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The Boilermaker

Bridget Flynn and Michael Burke were born somewhere in the west of Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-1849. They may have married in Ireland and emigrated to Earlington, Kentucky, or they may have emigrated with their families, met and married later. Or they may never have married at all. I’ve found birth records for two children, Wiliam A. Burke, my grandfather born in 1882 and Mary Agnes Burke, my great-aunt who was a nun at St. Ceceilia’s Academy in Nashville for her entire adult life. 

The next generation of the Burkes, Flynns and other Irish immigrants moved up and out of the mines to work for the railroad.

My grandfather listed “boilermaker, RR” on all official documents, even when he registered for the WWII draft at age 59. He married Katherine Kilroy in 1916, moved to Terre Haute, Indiana where she died in a car accident leaving him with three children under the age of four. 

The motherless Burke children, including my father, moved into the Kilroy family home with their maternal grandparents, seven aunts, and two uncles. In the early twentieth century, Terre Haute, a railroad town on the Wabash River, sat in the largest coal-producing county in the US. The crossroads entertainment included beer halls full of hustlers, alcoholics, floozies, grifters, drifters, desperadoes, and high-stakes gamblers. 

Will Burke 1950s

My grandfather worked up and down the Louisiana and Nashville line and often arrived at dawn to visit his children in Terre Haute, for a few hours before hopping back on the afternoon train. It’s been said he was a railroad union organizer and had to be constantly on the move for fear of reprisals from the L & N Railroad’s anti-union thugs. These were the years leading up to the passage of the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which required railroad companies to allow collective bargaining, making it illegal to wage war against their union-organizing employees.

Terre Haute’s most famous citizen, Eugene V. Debs, five-time American presidential candidate, and leader of the Socialist Party of America, had worked on the railroad in the 1870s and became active in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman. Debs led the Brotherhood in a major strike in1888 before founding the American Railway Union. 

I have a hunch the family lore about my grandfather’s underground union organizing was greatly influenced by hometown hero Eugene Debs. I met my grandfather once or twice but hardly remember him. The death certificate says he died of a heart attack, “In Penn. RR car somewhere between Indianapolis and Richmond Indiana.”

My father’s generation anglicized their Irishness to fit into white middle class America. He was ashamed of his working-class immigrant heritage. But he took care of those family coal miners and railroad workers—as a young lawyer he worked for John L. Lewis, president of the United Mineworkers and wrote the first pension plan ever negotiated for American labor.