I have outlined the history of John Keenan as he grew up in the household of Annie Keenan following the death of his father James Nicholas in the War Between the States. John was only seven years old when he lost his father, but he, along with the others, made it through to adulthood by working together as a family and looking out for one another.
His working career began early. He started in as an office boy in an insurance company when he was only thirteen, ending his academic education to do so. John seemed to attach himself to his brothers whenever possible, working with his younger brother Joseph after he started a broom making business. After a couple of years he joined his older brother James when James went to work for the railroad in 1880. Later he worked for Matthew in the florist business.
Sometime around 1883 John met and married Bridget Hanlon. They moved out of the family house at 816 Dean St. to a house a couple of blocks away at 455 Dean St. John was still working for the railroad at the time. When Matthew relocated to Myrtle Ave. in 1885, John moved his family to nearby Ryerson St. By then John and Bridget had two children – Mary Loretto born in 1884 and James Nicholas born in 1885.
Acccording to that James Nicholas Keenan (known to me as Uncle Jim) his father was a bit of an adventurer in his youth. In a letter written to Bobbie Johnston, his niece, in Feb. of 1988 Uncle Jim, who was by then 103 years old, reminisced about his father.
“Your Grandfather (my father) and Joe were the only ones who ventured beyond the city limits; Joe to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. John was the adventurous one. In his early teens he went to Troy with an older boy, via the night boat (25 cents). Some relations got him a job on a farm outside Elyria, Ohio. He got off the train after dark, walked five or six miles through the snow and on arrival at the farm was shown where to sleep, but never asked if he had eaten any supper. As might be expected he remembered that. At the first chance, he left to hire out with the best farmer and hardest worker in the area. That period built his physique and self-confidence. He quit farming soon to “take a position” with the RR probably as a brakeman. In those days before the modern coupling joining cars, they were joined by a link and pin – dangerous and many men had hand injuries.
He must have felt the call of home because he came back to Brooklyn and worked for the Brighton Beach RR as dispatcher. There was a race track then at B.B.and 2 big hotels, 1 at Brighton with extensive gardens between the hotel and the beach at Brighton and the adjoining Manhattan Beach. Very popular and swank resorts in the day before electric trolley cars with 5 cent fare. About that time the El railroads were being built and Pop accepted another position with Crawford and Valentine contractors from Richmond, Virginia, as foreman. Years afterward Pop and I looked 8’-10’ down a hole in Fulton St. where one of the column foundations had been removed. Pop said he had supervised that construction.
C&V got into asphalt street paving which was then replacing or covering the old cobblestone (glacial detritous) – or cut granite blocks. That made horse drawn vehicles with steel bands as tires on the wheels so musical. The asphalt was dug out of pits in one of the Caribbean Islands of after which that paving was first called. I have seen such pits in southern California – now as tourist attractions, not worked commercially. There was no petroleum refineries (only for kerosene and naptha) which makes todays asphalt. The asphalt is only the cement holding the sand and stone aggregates together.
C&V sent Pop to do paving jobs in Albany, Boston and other cities, but Mom didn’t like staying home alone, with Retta and me, so he “accepted a position” with his brother Matt in the florist business. It was no place for a man whose life up to then had been an outdoorsman.”
There have been passed down in the family two letters that were written by John F. Keenan to his wife in 1886, while at the St James Hotel in Pittsburgh Pa., while acting as an engineer for Crawford and Valentine. The first one is dated April 8th.
My Darling Wife
I arrived here all right at 1 o’clock today and with the exception of being very tired for I had no sleep all night I enjoyed the trip very much especially after daylight came this morning and I begun to see the beutiful scenery around me, oh it was grand to see the mountains as high up as you could look covered with snow and the trees loaded down with it, and I got to be chummy with the crew of the train and they showed me everything and took me to this hotel and introduced me and made it as pleasant as possible for me, so don’t you fret, your husband is in good hands . I then went to the Iron Works and saw the Supervisor and they will not be ready for two or three days, in the meantime I will probably go to Johnstown which is 85 miles from here and hurry them up. You aught to see Pittsburgh my dear, if you did you would never want to leave Brooklyn, it is all iron works and the smoke is so thick that every thing is covered with soot, and there seems to be a continual fog in the city, and you look up on the side of a hill a 1000 feet high and you see houses built out on the side of the hill as if they were strapped there and were liable to roll down at any moment.
I took the shirt & collar to a chinaman & he say 25 cents just the same as in Brooklyn and I guess they all belong to the Knights of Labor. Now my darling I am anxious to know how your breast is & if you went to the doctor yet & if you haven’t, do for my sake go at once. Let me know how the children are & if my little girl (as well as my big one) misses her papa, give my love to Jimmie & tell him I sent a bushel of kisses to be divided up among you and love put a kiss on the paper for me and I’ll be sure to get it, Now darling I will close by sending all the love & honor that I feel for the dearest creature on earth to me and pray that God will bless and protect you all until the return of your loving
The second letter is dated April 20th , 1886 , twelve days later.
My Darling Wife,
I would have written you Sunday but I was busy and thought I would wait until I had something definite about going home, which I have not got yet.
I was sure I could go by tonight but I can not get away now until I get answer to a letter I have written to Col. Paine, which I have sent at the time I sent this.
I hope you and the children are well as this leaves me, and you must be wanting money. I thought I would be back before this and bring some to you, but if you do, I wish you would ask Matt or Mother until I come, & let me know.
I am thoroughly homesick my dear girl and I think if I had to stay away from you another two weeks I’d die ente(?) for I am not doing enough to keep my mind occupied and I am thinking of you all the time.
I had a letter from Lizzie telling me that Katie had gone back which I was very glad to hear as I have always thought she aught to do. (Note: This refers to Catherine McCaul going back to her husband- Ed.)
I shall telegraph you when I leave here & until that good bye and God bless you and the babies and keep you safe till the return of your loving & heartsick
The style and sentiments expressed in these letters are so reminiscent of the letters that James Nicholas Keenan, John’s father, wrote to his Beloved Annie Keenan while separated from his family during the Civil War. Its almost as if something of his spirit was passed on to this son.
And who was this woman that so captivated the heart of John Francis Keenan? Her name was Bridget Josephine Hanlon and its time to relay what I know of her.