My husband and I were returning from vacation, northbound on Interstate 81. The highway made a backwards question mark, cutting into the southern anthracite fields of Pennsylvania. Signs indicated distances to old patch towns–Tremont, Minersville, Donaldson, Port Carbon. As we passed the Tower City exit our conversation took a genealogical turn.
T: “My mother’s mother’s people came from Tower City.”
Me: “The Monahans or the Carrolls?”
T: “The Carrolls. The Monahans were from Shenandoah.”
Me: “Hmmm…That’s a good 30 minutes up the road, even longer back in the 1870s. How did Margaret Carroll and John Monahan meet?”
T: “I never thought about that.”
We traveled on, but my curiosity took the off ramp into nineteenth century Schuylkill County. Once home, I burrowed down into Monahan and Carroll genealogy warrens before hazarding any guesses into how T’s great-grandparents met and married in 1878.
The story starts, as so many Irish tales do, with the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.
Martin and Margaret (Kelley) Carroll made the trans-Atlantic trip by 1848, finding work and community in Minersville, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of their first child. Margaret, the future Monahan matriarch, was their third child, born in 1854. The family moved west during the Civil War, to the coal seams surrounding the town of Tremont.
Map of Schuylkill County, 1854. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C. (Minersville is on the far right, and Tremont on the far left.)
Thomas and Bridget Mona(g)han left Ireland about the same time as the Carrolls, living for a few years in Liverpool, England, where Thomas earned the family’s fare as a laborer on the docks or the railroad. In 1854 the couple boarded the Andrew Foster with their little boys–the future Monahan patriarch, John J., and Michael–and crossed the wintry ocean to New York City. By the end of that decade, the Monahans lived among the residents of Swatara, a patch town south of Broad Mountain, and a bit east of Tremont.
In 1870 both the Carrolls and the Monahans lived in the area serviced by the Swatara post office. Margaret was helping her mom make a home; John was an underground laborer alongside his dad.
Patch towns had collieries, schools, stores, and churches. Surely there was ample opportunity for John to meet Margaret. Perhaps the young folks lingered after mass or danced together at the wedding of a mutual friend. I find it perfectly reasonable to presume that Margaret and John flirted, courted and wed because of geographic proximity.
In the last decades of the century, the Monahans and the Carrolls drifted, with various members settling in different towns nestled among the Appalachian hills. By the time T’s mother was old enough to have memories of visiting, aunts and uncles were centered–the Carrolls in Tower City and the Monahans in Shenandoah. But that is story for another day.