Bishop William Henry O’Connell, leader of Maine’s Catholics 1901-1906, decided that a building was needed where the longshoremen and railroad workers (the vast majority were Irish) could gather to stay out of the cold and out of the saloons when not working. The Workingmen’s Club’s nature, it was said, was of temperance and total abstinence. It was built for the “men of brawn, muscle and industry” who numbered a thousand in 1905, men employed by the Grand Trunk Railroad, the English steamers, and New York & Boston steamship lines.
Bishop O’Connell, former rector of the American College in Rome, was instrumental in the formation of numerous Catholic societies during his brief tenure as bishop of Portland. The most interesting and needed society was perhaps the Workingmen’s Club, for the “benefit of the longshoremen and railroad men, numerous in Portland, who had hitherto found few places of recreation open to them save the saloons.” O’Connell directed Father Michael F. Drain, an Irish native and rector of the Cathedral, to attend to the details of the project and conduct a money drive; both Catholics and Protestants alike donated to the cause. The businessmen of Portland gave their sympathy and concern and “at all times responded handsomely when called upon.” A $20,000 clubhouse was eventually erected in 1904 at 21 Commercial Street, now 17-19 Commercial.
John J. Cunningham (1875-1951), who studied five years with the eminent Portland architect F. H. Fassett, was the architect of the building. The brick and stonework was under the direction of Frank Cunningham. John also designed the Jewish Synagogue on Newbury Street and a row of tenement houses for the J. B. Brown Company (1903). In 1905, he joined a construction firm founded by his father Francis W. Cunningham (a County Leitrim native); they would eventually build Portland High School, Cumberland County and Federal Court Houses, Mercy Hospital, Maine Savings Bank, and Cheverus High School, among numerous other buildings. John would become one of the most widely known general contractors, bankers, and Catholic layman in Maine.
Several other local firms, Irish-American owned, had a hand in the building also. Flaherty Brothers (Patrick H. & Thomas J.) did the plastering, J. Theodore Logan did the painting, and Michael T. Mulhall, a talented sign and decorative painter, painted a large steamer about to dock on the drop curtain of the club’s stage.
The clubhouse could boast of offering the workers and guests a café, reading-room, billiard-room, restaurant and lunch room (in charge of James Cummings), a cigar stand, barbershop, bowling alleys, lecture and musical entertainment halls, shower baths, and even a swimming pool and a roof garden! The club was an instant hit not just with the hundreds of workers who enjoyed its hospitality, but also with their employers, the citizens of Portland, and Bishop O’Connell, a frequent visitor to the building.
The Workingmen’s Club was formally opened on the night of March 6, 1905 to a large audience. Noted speakers and guests at the event included William H. Looney, Esq., Father Drain, Msgr. Edward F. Hurley (rector of St. Dominic’s and the bishop’s rep), Major Sidney W. Thaxter, Col. J. B. O’Neill, Rev. Dr. J. F. Albion, pastor of Congress Square Universalist Church, Rev. J. W. Magruder, pastor of the Chestnut Street Methodist Church, Rev. Judson Van Clancy, pastor of St. Lawrence Church, Fred J. McClure (rep of the steamship lines), Robert W. Scott, agent of the G. T. R. depot, and Mrs. Lillian M. N. Stevens, national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
W. H. Looney declared, “The importance of this club in the uplifting of the wage earner and in his moral, intellectual and material advancement can hardly be estimated. Broadly considered, its design is to constitute a counter attraction to the liquor saloon and to form, as it were, a magnet to draw workingmen from those vile dens of iniquity which infest and disgrace our city.” Looney said, “The conception and realization of this project are mainly due to the zeal, energy, determination and practical intelligence of a noble young priest.” This young Catholic priest (Drain) spoke next and welcomed all, thanking “the public-spirited gentlemen of Portland for their generosity towards the club” (Daily Eastern Argus, 7 March 1905).
The 21 Commercial Street location had previously been the site of various establishments, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the cooper shop of Florence McCarthy, the restaurants of Eugene A. Reardon, Peter Keegan, and James Bradley, Jr., the cigar shop of Martin P. Wall, and Bradley Brothers restaurant, operated by Patrick G. and James Bradley, Jr., sons of bootlegger and saloonkeeper James Bradley.
The Workingmen’s Club briefly shared the building with the Kavanagh Service Club, a local branch of the National Catholic War Council, with Patrick H. Joyce, superintendent, and the Knights of Columbus Service School, both of which existed in the early 1920s. The eventual success of the club cannot be ascertained. In 1910-1913, the city directories list the address as part of the Portland Police Department, with a patrol stable in the rear.
RELATED SITES: Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, East Commercial Street, Portland Waterfront/Harbor, Grand Trunk Building