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Train to St Louis and Irish Immigrant Connection

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 A train trip to St. Louis and a search for how Irish immigrants made the journey possible

By Mike Danahey


A trip by rail or a drive south down Interstate 55 from Chicago to St. Louis isn’t exactly a majestic ride through the Rockies.

This time of year, though, it is pretty green and filled with soybeans and corn, the occasional wind power generator and periodic livestock smells. If the journey is by train, as was the case for me in June, it even gives a glimpse into small town backyards and redeveloping downtowns that are sprouting up along the way with the requisite cafes, craft breweries, wall murals and even minor league baseball stadiums, as in Joliet.

Maybe the green will remind you of a shade you’ve seen in Ireland. And, if your Irish mind wanders, like mine often does, maybe you’ll wonder what role Irish immigrants may have played in the development of the region as a transportation hub.

Somebody had to build all that stuff that gets us to and from Point A to Point B, right?

So I started to dig, and found somber evidence online of Irish workers who actually died in the process of building rail lines in Illinois. In Funks Grove, which is southwest of Bloomington, in April 2000, locals dedicated a Celtic Cross monument at what is the mass gravesite for 50 Irish immigrants buried in the early 1850s.

The monument states, “These immigrants from Ireland were driven from the land of their birth by famine and disease. They arrived sick and penniless and took hard and dangerous jobs building the Chicago & Alton Railroad. Known but to God, they rest here in individual anonymity - far from the old homes of their heirs - yet forever short of the new homes of their hopes. Their sacrifices opened interior Illinois and made it possible to develop the riches of the land we share today."

 And here I was, living like a king, riding along in three refurbished cars from the 1940s and 1950s that Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM) hitched to the back of an Amtrak train for a maiden voyage between Chicago and St. Louis.

For LHM, which owns and operates more than 20 hotel properties in St. Louis, offered the ride to tout a service they eventually hope to have available for those who can afford it - namely booking the retro, updated cars it owns as travelling feasts between the two cities.

LHM staff said the train cars already are used for a Polar Express-themed Christmas ride it puts on for the holidays. The company also makes them available for corporate outings and varieties of private parties.

What could be a market would be the sports fans and their businesses in both cities, Cameron Schoeffel, LHM Train Events and Sales Manager. Rivalries between the Cubs and Cardinals in baseball and the Blackhawks and Blues in hockey already bring a good number of fans back and forth on road trips.
The cars also reminded of another Chicago tie, as sleepers used for any line became known as Pullman cars. Railroad car-maker George Pullman, of course, is a name that should be known to any real Chicagoan, if just for the South Side neighborhood that remains long past Pullman’s pull as a business, but which once was home to Pullman’s workers and his factory.

My Irish family once lived in the housing there. I remember rambunctious Christmas gatherings in the overpacked living room and, in summer, running under the lawn sprinkler in my undies, much to the dismay of my grandmother and to the laughter of my grandfather.

But let us get back on track.

 With or without the LHM cars attached, it’s been a long, long time since any rail route from Chicago’s Union Station ended at the Union Station in St. Louis.
For Union Station in St. Louis now is one of LHM’s hotels, with rooms given rail-related names and themes. Its Grand Hall is done up as an opulent bar and spot available for receptions, replete with musically scored visuals periodically screened on the domed ceiling. An aquarium is being built in part of it  that once held a galleria of shops.

Still, as with many places in America, there’s a good Irish story to go along with the St. Louis Union Station. Darlene Menietti, a revenue specialist for LHM and de facto resident historian for St. Louis’ Union Station, had one to share.

“There was a very important Irishman that helped out many travelers – especially here at Union Station. Bryan Mullanphy (an Irish immigrant himself, who became a wealthy merchant) was a former mayor of St. Louis who bequeathed a half-million dollars for the Traveler’s Aid Society here at Union Station,” Menietti said.

The society was located on the lower level of the big station, Menietti said, on the Midway, near 18th Street. 

“Any immigrants coming through the station who couldn’t speak English or had notes pinned to their overcoats would be directed to the Traveler’s Aid Society,” Menietti said, “Staff would help them with food and shelter if needed before directing them to their next connection – either by train or bus.”
Me, I was on a guided tour that included spots the city is known for such at the being-renovated Gateway Arch, Busch Stadium and its restaurant mall, Ballpark Village, the National Blues Museum, the kids’ playhouse that is the City Museum and the Wicker Park-like Delmar Loop neighborhood.

That’s not to mention the gorgeousness that is Forest Park, with its free-to-visit-for-everyone-from-everywhere art and history museums and zoo. Free! When’s the last time you heard that in Chicago?

From past visits, I can tell you that  if you’re looking for an Irish pub, there are a good many from which to pick, including these two:
John D. McGurk’s, 120 Russell, in the Soulard neighborhood, the French Quarter of St. Louis, has a beer garden that can hold 250 people  In 2010, Esquire Magazine named McGurk’s one of the best bars in America, and it’s featured in the book Irish Pubs in America: History, Lore and Recipes.

Seamus McDaniel’s is at 1208 Tamm Ave.  in Dogtown, which might be the Beverly of St. Louis with both having blue collar roots and Irish parades. McDaniel’s is ground zero for a St. Patrick’s march which is always held on March 17 and overseen by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
As for further Midwest rail lore between here and St. Louis, I’m still hoping to learn more. I have messages out to historians and historical societies of all sorts, and Brian Donovan and others from the Irish American Heritage Center are seeing if they can track anyone or anything down for me, too.
It seems a fitting thing to be researching with Labor Day not far away.


(last pic) The opulent Grand Hall at the Union Station Hotel in St. Louis. Photo courtesy LHM

 

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