Irish, Nebraska and the Railroad

by Mike McDonald

  • Irish, Nebraska and the Railroad

    UP #1252 at Agnew, Nebraska pre-1900

  • Irish, Nebraska and the Railroad

    Omaha Traffic Club Bulletin late 1950s

Our family has been in Nebraska since its beginning and been associated with railroads for much of it. My great-great-great grandfather, Irish immigrant Peter Cassidy, is listed in Omaha in the first territorial census in November 1854, along with a daughter and son-in-law. The rest of the family remained in Illinois, to which Peter returned. His children though, continued to move to Nebraska. Peter’s youngest daughter Ann, her husband Patrick McDonald (my great-great grandparents) and their nine children arrived in Omaha in 1884.

Ann and Peter's son, Peter (my great-grandfather), married an Irish lass in Omaha that year. They stayed in Omaha to be near her family. The rest of the McDonalds continued on to Valparaiso in Saunders County, where Patrick worked for the Union Pacific. There was a wye there, with the southern leg connecting the UP to Lincoln. The first town south of Valparaiso on this line is Agnew, where family members lived. The photo shows Patrick and crew with a train at Agnew.

The numbers “252” can be read on the locomotive. My research found that this was UP locomotive #1252. It was originally built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1868 as UP #115, renumbered to #1252 in 1885, rebuilt in 1893 and sold in 1904. There were three locomotives of this class built, and a clear picture of #1250 can be found at . Thanks to Don Strack for his excellent website Utah Rails with the history of 1252 and the photo of 1250 from the Union Pacific Historical Collection.

One of Patrick’s sons spent his career with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. Two of Patrick’s daughters married locomotive engineers, but alas, both were engineers for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad (BMRR, later part of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy).

Patrick died at the age of 71, and his obituary notes that he was a wrecking foreman for the Union Pacific. Patrick was buried in the same plot as his son-in-law in Calvary Cemetery in Lincoln.

Shortly after this, Peter and his family moved to Agnew to work a farm with another brother. One of Peter’s sons, James, my grandfather, decided that farming was not for him. Jim moved to Omaha in 1911 to work for the Union Pacific, perhaps because his grandfather and three uncles worked for the railroads.

Jim was seriously injured in the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado in Omaha. After he recovered, he went back to the UP, but a short time later he moved to the Burlington (CB&Q). Thus ended the family’s direct ties to the Union Pacific but not to the railroads. The page from an “Omaha Traffic Club Bulletin,” undated but from the late 1950s, gives a brief bio of Jim and mentions a number of others involved in the business.

Grandpa spent 44 years with the CB&Q, retiring as chief rate clerk. He met my grandmother Nellie there, her father, another Irish immigrant, was a crew foreman with the Burlington. My dad worked summers for the railroad, but didn’t make a career of it. A cousin recently retired from there and another carries on the tradition of being a locomotive engineer with the “other” railroad. I have to thank these Agnew-Lincoln cousins for the picture of 1252.

Despite more family connections to the Burlington Route than to the Overland Route, as a native Omahan and member of a pioneer Nebraska family which already celebrated 150 years here, I feel a connection to the Union Pacific. I’m glad I could share a story for the UP150 history.

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Steam Trains, Family, Working at UP
Omaha, NE-Raymond, NE
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