The Politics Column on this Sunday departs from its usual chronicle of Democrats and Republicans to instead offer the story of John R. McCarthy – my grandfather – who died 100 years ago on Aug. 27 following a railroad accident in Troy.
Though John probably paid little attention to politics, his story embodies the struggle of so many immigrants who established their families here. It is very much an American story.
Little is remembered about John McCarthy. We know he came from Cork, Ireland, as a teenager sometime in the 1890s, arriving in Boston and venturing west to Troy. We know his four brothers and two sisters followed him, as did his parents – Jeremiah and Margaret Reilly McCarthy.
And we know he was still a teenager when – like so many Irish immigrants – he found work on the Boston & Maine Railroad. He was soon joined on the road by his brothers – Dan, Jerry, Jim and Denny.
Along the way, John met Nellie Nolan, who had arrived in Troy from Waterford, Ireland, also in the ’90s. And in 1911 when he was 31, John and Nellie were married at St. Augustine’s Church, which still anchors the city’s Lansingburgh neighborhood.
All of this was supposed to morph into one of those American success stories. Young Irishman arrives in America; works his way up to railroad hot shot; his growing family moves into a big house and the American dream is fulfilled.
But on Aug. 27, 1920, everything changed. Family lore tells us John was not supposed to work that day but substituted for another guy. That’s when a neighborhood kid placed a brick on the tracks to see it explode under the next locomotive. Wouldn’t that be fun?
But a light, gas-powered work car next appeared, ferrying home nine track workers, including John and his brother, Dan. It hit the brick and derailed, pinning them under the vehicle.
John’s skull was fractured. He died the next morning. He was 40. Dan’s legs were broken.
With three kids under the age of 7 – John, Ed and Eleanor – Nellie Nolan must have sunk into utter despair. And then there was my dad – Bob – who was on the way and would not be born until November.
Here’s where the knowledge of John McCarthy ends. Growing up, the kids would ask Nellie about their father. She would only cry. They stopped asking.
But as the century anniversary of John’s death approached, our cousin Charlie Town began digging into the archives of the Troy Times. Its account of the accident provides the one nugget of information we know about John, related by a nurse who rushed to the scene. Marion Farina told the Times she found John “semi-conscious and mumbling prayers.”
The bet here is that John knew he was in trouble – big trouble – and that he was reciting an Act of Contrition, the prayer Catholics believe absolves them of sin if confession is unavailable.
Despite all that’s been lost to time, John’s family never forgot him, even if for many years their questions brought tears. They often wondered how things would be different had the car not struck the brick.
Would it have been a happier life for Nellie, who lived until 1964? Would the family have avoided the struggle of the ensuing Depression? When meat for dinner was reserved for special occasions?
All of this weighed on approximately two dozen grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren who gathered last Sunday at St. Augustine’s for a Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of John’s death. Father David J. Kelley incorporated John’s story into his sermon, and recounted how the parish patron – St. Augustine – once noted that people have no control over their death, but do over how they live their lives.
John must have lived a good life. He married a good woman who guided his children to their own successes. In World War II, Bob was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart; Ed received the Purple Heart and was a prisoner of war.
This much we know: John worked hard so his family could become proud Americans. One hundred years later, his family remains grateful.
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