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Jul 24, 2017

The area at the end of Main Street in South Portland was known as Ligonia and was home to many generations of Irish families. It was probably named for Lygonia, an early land patent in southern Maine. The area was home to several successful businesses at one time, including the Portland Rolling Mills, the Cumberland Bone Company, the Portland Kerosene Oil Company Works, and the Atwood Lead Company. These companies employed many Irish and Welsh immigrants.

The Portland Rolling Mills was built near Calvary Cemetery on the site of Camp Berry of Civil War fame in 1865-1866. It became a company town, with forty-seven homes and sixty-five families by 1870. The village, compromising eighty-five acres, would eventually include a school, auditorium, ball field, stores, and rows of dark barn-red houses. Some of the old military barracks were modified into dwellings, while other homes were built on and off from what became Central Avenue. The Mills was managed by Portland entrepreneur John Bundy Brown until 1878 and manufactured railroad, bar, hoop, and other iron products. In 1872 the company turned out 14,000 tons of rails and employed 200 men. The works was connected by a railroad bridge to Portland.

According to the census of 1870, there were twenty-seven Irish families and twenty-seven Welsh families residing here, along with a sprinkling of Canadian, English, and American families. Many of the families, both Welsh and Irish, had been employed in the mills of Wales and Pennsylvania before settling at Ligonia in the mid- to -late 1860s. The Irish Catholics attended service at nearby Mount Calvary Chapel, erected in 1860-1861. When a family member died, they were interred in the cemetery that surrounded the chapel.

Among the Irish that lived and worked in Ligonia in the early 1870s were families named Feeney, Foley, Cooley, McCarty, Welch, Cummings, Galligan, Rogers, Murphy, Conley, Sullivan, McCourt, McGinnis, Ryan, McFarland, Mulkern, McGann, McGraw, Casey, and Ford. Many of these families had left Ireland to work in England or Wales before coming to America. Some worked and lived in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Brunswick first. Mike Mulkern and his wife Julia had a daughter in England in 1867 and then settled in Ligonia in 1868 where they had several more children. Martin and Margaret Lydon McDonough had three children in Boston in the early 1860s before settling here in 1867. Richard J. Walsh was born in Wales in 1844 and came to America with his Irish parents at the start of the Great Hunger. His brother John was born in New Jersey in 1847 and three other brothers were born in Pennsylvania in the 1850s. By 1870 he is living and working in Ligonia with his mother and brothers (see 1870 Cape Elizabeth census). Walsh married and raised a large family in Ligonia; he was still employed at the mill in 1900.

One of the jobs that the Irish became skilled at was that of puddler. "The puddling process was quite difficult and required a great amount of skill on the part of the workmen," writes William B. Jordan, Jr. (see Jordan, "A History of Cape Elizabeth," for description of the puddling process, pp. 91-92). One of these skilled workmen was Irish native Matthew Galligan who married and had several children in Canton and Boston where he was employed as a puddler before coming to Ligonia.

Many Irish also worked at the Kerosene Works and the Atwood Lead Works, such as Thomas Lynch, who was killed by accidentally inhaling gas in September 1867. Unfortunately it was not far to go for his burial, Lynch being interred at nearby Calvary Cemetery. In 1872, the Portland Kerosene Oil Company had an invested capital of $209,000 and produced nearly four million gallons of kerosene, naptha, and parafine a year.

Together with the Welsh, the Irish created a small, but active ethnic enclave in this part of South Portland that was at the time part of Cape Elizabeth. These immigrant mill hands even formed their own baseball team, the "Irons," and competed favorably with Portland teams. They also created the Ligonia Cornet Band and for many years its leader was William J. "Big John" Lewis, a Welshman who went on to national fame with the Richmond Light Infantry Band.

The Ligonia area industries were still quite active into the 20th Century and many Irish settled permanently in the vicinity, while others moved out of state or settled in Portland. Nothing remains of this once thriving community. Parts of the town became Calvary Cemetery, while other areas were consumed by oil companies.

One other Irish connection to Ligonia is the family of Charles Dawson (1821-1907) and his wife Catherine Shanklin (1828-1901), natives of Ireland who settled in Ligonia in the early 1870s. Charles was a farmer and milkman in this area until his death and Dawson Street, two streets up from New Calvary Cemetery, is named for him. The Dawsons are buried in Calvary Cemetery. A branch of this family also settled in Portland, where James Dawson was a policeman, Jack Dawson was a city councilor and mayor, and Eleanor Dawson Minvielle was a longtime teacher in the Catholic high schools.

Related sites: Calvary Cemetery

Author Matt Barker
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