The United States Custom House was built between 1868-1872 and formally opened April 1, 1872, amidst much fanfare. Two previous custom houses had been destroyed by fire, in 1854, and again in the Great Fire of 1866. The new custom house was described as “the most elegant custom house building in the country” by one writer in 1872. It is a granite edifice in the French Second Empire style with Grecian elements such as Corinthian columns on the outside and Byzantine motifs inside. Six Italian marble fireplaces were built to heat rooms within. The customs service, in operation in Portland since 1730 when British officer Moses Pearson was the port’s first collector, has employed a large number of Irish-American men and women.
As early as 1858, when Moses McDonald, a lawyer, became Collector of Customs, “he appointed an Irishman to a clerkship in the Custom House, superseding thereby one of the most faithful and correct officers the Democratic party ever put in office” (The Impending Crisis, 22 March 1860, a political paper).
From the 1850s until the 1880s there were few employees of the Custom House of Irish blood; Thomas McCleery, an Irish emigrant, was the janitor of the building in the 1870s-1880s. Another Irish emigrant, Timothy J. Scannell (1830-1887), “held a position under Collector Anderson in the Custom House” in the 1880s. He operated a cooperage outfit on Center Street for many years and even “at one time carried on that business in the Island of Cuba” (Evening Express, 15 April 1887). Scannell was a member of the Portland Irish National League and a strong advocate of Irish Home Rule.
Between the early 1890s-1920s, several Irish-Americans were shipping commissioners for the United States Custom House. Daniel Gallagher was appointed shipping commissioner November 17, 1894 and held that position less than a year until his death in September 1895, aged 53. His office was at 374 Fore Street. Gallagher’s deputy commissioner was Thomas E. Malone, who also ran an apothecary. Daniel, an Irish native, was raised in St. John, New Brunswick, where he was a grocer. In 1864, he came to Portland and for the next fourteen years conducted “all the stevedore business for the Grand Trunk railway.” In 1878, Daniel also became a shipbroker, with an office on Commercial Street. His son John T. Gallagher continued as a shipbroker and deputy-shipping commissioner at the Custom House until 1910.
In 1900, Col. John D. Prindable (1857-1916), born in Maine to Maurice and Mary McCarthy Prindable, Irish natives, became the shipping commissioner at the Custom House. He had previously been an inspector for the Portland Water Company. In the 1890s, John, a staunch Republican, was deputy-shipping commissioner and later a deputy collector for Internal Revenue at the Custom House. Prindable held the position of shipping commissioner until his death in 1916. Leo F. O’Brien took over and remained in the position until he moved to Boston in 1932. Joseph F. X. Healey of Portland was briefly his deputy-commissioner and also deputy-collector in the Internal Revenue division; he became a public accountant soon after.
From 1889 until 1900, 374 Fore Street was not only the U. S. Shipping Commissioners office, but also the headquarters of the Portland Longshoremen’s Benevolent Society, a fraternal organization comprised of mainly Irish longshoremen, stevedores, and dockworkers.
From 1887 until 1926, Patrick F. Bradley, a former clerk for the Grand Trunk Railroad, was an inspector at the Custom House. He was born in Portland, a son of Arthur Bradley, a stonemason from County Donegal, and Anne Ward.
In the 1890s, Dr. Timothy D. Sullivan was on the Board of Examining Surgeons for the Custom House. Dr. John W. Connellan, the son of a grocer from County Clare, was secretary of the Board, 1917-1926, and county physician, 1917-1929.
Samuel E. Somers (1865-1940) entered the U. S. Customs service in June 1896 and retired from active duty in November 1935. Somers was for many years chief inspector of the Grand Trunk railway wharves. During World War I, he was a clerk for the War Trade Board at the Custom House. Samuel was born in Portland, a son of Pierce Somers, a stonemason originally from Tralee, County Kerry, and Hannah Dineen. His brothers William H., Robert F., and Pierce A. were successful hat manufacturers and his brother Thomas J. Somers (1852-1948) was a Portland optometrist.
David D. Hannegan (1841-1910) was the engineer of the Custom House from 1887 until his retirement in 1910. A plumber for many years, he grew up in Portland the son of Irish emigrants and was a sharpshooter in Company D of the 2nd U. S. Sharpshooters and later enlisted in Company G of the 17th Maine Infantry during the Civil War. A member of the Bosworth Post, Hannegan had always “taken deepest interest in the work of the Grand Army.” His son David A. Hannegan, a World War I veteran, also became an employee of the Custom House, working from 1919 until 1951 as an assistant surveyor and inspector. His daughter Eliza C. Hannegan (1879-1980) taught lip reading at the Portland Evening School and Gorham Normal School; she received an honorary doctor of humane letters from Nasson College (1954).
Miss Rose Alice Henry (1858-1927) was for 28 years employed by the Department of Immigration at the Custom House. She began her career in 1899 as a stenographer to the Collector of Customs and was later appointed secretary to Timothy Elliot, Immigration Inspector. From 1907 until her death, she was private secretary to Inspector Samuel H. Howes. Rose was born in Portland, a daughter of William J. Henry, a salesman from Virginia and son of Irish emigrants, and Anne M. Landers. She was the granddaughter of John and Rose Landers, early prominent Irish Catholics in Portland. Her uncle James Landers was one of the first Portland boys to enter the seminary; he died in 1839 of a heart ailment at Mount St. Mary’s College, Emmetsburg, Maryland, at age only 23. Rose, like her parents and grandparents before her, was a devout and active communicant of St. Dominic Church.
John H. Dooley, born in Bangor in 1869 the son of Irish emigrants, became Collector of Customs in 1933 and held that position until his death in 1939. He was also president of Printwell Printing Company and former chairman of the Democratic State Committee. Dooley served as a councilman and alderman and was active in war relief and the Irish bond drive (1921). He and his childhood sweetheart, Hannah Cassidy (they grew up together at St. Dominic’s School), had several children, including Dr. Francis M. Dooley, former chief of staff and chief of obstetrical services at Mercy Hospital, whose son Dr. John R. was with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C.
Joseph Thomas Sylvester (1885-1962) was appointed Collector of Customs by President Roosevelt in 1940 and retired from that position in 1953. Sylvester grew up in Portland, the son of John H., a Portuguese-American, and Margaret Dempsey Sylvester, an Irish emigrant. In March 1945, he gave a talk on government and customs at a joint communion breakfast of the Women’s Sodality Council and the Men’s Club of St. Joseph’s Church. Sylvester was a registered pharmacist, a prominent Democratic Party leader, and county and state chairman for various groups set up in 1941 to sell War and Savings Bonds. His brothers Henry A. and John L. were local janitors, the former at City Hall, and the latter at the United States Federal Building.
Many Irish-Americans worked as clerks and inspectors at the Custom House during the 1920s-1940s. These included Philip R. McKone (deputy-collector 35 years), George L. Hagen, Francis J. Maguire, Leo C. McCarthy, Philip M. Relahan, and John J. McDonald. Custom House guards included Patrick H. Kelley and William Deehan McAleney.