A few days ago, Mom handed me a 3-page letter written by my Great Great Grandfather sometime in the late 1800's. I'm not certain where the original is, but my Great Grandfather transcribed it with a typewriter later. Hopefully I'll be able to suss out where G.G.Grandfather was exactly, because this is an important and hilarious window into Appalachia and Irish immigrants in the 1860's. I was a little confused about my ancestor writing about people voting for "General Jackson" (who was quite dead by 1860), but I realized that must have meant voting for a democrat in general. Below is my ancestor's letter, you'll just have to get used to him referring to himself as "the writer."
I found the tunnel! After combing through lists of tunnels in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, I finally found THE tunnel. The Mahanoy Tunnel was started in 1859 and finished in 1862, it's a whopping 3,500 feet long and is still in use!
In the fall of 1860, while still in his teens, the writer was engaged for a few months in the mountainous country that was mostly covered with a primeval forest of great pine, hemlock, chestnut, and many varieties of oak trees, with a dense undergrowth of laurel in the valleys and of scrub oak and blueberries on the mountain tops. The country described contained a few settlers in some of the valleys, who had cleared a few acres and were engaged in farming them. These occupants were mostly Pennsylvania Germans who spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, and Dutch-English that was more difficult to understand than the former, and who could write and read only in German.
The territory was organized as a Township, which in size approached the estate of Rhode Island, and has since been divided into some seven or eight townships. The original township constituted one election precinct, hence some of the voters had many miles to the polls, but they religiously went to election and every four years voted for General Jackson.
Beside these settlers, there was a village of railroad shanties occupied by workmen and their families engaged in driving a tunnel through a mountains, that being the only practicable way of getting a railroad into the territory. When completed, this tunnel was one of the longest in the United States. As it then had to be driven by hand drills and black powder, it was a gigantic undertaking and employed many ment to do it. These workmen were Irish to a man and all from the “Auld Sod.” They were a muscular, boisterous crowd--experts at tunnelling, whiskey drinking, fighting, and in the use of the black thorn “shillalah.” The contractor who employed them was also a son of the “Auld Sod” and fully the equal of any of this employees in the above expert qualities. The foreman was a huge Irishman called Mack, and as fine a specimen of manhood as the writer ever saw.
On one occasion the Railroad Company failed to “come to time” with the money claimed by the contractor, so that he was unable to pay the workmen their wages, whereat they erected a wall at each end of the tunnel, mounted a cannon in it, took in provisions, tore up the railroad track to the tunnel, and bid defiance to the Railroad Company until a settlement was, some weeks afterwards, made. The writer was called in to help audit the accounts, and thus became acquainted with Mack and some of the tunnelmen. No wonder the peace-loving Germans felt shy about going to discharge their duty to General Jackson where the large majority of voters present was sure to be these same “wild Irishmen” who were equally sure to be well loaded with “fighting whiskey” before the day was over.
The voting place was at a tavern, near the center of the Township, but miles from the nearest house, built to accommodate the many teamsters and teams using the only wagon road, beside which it was located. A tavern in that country meant also a bar well stocked with old-fashioned rye whiskey and gin. Beer was not much in evidence then. When election day came in Novermber 1860, Mack and his tunnelmen were early on hand, and as the regularly elected election officers had not yet arrived, Mack proceeded to organise an election board to consist by law of a Judge and two Inspectors. Here he ran against an obstacle, for the law required that the Inspectors should not both belong to one political party, and Mack could find only Democrats “on deck.” But Mack was equal to the emergency. He had surmounted many more difficult problems than that. What was the law among friends, anyhow? He called for a volunteer who would be a Republican for that day only, and finally got a young Irishman to step forward, more--it was said--by the persuasion that lurked in Mack’s eye, than by the necessities of the situation. The election board being thus, according to Mack’s ideas, duly and legally organized, the election proceeded strictly in accord to Mack’s understanding of the election laws. He was careful to see that the volunteer Republican voted for Lincoln.
Along toward evening the writer, while passing the tavern, was hailed and told that Mack wanted to see him. On going into the election room, he found the election board struggling with the return sheets and decidedly divided in their opinions as to how they should be made out. The majority held that there must be a sheet for each political party and one for each candidate, but as there were not return sheets enough to go round on that basis, they had seized on the writer to make out other returns, they being rather unhandy with a pen and, as Mack claimed, too “full” to have a “stheady hand or clare head.” So he decided that the writer must “sthay” and make up the returns, and in order that the returns should be strictly legal he must also vote, for how could they be legal unless made out by a voter whose name was on the “lisht.” The writer plead lack of age required by the statutes, but Mack decided that he knew “betther how to vote than anny man who had voted there that day,” and that “begorry” he had to vote and then make up the returns or drink that bottle of whiskey--pointing to one that had just been brought in. Mack knew the writer dreaded whiskey “as the devil does holy water,” but he was Judge of election and his decision must be complied with or there would be “consequences.” Accordingly the writer compiled and cast his first vote-- an open ballot for “Honest Old Abe Lincoln”--amid the applause of not only the election board but many bystanders. It was not “hip, hip” but “hic, hic,” hurrah.
After that day the writer attended, on the invitation of Mack, a dance at the boarding house of the Tunnel Village, and med many of his election day acquaintances. At this party the refreshment was liberal in quantity, but limited in kind to whiskey alone. It was passed around in a tin bucket with a long-handled dipper to drink it from. When brought to the writer he saw, floating in the whiskey, several peeled potatoes of different sizes. Seeing the writer’s embarrassment, Mack came up and said, “if you don’t want a dipper full of whiskey, dip in a potato of the size you want, to help fill it. The big man was made for you and it will only leave a swallow of whiskey in the dipper.” The writer has attended other dances, but none that arouses pleasanter memories than the one among his election day friends. In after years he occasionally met one of them, who always shook his hand with a “God bless ye, me boy.” In the course of nature, most of them must ere this have gone to their long home. “Peace to their ashes.”