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Our Rich History: Ludlow’s Irish legacy marked by upward mobility of skilled craftsman, railroad jobs

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Locomotive, Cincinnati Southern Railroad Yards, Ludlow

Locomotive, Cincinnati Southern Railroad Yards, Ludlow

by David E. Schroeder
Special to NKyTribune

Irish immigration to the United States began in the colonial period. Many of these early immigrants were tradesman from Northern Ireland. In turn, many of the Northern Irish were originally Scots who immigrated to Ireland. Thus, these early Irish immigrants are typically called Scots-Irish. Most were Calvinists who adhered to the Presbyterian faith. A large number of the Scots-Irish were skilled craftsman and moved up the economic ladder quite quickly. Their knowledge of the English Language was also very beneficial.

Father Thomas Kehoe, Pastor St. James Catholic Church from 1894-1921 (photo provided_

Father Thomas Kehoe, Pastor St. James Catholic Church from 1894-1921 (photo provided_

The first Presbyterian services were held in Ludlow on September 1, 1867 in rented quarters on the first floor of the original Odd Fellows Hall on the 300 block of Oak Street. The minister’s name was Reverend J.M. Worrell of First Presbyterian Church in Covington. On September 8th of the same year, the first Sunday school was organized. The congregation was officially organized on November 2, 1867. Lorenzo Deaton and William D. Blinn were elected as the first Elders, and John H. Bogart and David Johns were named the first Deacons.

The original First Presbyterian Church was constructed on a lot on Elm Street donated by the Ludlow family. The Gothic Revival structure was dedicated on February 20, 1870. Sadly, on January 28, 1872, this building was destroyed by fire. The congregation had allowed their insurance policy to lapse only one week before. Over the following year, the congregation dwindled from 98 members to 27. Despite these discouraging developments, A.C. Nash, a Ludlow resident and well known architect, donated his services and supplied a new set of plans for a Gothic Revival church building. This new structure was built on a lot on the 400 block of Oak Street and dedicated on May 11, 1873. This building still stands and is now a private residence.

The 1870 Census of Ludlow counted 802 inhabitants (489 adults and 313 children). It was a very diverse community. Nearly 1 in 2 adult residents was born outside the United States. Of those adults born in the United States, 45% were born in Ohio and only 18% in Kentucky. The foreign- born population was primarily German and Irish. Of the foreign-born adults, 32% were born in German speaking lands, 28% in Ireland and 25% in England.

Odd Fellows Hall, Ludlow, was used by the First Presbyterian Church for services in the early years, and by St. James School from 1893-1911.

Odd Fellows Hall, Ludlow, was used by the First Presbyterian Church for services in the early years, and by St. James School from 1893-1911.

The greatest period of Irish immigration began in 1845. The English colonization of Ireland, which began in the 1600s, drove many Irish into extreme poverty. Many were driven from their land and were forced into sharecropping by the English. To make things more difficult, beginning in 1845, Ireland suffered from a series of potato blights that destroyed the crop. Between 1845 and 1851, Ireland’s population decreased by 3 million. At least one million died of starvation and disease, and another two million migrated to the United States. This period is called the “Great Hunger” or “Irish Potato Famine.”

The great majority of famine immigrants to the United States were Roman Catholic and arrived with little money or skills. Most had been farmers in Ireland. They took work wherever they could find it. The Irish arrived in this country at the right time. The nation was expanding and there was a great need for laborers. They found work digging canals, unloading ships and working for railroads.

The Southern Railroad arrived on the scene in Ludlow in the 1870s. Many famine Irish found jobs with the railroad. The Ludlow yards became a central hub for the Southern Railroad. Irish railroad workers and their families moved to the city in great numbers in the years before 1900. The Southern Railroad often moved laborers from one city to another as the need arose. In this way, many Irish families were relocated to Ludlow in groups. A thriving Irish district emerged in the city.

A number of the early Irish Catholic residents attended St. Boniface German Catholic Church and School. By the 1880s the Irish Catholic population of Ludlow had increased to a number large enough to support a parish of their own. They purchased the Armory Hall on Carneal Street in 1887 for use as the first St. James Church. The congregation grew quickly. In 1893, the parish established St. James School in the old Odd Fellows Hall on Oak Street. In 1903 ground was broken for a new Gothic Revival church. This new church was dedicated on October 9, 1904, and is still in use today.

First Presbyterian Church, Ludlow.

First Presbyterian Church, Ludlow.

The center of the Irish Catholic community was St. James Church. The highlight of the social season at the parish was the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Parishioners gathered together for a meal and an evening of entertainment. They sang songs, played music and heard speeches on Irish history, politics and culture. Typically, the evening ended with Father Tom Kehoe singing an old Irish melody.

The Irish of Ludlow moved up the economic ladder quickly. Patrick O’Sullivan, a native of Ireland, was elected mayor of Ludlow in 1892. O’Sullivan also held the positions of Ludlow police judge (1892-1897, 1903-1908), city collector, and city attorney (1897-1899). Other early Ludlow Irish success stories included: Robert D. Callahan, police chief of Ludlow from 1893 to 1936; Neal “King” Brady, professional baseball player; Thomas X. Dillon, attorney and Ludlow police judge; and Ann Lee Paterson, Miss United States of America in 1931.

David E. Schroeder is Director of the Kenton County Public Library, the author of Life Along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky (2014), and coeditor of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (2015).

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