An Odd Coincidence

Published in Feature Article, Personal History

William Diggin.jpegNobody knows for sure if William Diggin began his 1913 emigration with a ride aboard the Lartigue monorail from Ballybunion to the mainline train at Listowel.

The monorail began operating between the two north Kerry towns in 1888 and attracted more than 72,000 riders in 1913. But no passenger lists survive for the railway like the steamship manifest that recorded Willie’s voyage from Queenstown (Cobh) to America.

Willie was born January 12, 1894, in Lahardane townland on the western slope of Knocanore Hill, which offered a sweeping view of the Lartigue’s 9-mile route. He came from a family of small farmers that had lived on the hill since at least 1851, when his namesake grandfather was listed in the Griffith’s Valuation. Willie and his family were recorded in Ireland’s 1901 and 1911 census.

He emigrated in May 1913 aboard the S.S. Baltic, bound for Pittsburgh with his Lahardane neighbor, John Stack. Willie stepped aboard with $50, according to the manifest, and answered “no” when asked whether he was an anarchist or a polygamist. The nineteen-year-old stood 5-feet, 7-inches tall, with blue eyes and black hair.

Willie’s sister, John’s brother and numerous uncles, cousins and others from north Kerry had settled in Pittsburgh since the Great Famine. U.S. census records show many of these men worked for the city’s streetcar company or railroads, the women as household domestics.

Willie joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians shortly after his 20th birthday. He also joined the Holy Name Society at St. Stephen’s Church, close to the house where he boarded with a cousin family in the city’s Hazelwood section.

Willie became a streetcar motorman in 1915, according to the Pittsburgh Railways Company newsletter, Public Service. He registered for the Great War in 1917 but was not drafted. In 1919 he applied for U.S. citizenship with support from his cousin and the local AOH division president.

Willie became a U.S. citizen on June 15, 1922, a day before the general election in Ireland that ratified the pro-treaty Irish Free State government. He married Nora Ware, a north Kerry girl from Kilenton townland, Ballylongford, on March 4, 1924. He was 30. She was 33.

Back in Ireland, the money-losing, civil war-damage Lartigue railway made its last run out of Ballybunion on October 14, 1924. Newspapers soon advertised dismantled scrap metal from the elevated monorail trestles for use as “sheds, gate posts and fencing.”

In March 1925, Willie and Nora made a $6,000 down payment toward the $13,000 price of a house. Between 1925 and 1932 they had six children – all girls.

The couple supplemented Willie’s streetcar income by renting upstairs apartments. On December 15, 1936, they paid off their mortgage in a lump sum payment of $5,392.95, records show.

Willie was leading a comfortable and successful life in America by almost any measure of those Depression years. He was surrounded by extended family, hard-working neighbors and a strong church and civic community.

On December 17, 1941, days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Willie made an early morning streetcar trip into downtown Pittsburgh. He died of a sudden heart attack in front of St. Mary of Mercy Church. A priest summoned from inside administered the last rights aboard the streetcar Willie had been operating only minutes earlier.

The wake was held at his house. Willie was buried five days before Christmas, a month before his 48th birthday. Three daily newspapers had published short items about his death, but the real tribute came in the January 1942 issue of the streetcar company newsletter.

“No one ever thought he would be taken so suddenly, but he lived an exemplary life, and it seems that God only takes the best,” Public Service said. “The crowds of friends who went to the home to pay their last respects, and the number of floral offerings, testified to the esteem in which he was held by all who knew him.”

The next item in the newsletter was about “one of the unique railroads of the world,” the Lartigue monorail of Kerry, Ireland. “Many of our men come from this section,” newsletter writer William Sharpe reported. Yet he seemed unaware the line had closed 17 years earlier and proclaimed the monorail “the only one left in the world.”

Sharpe offered to provide readers with copies of the accompanying photo of Kerry’s unique monorail. It is an image that dates from about 1900, when Willie was a boy in nearby Lahardane, a dozen years before his emigration.

Mark Holan 


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