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Posted April 19, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Patrick Farris: Railroads brought influx of Irish to area

By Patrick Farris

The coming of the railroad to Warren County resulted in a large influx of Irish to the area, so much so that an entire section of Front Royal became known as "New Dublin" for its Irish population.

What are the details of this sudden influx of immigrants to Front Royal, and how did this movement affect the culture and history of the town and Warren County? To address these questions, we have to begin with the phenomenon of the railroad itself.

The late 1820s saw an explosion of railroad construction all over the country, and especially in and near large eastern cities. In the mid-1830s the Manassas Gap Railroad was begun, designed to connect the Shenandoah Valley to the port of Alexandria through Manassas Gap. This rail line stretched from Alexandria to Linden at Manassas Gap and continued west to Strasburg, at which point it turned south and ended at Mt. Jackson in Shenandoah County.

In addition to the Manassas Gap Railroad, a railroad had also been under construction in the earlier years of that decade linking Winchester with Harpers Ferry, and again in the early 1850s a spur was constructed from the Manassas Gap Railroad into downtown Front Royal. All of this construction activity required temporary labor on a large scale, a requisite which perfectly fit the needs of recent Irish immigrants to the United States.

Immigration to the United States from Ireland had begun to increase during the early 1800s, and now with the explosion in railroad construction all over the nation - not just in the Shenandoah Valley - there was steady employment to be had for this most recent wave of immigrants. One negative aspect of working on railroad construction projects was that the jobs were finite; once construction was completed, the labor force had to move on to other similar construction two to 10 years, allowing enough time for men and their families to become rooted in an area. A pattern emerged whereby some of these Irish laborers and their families would elect to relocate to new jobs at the completion of a project, while others decided to remain and raise their families where their last railroad construction job had ended.

In Winchester, the southeastern side of town had a neighborhood known as "Potato Hill." It was located on the southeast end of the town along South Cameron Street and South Kent Street.

In Front Royal, the Irish congregated - some legally residing, others squatting - along Happy Creek between North Commerce Avenue, East Stonewall Drive and East 2nd Street. This neighborhood became known as "New Dublin."

It would appear that the initial reason for the settlement was to provide a place for the families of laborers to live during railroad construction, and when the project was completed a number of families remained in town. Although there were stereotypes propagated in the community about the Irish men drinking and fighting and thus needing industry to employ then and help keep the peace, the more likely scenario was that enterprising residents of Front Royal took advantage of this new labor pool by erecting shops and factories along Happy Creek.

An anonymous contributor to The Warren Sentinel in the 1880s made reference to this development, noting that in the early 1800s roads "were opened through the mountain gaps to the market towns of Dumfries and Falmouth. The abundance of paper money gave an impulse to general improvement. Along Happy Creek were erected a woolen cloth factory, four flour mills, and a large distillery which gave employment to a number of people, and with the houses of the operatives formed a sort of suburb to Front Royal known as New Dublin."

By the time of the Civil War only two decades later, New Dublin was an integrated part of Front Royal, and has remained so ever since. In addition to the influx of people adding to the community's population, the Irish of New Dublin had other long-lasting effects on Front Royal. One result of their presence and employment in factories was the rebirth of Front Royal after the Civil War as an industrial hub. Also, with so many Roman Catholics having moved to the community during the pre-war period, the Diocese of Richmond determined after the Civil War that Front Royal was a Catholic community most in need of a church, and so sent the necessary funds for the construction of the Catholic church which still stands today at the intersection of Luray Avenue and Main Street.

Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.

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