, and his grandparents Henry O’Connell and Nancy Bradley on his mother’s side who had probably spent the prime of their lives living through the great potato famine. This incident occurred around the mid-1840s and destroyed the food source for the people in Ireland. His father Patrick O’Connell born about 1843 and his mother Nancy O’Connell in 1860 had tried to make their living as farmers. But like most of the people of Ireland at that time they could not make it.
The great potato famine had a devastating impact on the country. From a population of about 8 million, about a third immigrated out of the country mainly to England, Canada and the United States. Another third were overcome with starvation, sickness and death. The last third were trying to hang on and survive. John’s father Patrick was born and raised about the time the potato famine hit. John’s father at the age of 37 married another O’Connell, Nancy, who had no blood relationship with the Patrick O’Connell family. Two years after their marriage, their first child, Susan was born. John was number six of seven children being born in July 1890. He remembered attending Catholic school at St. Mary’s in Ballerin. One of the requirements was to bring a piece of peat to school to put in the stove to keep the room warm during the winter months. His proudest achievement while he was in school was to serve as an altar boy St. Mary’s church. Unfortunately, his mother and his younger brother Patrick passed away when he was 11 years old. His formal education was stopped when at the age of 13 he decided to go to England and work in the coal mines. After traveling across the North Channel Sea and on to a small mining village called Chopwell in the Northumberland District of England he was able to find employment at the Consett Iron Co.
It was a hard occupation and had many risks. Underground workers were generally divided into the coal getters, the haulage workers and those involved in dead-work, i.e. preparing a mine for the purpose of starting a new vein which at the time produced little or no profit. There were numerous jobs included under these broad headings. The grading of work was by age, strength and experience. Small boys were employed underground in opening and shutting doors for passage of coal tubs and pit ponies.
Young children starting at the mines were initially given menial tasks, like greasing tub axles on coal carts, removing a thin bed of coal or working the entire surface of the colliery above the mine, or below ground. There were the hewers who dug the coal at the face of the mine. The average work days were about 13 hours and the pay was the miserable sum of ten pence a day. Working underground at the age of 13 was quite a challenge. Then after 10 years at age 23 his older sister’s Susan brother-in-law came to Chopwell and persuaded him to leave the mines and go with him to America. They had taken the train to Liverpool and boarded the ship for their voyage.
So, here he was boarding the train to Pittsburgh. Spring had not yet come to this new land. As he was enjoying the view from the train window he noticed snow still on the ground as they went through the Pennsylvania Mountains. The train proceeded through the city of Pittsburgh and he saw large columns of smoke rising from the steel mills that paralleled the river. For the first time he felt that obtaining work in the city may not be hard to find. After leaving the train in the downtown Pittsburgh railroad station, they proceeded on a two mile walk to John Daniel’s home in a part of the city called Lawrenceville. On this walk he noticed trucks carrying food produce, steel rails and streetcars filled with passengers.
Upon arrival at John Daniel’s home John met his wife, Mary and the other four of his five children. Mary had prepared a nice dinner for them. It was then he realized that with him and Pete Mullen in the house things would be a little overcrowded. After dinner, a neighbor stopped by to meet John and Pete, and mentioned a tenant house around the corner on Charlotte Street had become vacant. John went out the next morning and found the owner, and placed a rent deposit on the house. He and Pete moved in that morning. This solved John’s problem for a place to stay. Pete was only staying temporarily because John’s older sister Susan, her husband Patrick and three children were arriving from Ireland at the end of the month. The job was next. He remembered talking to a fellow English coal miner name of John Stokes on the ship coming over, who said he was on his way to North Braddock, because he heard there was a large steel mill in that area that hired immigrants. He told John that they wanted to hire immigrants who could speak and read English. After asking around, he found out that the name of the steel mill was US Steel located in West Homestead. It was located on the other side of the city across the Monongahela River. The next morning he took a streetcar to downtown and transferred over to a streetcar that crossed the Smithfield Street Bridge, and proceeded on Carson Street to West Homestead. He went to the personnel office and applied for a job. He was hired and told he could start next day. It was quite a distance from Lawrenceville. He decided to stay in the house on Charlotte Street until his sister and her family arrived, then see about renting a room near work.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland. John’s older sister Susan age 30, her husband Patrick, and three children Bridget age 10 Patrick age 9 and Annie age 8 boarded the S.S. Cameronia at Derry, Ireland on 22 March 1913 and they set sail to the United States, arriving in New York on 1 April. After clearing customs they boarded the train for Pittsburgh with the intention of joining John. They were very surprised that John had already rented a home for them on Charlotte Street in Lawrenceville.
John continued to stay a little while longer with his sister’s family at the house on Charlotte Street. Finding a room for a single person in West Homestead was next to impossible because of all the immigrants coming in and working in the mills. As he continued the daily trip on the streetcars he got to know a lot of the personnel who operated them. They made him aware that the Pittsburgh Railroad Company was consolidating a lot of the small streetcar lines into one company. They told him that they would be looking for additional personnel to operate the streetcars. So he put in an application and waited to be called. Then in July of 1914 he was hired as a conductor who stood in the back of the car, and as the passengers entered he collected fares and handed out the transfers. He moved out of the house on Charlotte Street and took a place at 2808 Webster Avenue in the Hill District. Over a period of time the company found out that some of these conductors were not turning in all the fares that they were collecting. They decided to eliminate the conductor in the rear of the car, and transfer all the responsibilities of their collecting fares to the motorman who operated mechanical part of the streetcar located in the front of the car. When they made this change he was promoted to a motorman. Now he decided he could find a place to stay near the Craft Avenue Car Barn from where he operated. He then took up residence in a boarding house at 113 Desoto Street in Oakland. There was a relatively new Catholic Church located about a mile away St. Paul’s Cathedral.