One family’s story mirrors that of thousands of brave, working-class souls.
I love exploring the footprints of our forefathers—the bridges they built and the bricks they laid down… one at a time. Most of us know of Peoria’s numerous distilleries and the tremendous wealth of the whiskey barons, but the stories of the men whose backs broke and hands picked up the bricks and stone that shaped our city aren’t as often told.
The Flanagan House, built in 1837 on Glen Oak Avenue, was once a several-hundred-acre farm, built on the bluff overlooking the valley and river. The view, then and now, is breathtaking. The back of Flanagan was originally the front, facing the river, and a horse and carriage would have made a twisting journey from downtown Peoria up to the estate. Who would have laid the pathway for that road? Poor immigrants who left everything behind for a chance at a better life in Peoria, Illinois.
What was the role of the poor and working class as Peoria went from a small town to a booming river city? As I research my own family genealogy, I find there are always more mysteries waiting to be discovered in death certificates, newspaper clippings and old wills. I don’t know all of the answers, but I will try to give a little life to some of it now. This is one family’s story of their entrance into Peoria.
Coming to America
It begins overseas with a family that mirrors the thousands of brave, working-class souls who left their homelands in search of a better way of life. My Scottish ancestry bears the names of Janet Lindsay Ritchie and John R. Waugh, both born in the early 1820s in a mining community in Scotland. One of nine children, Janet left her parents and the mining village as an early teen. She became a maid for a wealthy family in Glasgow before marrying John Waugh in 1853 and leaving for the United States.
John first found work in the coal mines near Pottsville, Pennsylvania, before settling in Peoria in the late 1850s, where he returned to mining in the Limestone Township area. He and Janet lived at 1306 First Avenue and had several children, including a son named George—my great-grandfather. My earliest ancestors to live in Peoria, they are buried in Springdale Cemetery.
Meanwhile, three sisters from County Kilkenny, Ireland came to Peoria in the 1870s—by which time the city’s immigrant population had grown enormously, especially with the Irish. Catherine, Margaret and Joanna—known as Kate, Maggie and Jo—were the daughters of William Nolan and Nancy Healy Nolan, who had three other children as well. County Kilkenny was not large, and opportunities to provide for one’s family were scarce. In Peoria, Jo worked at Block & Kuhl and never married; Maggie was listed in one census as a servant.
The third sister, my great-grandmother Kate Nolan, married George Waugh on April 26, 1883. His work history outlines the harsh life of a working-class man in those days. The 1887 Peoria City Directory shows George Waugh, teamster, living on Hurlburt Street; later, he is listed as a laborer living on McBean, and in another year, as a coal dealer on Webster. He was listed as a miner in one directory, and in 1892, as a watchman at CRI&P—the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, also known as the Rock Island Line. In the later 1890s, he was listed as a laborer at the American Glucose Company.
George’s wife, Kate Nolan Waugh, struggled to raise their seven children. The oldest was my grandmother, Janet Lindsay Waugh, who was known as Jennie, born in 1885. Kate contracted typhoid pneumonia and died on January 7, 1900. George was left with seven children and never remarried.
Work of Calloused Hands
The mining industry was full of tragedy—a difficult and stressful way of life—and led to specific areas around Peoria having many saloons, alcoholics and broken families. It was common for the mining companies to issue paychecks that could only be used to buy goods at their own facilities. In addition, housing was often only available on land and cottages owned by the mining company, leaving the men constantly indebted, under the control of the owners.
The elite made the rules, while our immigrant forefathers and mothers wiped the coal-streaked sweat from their faces. Their dirty sleeves were stiff with endless work, their calloused hands building the halls and homes the elite wanted built—putting food on the table but rarely getting to see their children.
The warehouses were not well ventilated, and workers breathed in the fumes of chemicals all day long. This was before the automobile, of course, so walking—whether rain, snow or sunshine—was the only option for the poor man. There was no job security, nor unions to improve the worker’s condition. And when the unions were first beginning, life often got violent and bloody—it was raw and very real.
Our Shared Heritage
The paths of our forefathers are the whispers in the French prison built near the river, the stones over the graves of the souls at Springdale. They are the row houses, the boarding houses, the matching brick apartment houses. It’s a young Jewish girl babysat by an Irish-Scottish Catholic mother of nine, who watched over her when her wealthy parents traveled to Europe for business. She taught her there was good in all religions—that there were many starlit paths to heaven. She was my grandmother, Jennie Waugh Needham.
The older sections of town, the massive mansions on the bluffs—they are the legacy our forefathers left for all of us, the thousands of stories we have yet to discover and claim as Peorians. No matter the path in life we walk, they are here for us to celebrate, to bond together and preserve our heritage.
What was the underlying pulse of Peoria… then and now? The blood and sweat, lives and deaths, crimes and penalties, fears and triumphs of our forefathers are here… waiting to bring us together. iBi
Molly Crusen Bishop is a lifelong Peorian, author, speaker and storyteller who loves to share her passion for Peoria’s history.