James Feeley and his wife Sarah Feeley (neé Liberty) are the perfect Irish immigrant story. Both born in County Tipperary, they met after immigrating to the US in the years of the Great Hunger and built a successful life for themselves on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.
From the time James set sail on May 8, 1848 to make a new life for himself in the US, he climbed the railroad ladder from lowly laborer to boilermaker, one of the highest roles of engine mechanics in the B&O railroad at the time, by the time he retired.
Sarah also contributed to the family's success, doing laundry for the workers in the railyard, which was just a block down from their house at 18 Lemmon St, Baltimore. Their two sons followed James into the railways.
The pair were married in the nearby St. Peter the Apostle Church and frequented a nearby Irish pub. The church building and the pub are both still standing.
In fact, almost every aspect of James and Sarah’s life can still be witnessed and explored with thanks to the Baltimore Irish Railroad Workers Museum and their remarkable restoration on the Feeley family home.
“Baltimore was the third largest port city for Irish immigrants at that time [when the railroad was becoming established in Baltimore in the 1840s] so there are a lot of Irish Americans here who have Irish ancestors,” said Michael Mellett, President of the Board of the Directors of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in the City of Baltimore.
“We're definitely a museum with all very verified researched history, but we're also a shrine,” he added, noting the memorial wall tribute to the Famine Irish in the backyard of the “Lemmon Street Five.” The "Five" are the row of houses in the Hollins Market area of Baltimore they’ve restored as part of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum.
“Where the homes are is essentially just a block north of the birthplace of American railroad, which is the B&O railroad which started in 1828, to complete with canals starting to be built throughout US,” said Mellett.
The houses are located along one of the little alley-like streets connecting the larger streets in the city's grid system. They were built in the 1840s in the style of the more ornate townhouses to accommodate the laboring classes of mostly Irish and German immigrants.
“These houses were built in 1848,” Mellett continued, “and as the railroad pushed west in the late 1800s, into the 1900s, other railyards became more important.
“As the railwork pushed out over time this railyard [in Hollins Market] went into decline.”
By the time the houses were rediscovered, when the neighborhood underwent a rejuvenation in the 1990s, they had stood empty for over 35 years. With an enormous pile of luck, however, all the original features were preserved.
Once local man Bill Adler, well-known for preserving and renovating homes in the area, had a look at the small row of houses, they knew they had something special on their hands.
“This house still had original features inside, original floors and such,” Mellett explained.
“It's just unheard of because, over time, these houses get knocked down. Working class homes never make it but just by sheer luck this row was still here.”
With groups already joining forces by 1997 to save the houses from demolition at the hands of Baltimore Housing Authority, research then revealed the story of the Feeley family, who moved into the house at 18 Lemmon St (now 918 Lemmon St) in the 1860s and invitations were sent out to local Irish groups to join fight.
Even with the help of a local retired judge and ex-City Councilman, Tom Ward, the fight to save the area still took four years, with an ever present threat that the houses would be knocked down.
Once this battle was won, the real work began. Although the newly established Railroad Historical District Corporation initially only had plans to make the houses secure, the project manifested into the current railroad workers museum, officially opened on June 17, 2002 by then Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Governor William Donald Schaefer.
“The houses almost tell the story, the historical story,” said Mellett, who arrived on the scene in 2008, moving from one of the voluntary docent roles to his current role as Board President.
“Here’s where the working class lived by the railroad; here's where the mid-level management lived, and here's the guys who ran the show,” he continued, noting that even the Irish pub still in the district has been run by the same family since the 1840s.
Even the local church was built by the Irish, who donated their time and labor at the weekends so they would have a place of worship.
Not only does the museum act as a shrine to the Irish in the area through its Second Saturday events, and local Irish heritage walk, but it serves as a trip down memory lane for those whose families were involved in the great start to the American railways.
“Interestingly, you get people in their 70s and obviously, they’re still a long way from mid-1800s, but inevitably many people who come and visit us have a railroad connection because there were thousands and thousands of jobs over the years,” said Mellett.
“A lot of the folks who come through here are nostalgic about the railroads: 'Oh yeah, my grandfather worked with the railroads, and he was with the Pennsylvania railroad; he was with the NY Central and look at that old railroad!’ We have displays that bring back a lot of memories for older people from when they were children.”
Although the museum currently only opens on weekends, it is completely free and is staffed and maintained almost completely by those volunteering on its board.
There are plans to expand, however, as word spreads of their exhibition house and museum, with an aim of starting large-scale fundraising to get it up and running.
This Saturday, in fact, the museum will hold a large event combined with their normal Second Saturday events, as a group of the Ancient Order of Hibernians gather to fundraise and honor the work of Sean Pender, Dan Dennehy and Ralph Day.
“Out of all the houses that we could have found that could have continued through all circumstances to stay upright, this was the house that was here,” Mellett states, still not believing their luck.
“We're proud because we're not just a museum celebrating the resilience of the Irish people coming into Baltimore, but of all railroad workers as well.”
You can find out more about the Irish Railroad Workers museum here.