The Fays in Early Brooklyn

     When Michael Fay left his home in Rathcogue in 1854 and arrived on the docks of New York City, he was not entirely on his own in this New World. His uncle, Lawrence Lyons,  the youngest brother of his mother Elizabeth, was already living in Brooklyn, and was there to greet him and extend him a helping hand.

       Lawrence Lyons was born in 1827 and had probably emigrated to Brooklyn during the famine years, around 1849, when he was in his early twenties. Records from that time are sporadic however. After five years of residence an immigrant was allowed to apply for citizenship, and indeed in 1854 Lawrence  was naturalized. His sponsor was John Petty.  John , born in 1815,  was an established  blacksmith in downtown  Brooklyn  (Carll St. near Myrtle) by 1850. It is likely that Lawrence apprenticed with John before striking out on his own. In the 1855 New York State Census  Lawrence Lyons, blacksmith, was found boarding in the 11th Ward in Brooklyn,  on Hampden St. near Atlantic Ave., just a short walk from John Petty’s residence.

    There is also a marriage record from St. Paul’s Church in Brooklyn in February of 1853 citing Lawrence Lyons and Cecelia Curry as witnesses to the wedding of Michael and Mary Kennedy. Lawrence and Celia were later to marry, but since there is no record at St. Paul’s we must assume it took place at St. James’, or possibly at St. Charles Borromeo, between 1855 and 1860.

     In the 1857-58  Brooklyn  Directory  Lawrence, by then probably married, was listed as a blacksmith located at 6 Fulton Place, just off of Fulton St. near Bond. Over the next decade Lawrence continued to move, eventually settling on Van Brunt St. in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in 1865. There, however,  his occupation was listed as a wheelwright. It would seem to be a natural progression to go from blacksmith to wheelwright since during that time wagon wheels were increasingly being  made with iron reinforced hubs and forged metal rims that had to be heated and hammered into place. Apparently  the trades somewhat overlapped, as exemplified in this 1853 Brooklyn Eagle advertisement from William Lottimer & Co. Hardware store:

    There can be no doubt that Lawrence Lyons assisted his nephew Michael Fay when he first arrived in Brooklyn in 1854.  But Michael’s whereabouts didn’t show up in the records until the 1860 Census. There he was listed as a Laborer, living on the corner of Atlantic Ave and Portland St.,  just one block over from where Lawrence had been living in 1855. Then in 1863, when Michael registered for the Civil War draft, his address was given as Van Brunt  near King St. in Redhook, again just a few blocks from Van Brunt and Ewens St. where Lawrence Lyons ended up in 1865. This surely speaks of a strong family connection.

     Located in the southwestern corner of Brooklyn, the neighborhood of Red Hook had a long and tumultuous history. It was originally called Red Hook because of the rust colored soil and the unique shape of the land which protruded from the southwest coast of Brooklyn.

     Development of the shoreline began to take place in Red Hook in the 1830’s because of its proximity to the busy docks of Manhattan, which were exploding with the traffic of goods fostered by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.  In 1840, Colonel Daniel Richards obtained approval form the New York State Legislature to build a large shipping terminal off  the Buttermilk Channel opposite Governor’s Island. Known as the Atlantic Basin, it was completed in 1847. This 40 acre basin provided a safe harbor for commercial shipping and could accommodate up to 130 squared rigged ships at one time.

The Atlantic Basin


      James Stranahan and the Atlantic Dock Company hired local Irish laborers to build the basin at a wage of 65 cents for a 13 hour day. When the Irish laborers went on strike for better wages in 1846, the company sent to Germany for two boatloads of German laborers who were happy to have the free passage to America and were delighted to be employed at 50 cents a day. Riots quickly followed and the Irish laborers caused such a “disturbance” that the military had to be called in. The army set up a line of cannons to protect the German laborers as they went to work. A certain level of animosity continued between these two groups well into the 1880 and 1890’s.

       In 1843, Irish immigrant William Beard had purchased a large amount of waterfront in Red Hook,  just south of the Atlantic Basin, and began leveling it and filling in the low lying swampy spots. In 1848 Colonel  Richards petitioned the City of Brooklyn to open up 35 streets in Red Hook in the area around the Atlantic Basin. By the end of the 1850’s, William Beard and his partner Jeremiah P. Robinson had acquired thirty additional acres of land and they soon began constructing another port facility, the Erie Basin, at the southwest tip of Red Hook. When it opened in 1864 the Erie Basin became the center for ship repair in New York as well as a providing  large facilities for the storage of grain, cotton and other goods.

   After the Civil War, thousands of immigrant workers poured into this neighborhood looking for work in the businesses surrounding the industrial port.

     We know from the Fay Family Bible that Michael Fay married Rose Kilene (Killeen) on May 4th of 1862.  Rose’s death certificate gave her father’s name as John and stated that her mother’s maiden name was Casey. However I have not been able to find any trace of her baptism in existing Irish parish records.

      Rose was born around 1839, three years after Michael, and apparently emigrated in 1855, a year after he did. In the 1855 Census she was found working as a servant in the household of  Samuel O. Doane, a partner in Doane and Tyson Builders, residing on  Myrtle Avenue  near  Nostrand  in the 9th Ward. She was sixteen years old at the time.  Five years later she was living with the Thomas Berry family on Mill St. near Hamilton Ave., on the north-central  edge of Redhook.  She could neither read nor write, and her occupation was listed as a tailoress.  In 1860, however,  Michael Fay was living fairly far away, up near Atlantic Ave., so it begs the question of how the two would have met each other. There is, however, one likely explanation.

      Margaret Fay, born in 1839, Michael’s next younger sister,  had apparently crossed the Atlantic not too long after he had. In December of 1857  she and her uncle Lawrence Lyons were sponsors at the baptism of Mary Lyons (parents – Michael Lyons and Mary Brennan) at St. Paul’s Church.  It seems likely then that  Margaret was staying with Lawrence at the time.

      Margaret next showed up in the 1860 Census living with the family of Patrick Cassidy. Her occupation was listed as a servant, though whether with that family or some other one  is unclear. She might have been employed by the owner of the building, Henry Bowin, a very wealthy dry goods merchant.  It appears that they were located around Van Brunt St., just north of  Hamilton Ave., on the northern edge of Redhook. This would have been only a short distance from where Rose Killeen was living, and the two probably attended the same church – the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which had been established in 1855. Could they have become friends and might Rosey then have met Michael through his sister?  That could certainly explain why Michael ended up living in Redhook.  (See Map below)

      Michael and Rose married on May 4th of 1862, and they had their first child, William Joseph Fay, on March 10, 1863. In keeping with the traditional Irish naming pattern, the firstborn male was named after Michael’s father. When the 1865 Census rolled around, Rose was already five month’s pregnant with their second son. Baptized on October 10 of that year, he was predictably named John, after Rose’s father.

     Michael’s occupation in the 1865 Census was given simply as “oil”. He was probably working in one of the early “oil works”  facilities producing  kerosene and other by- products  for the burgeoning oil industry.

     Kerosene was first produced by a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner. He   developed a process to refine a liquid fuel derived from coal, bitumen and oil shale. His new discovery, which he named kerosene, was used chiefly as a lamp fuel, and it burned far more cleanly and was less expensive than competing products, such as whale oil or animal fat.

     In 1850, Gesner created the Kerosene Gaslight Company and began installing lighting in the streets of  Halifax and other Canadian cities. By 1854, he had expanded to the United States where he created the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Demand soon outstripped his company’s capacity to produce the product.  However with the discovery of crude petroleum, from which kerosene could more easily be distilled, the supply problem was quickly resolved.

    After Edwin L. Drake struck oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, liquid crude oil became available in sufficient quantities to promote the development of larger-scale processing systems. The earliest refineries employed simple distillation units, or “stills,” to separate out the various constituents of petroleum. It wasn’t long before Pittsburgh had a handful of these in operation,  and by the end of the 1860’s, there were nearly sixty refineries operating in Pittsburgh alone.

    Robert A. Chesebrough  (who later developed Vaseline) was the owner of one of the larger “oil works” located in Red Hook.  The Brooklyn Eagle reported that in September of 1861 a large fire occurred at his Kerosene Oil Works –

     “ occupying the entire block of ground between Dikeman and Ferris on Red Hook Point. The buildings were of brick with a number of wooden sheds and contained large quantities of highly flammable material. The wind was blowing and carried the cinders a great distance endangering other buildings and the docks. Large quantities of oil were lost as well as some machinery. The firemen could not save the building but did prevent the fire from spreading.”

    Chesebrough was also instrumental in developing uses for the residuals of kerosene production. From 1861 to 1863 when the other components of petroleum, such as gasoline, naphtha and the heavy distillates had little commercial value, instead of running the stills down to coke, which was the general practice of the other oil companies, he recycled those by-products to fuel the boilers and oil stills. It is likely that he was the first to use oil as a fuel after his foreman, Mr. Osterhoudt, invented what was probably the first oil burner.

The Fay Family Immigrants

      While Michael Fay found employment in the oil works, Lawrence Lyons,who had also moved to Van Brunt St. in Redhook,  continued to build his wheelwright business. In the 1865 Census we find that Lawrence and his wife Celia had also taken on two “boarders” in their residence – Danial Currey, Celia’s older brother, and Thomas Fay, Michael’s next younger brother (born 1838). We are not sure exactly when Thomas Fay appeared on the scene. When he was granted citizenship on October 14 of 1868  (Lawrence Lyons was his sponsor)  the five-year rule stipulated that he would have had to arrive in the States by at least 1863. There was a Thomas Fay (b.1838) that arrived on the ship “New World” from Liverpool on June 14 of 1858.  That could have been him, however there is no definitive trace of his location until he showed up living with his uncle Lawrence in 1865.

     Next to arrive in Brooklyn was brother Patrick (born 1840). Although we can’t be sure just when he arrived, there was a Patrick Fay (b. 1839) that disembarked from the vessel “The Emerald Isle” in April of 1860. By June of 1863 however he had relocated to Manhattan. His Civil War Draft Registration showed him  residing at 1389 Broadway (between 37th and 38th Streets), his occupation listed as horseshoer. It was just a month later that the Draft riots erupted in lower Manhattan.

    Facing a dire shortage of manpower in early 1863, Lincoln’s government had passed a strict new conscription law, which made all male citizens between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 subject to military duty. Though all eligible men were entered into a lottery, they could also buy their way out of harm’s way by hiring a substitute or paying $300 to the government. At the time, that sum was the yearly salary for the average American worker, making avoiding the draft impossible for all but the wealthiest of men. Compounding the issue, African Americans were exempt from the draft, as they were not considered citizens. Riots over the draft occurred in other cities, including Detroit and Boston, but nowhere as badly as in New York. Anti-war newspapers published attacks on the new draft law, fueling the mounting anger of white workers leading up to the city’s first draft lottery on July 11, 1863.

     For the first 24 hours after the lottery, the city remained suspiciously quiet, but rioting began early on the morning of Monday, July 13. Thousands of white workers – mainly Irish and Irish-Americans – started by attacking military and government buildings, and became violent only toward the people who tried to stop them, including the insufficient numbers of policemen and soldiers the city’s leaders initially mustered to oppose them. By that afternoon, however, they had moved on to target black citizens, homes and and businesses.

     In one notorious example, a mob of several thousand people, some armed with clubs and bats, stormed the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street, a four-story building housing more than 200 children. They took bedding, food, clothing and other goods and set fire to the orphanage. By far the worst violence was reserved for African-American men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality.

     On July 15, the third day of the protests, rioting spread to Brooklyn and Staten Island. The following day, the first of more than 4,000 federal troops arrived, from New York regiments who had been fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg. After clashing with rioters in what is now the Murray Hill neighborhood, the troops were finally able to restore order, and by midnight of July 16 the New York City draft riots had come to an end. In all, the published death toll of the New York City draft riots was 119 people, though estimates of the actual number of people killed reached as high as 1,200.

     It is possible that Patrick moved back briefly to Brooklyn after that. In the 1865-66 edition of the Brooklyn Directory there was a Pat Fay listed as a laborer, living in a house at 3 Imlay St., at the very northern corner of Redhook, very close to where Margaret and Michael Fay were located. (See map below).

     Patrick subsequently met and married an Irish girl named Julia Duggan. Julia was most likely born in Dublin in 1841 to Michael Duggan and Margaret McIntyre. Apparently her father had died during the famine years, and she and her mother emigrated to the U.S. in 1850 when Julia was only 9 yrs old. It seems likely that Margaret died shortly thereafter, because the 1855 Census showed Julia, age 14 years, working as a domestic helper in the household of Lewis Morris, a Wall St. drug broker, who was living in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, just north of Redhook.

Patrick and Julia were married on June 17, 1865 at St Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan ( Park Ave and 84th St.) In 1866 Patrick and Julia had their first son, named William, (of course) after Patrick’s father.

        It was also sometime during this time period that Michael’s younger brother Lawrence arrived in Brooklyn. His Petition for Citizenship, which was filed on October 5 of 1868, a week before Thomas’s (once again uncle Lawrence Lyons was the sponsor),  meant that he too must have arrived by 1863,  just as Michael was marrying Rose Killeen. Lawrence was born around 1848, so he would have been just fourteen or fifteen years old when he crossed the Atlantic –  clearly a youth bent on seeking adventure.

     Lawrence must have been quite an independent fellow as well. While he might have boarded with Lawrence Lyons initially, we do find a Lawrence Fay listed in the  Brooklyn Directories sporadically from 1862 through 1867 in the area of 2nd and 3rd St. – not too distant from Redhook. (See map below). Although we can’t be sure that this was him, we certainly don’t find him living with any of his relatives in the 1865 Census. Then in the July 1870 Census  Lawrence, only 22 years old,  showed up as the owner of a retail liquor store at 448 Van Brunt St. at the corner of Elizabeth St., right across from the docks on the Erie Basin – an ideal spot to service the incoming sailors and thirsty dockworkers of this busy commercial port. The upper floors of the building also functioned as a boarding house.      

      With a potentially lucrative business underway, Lawrence apparently  felt ready to marry and start a family too. On October 11, 1870 he wed Julia Fogarty at St. Pauls Church on Congress St. in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn,  just north of Redhook. Witnesses at his wedding were his siblings Thomas and Margaret, and Robert Maguire, the clergyman. Julia Fogharty, who apparently came to the States on the ship “Columbia” in 1867, was most likely the daughter of John and Mary (Cahill) Fogarty, born Jan. 9, 1847 in the Holy Cross Parish of  County Tipperary, just southwest of Thurles.

The Family of Michael Fay
(Click on Image to Enlarge)

        Michael Fay continued living in Redhook until 1868. He and Rose moved every year or two, but always stayed around Van Brunt St., between King St. and Dikeman. Redhook was not an attractive part of Brooklyn, nor a particularly healthy one, with its industrial waste and  swampy lowlands. Since much of the land had to be filled in, it soon became a dumping ground for the rest of Brooklyn’s refuse. It was periodically subject to outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.  John, their second son, born in October of 1865, survived only nine months.  A third child, a girl named Lizzie after Michael’s mother, was born in August of 1867,  but died by the following February. They had another daughter  in January of 1869, and christened her Rose. But before that I believe Michael was looking to move his family to a better location. His address in Brooklyn in 1868-1869 was Van Brunt St. near Elizabeth St., perhaps in the same building in which Lawrence had set up his liquor store. But by January of 1869, when Rose was born, Michael was gone  – he had moved his family across the Hudson River to Jersey City, New Jersey.

Locations of Fays and Lyons in Redhook