Archive for November 2015

Pilgrimage: Tracing Path of Daniel Heffernan and Catherine Meehan – Part One

November 15, 2015
1890's window in St. Peter's Church, Montgomery Indiana

1890’s window in St. Peter’s Church, Montgomery Indiana

With funding from an Individual Artist Project Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, since July, I have been traveling the path of the Indiana’s Wabash and Erie Canal, tracing the history of my great great grandparent’s Daniel Heffernan and Catherine Meehen, who immigrated, separately, from Ireland in the 1830’s. My long term goal for this research is to complete a book of poetry about the canal era from the perspectives of my ancestors. During the early decades of Indiana’s statehood, before the railroads, water travel was the easiest way to traverse the wild frontier and canal-building was an essential part of the young state’s efforts for internal improvement to increase commerce, trade, and settlement.  Irish immigrants did much of the work building the canal and my ancestors were among them.

The canal was built in installments, and I have spent the second half of 2015 traveling it in installments. When completed, the canal went from Toledo to Evansville and was over 468 miles long. Originally, I thought that 4 long weekend trips would be sufficient for me to travel the state, making an initial tracing through the territory of the entire path of the canal. As I got into my research, I soon learned I needed to spend longer at this task than originally imagined. At this point, I have visited the areas specifically connected to the story of Daniel and Catherine.

I began in Fort Wayne, where the building of the Wabash and Erie began. In July, August, and September, I traveled through small towns and larger cities, from Fort Wayne, Huntington, Peru, Logansport, Delphi, through Lafayette, and on to Covington.  In October, I began exploring the areas in southern Indiana where my great-great grandparents lived and worked after meeting and marrying in Lafayette.  This post will briefly describe some of what I found on this most recent trip. Other posts will describe my journeys on the northern segments of the canal.

On a beautiful, sunny October weekend day, I drove with my partner Gary to Petersburg, Indiana.  In order to pack as much research into the time we had, we took the most direct route, which included driving on newly built sections of I-69, an interstate project which was protested against by those concerned about its environmental impact, including myself. As we drove on this newly built road, I thought about my ancestors work on the canal, which was the first “interstate” to be built through Indiana’s wilderness and was itself an expensive feat of complex engineering whose usefulness was questioned and debated even as it was being built. I imagined Daniel and Catherine in the car with us, speeding down this newly built expanse of concrete and considering the forested areas through which the highway is yet to be constructed.  They would be amazed by how fast we were traveling compared to the 4 miles per hour pace of the canal boats. They would also be amazed by the many large, costly, and crisscrossing miles of roads that exist in the state. They would wonder aloud about how the internal improvements which they helped start in the state are still going on, with continued disagreement and questionable expense as their era. We would agree, that though much has changed between the 19th and 21st centuries, much is still very much the same.

In Petersburg, we found our way to the Gil Hodges bridge over the east fork of the White River, where parallel to this road bridge runs a train trestle built in the same place as the old aqueduct bridge for the canal.  According to the family story passed on through generations, my great-great grandfather was a subcontractor involved in building bridges for the canal and this aqueduct bridge was one of them.

train trestle bridge over east fork of White River, Petersburg, Indiana

train trestle bridge over east fork of White River, Petersburg, Indiana

The family story also says that Daniel carved his initials on this bridge. All that remains of the work he helped oversee are the stones of the southern abutment of the bridge. These are still being used as the support for the train trestle.  There are stone mason carver’s marks in many of these limestone blocks.  We climbed down under the bridge and explored these stones, not expecting to find the letter’s DH cut into the stone, but wishing they were there offering us some tangible remains of his existence. In the canal era days, the aqueduct would have been a wooden covered bridge spanning the river. Some of the wood used for this bridge has been turned into paneling placed on the walls of the genealogy area of the public library in Petersburg. We found the library and touched this wood. Of course, whatever section of wood Daniel carved his initials into has been long gone for decades.

view of the canal era stone, southern abutment, Petersburg bridge

view of the canal era stone, southern abutment, Petersburg bridge

In order to connect the family anecdotes about Daniel and Catherine’s lives to the history of the canal’s construction, I have relied, with much gratitude, on the hard work of historians such as Bob and Carolyn Schmitt of the Canal Society of Indiana, Allen County historian and author of three books about the canal Tom Castaldi, and Dan McCain, director of the W &E Canal Center in Delphi. For this trip, I depended upon materials published by the Canal Society of Indiana for a tour of Gibson, Pike, Davies, Green Counties in March, 1998. In this tourbook, I found a story of a man named A.J. Hart who, in 1849, was superintendent in charge of about 1oo men working on the canal and then in 1851, came to Davies County with 16 men to work on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. I think Daniel Heffernan  must have been one of those 16 men, and he and A.J. knew each other from working together on the canal because according to my family story, after completing the Petersburg bridge, my grandfather next worked on the construction of the Ohio and Mississipi Railroad between Montgomery and Cannelburg, IN before buying land in Montgomery.  After leaving Petersburg, we went to Montgomery to find this section of railroad and the land where my great great grandparents farmed and raised a large family.

A portion of the 80 acres where the Heffernan's farmed and built a two room cabin with loft and back porch

A portion of the 80 acres where the Heffernan’s farmed and built a two room cabin with loft and back porch

At the train tracks, we imagined Daniel riding the train as one of its first passengers as the family story says. At the farmsite, we talked about how pleasing it was to find it still existing as a farm.  Having witnessed suburban sprawl devouring many farms to build shopping malls and housing developments, it felt to me surprising and comforting to stand at the roadside watching someone in a distant field bringing in the corn harvest and imagining what this farmland was like when my ancestors first began to clear and work it.

We drove from the farm into the town of Montgomery, imagining ourselves in a horse drawn wagon on a Sunday morning, bringing our large brood of children into town for church at St. Peter’s Catholic church.  When my ancestor’s bought their land in Montgomery in the early 1850’s plans for a larger church were in the works and construction on this new church was completed in 1869. According to the history of  St. Peter’s on the church’s website, a great deal of the work on the new brick church was done by parishioners. I have no doubt that my hardworking ancestors contributed to its building.

I felt a strange current running up my spine as I stood on the front steps of the church and looked down the hill, able to see the land my ancestors farmed on the near horizon, knowing I was standing on a vantage point looking out at their world in much the same way that my great-great grandparents did 150 years ago. I imagined their pride in helping to build this church and in owning and farming a large tract of rich,fertile land. I imagined how it must have felt to have left Ireland when young, to have spent 15 or so years moving from place to place in order to find work as pioneers in a wild land, and then to at last settle onto land they had worked hard to own, and continued to work hard to farm. I could feel how important this church was to them, how rooted it helped them feel.

St. Peter's Catholic Church, Montgomery, IN

St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Montgomery, IN

I entered the old church feeling as if I was stepping through a doorway in time. The beautiful interior drew us in.  We were struck immediately by the stained glass windows aglow with the autumn sunlight.  These Italian stained glass windows were added to the church in the 1890’s, during the last decade and half of my great great grandparent’s lives life. We saw that each window bore the name of a family that helped purchase these windows. “What are the chances,” I said to Gary, “that one of them was contributed by the Heffernan’s?” We each took a side of the church and began looking. Almost immediately, Gary called out, “Here it is!” Knowing Gary’s sense of humor, I expected he was joking, but turned to look. He pointed out the window of St. Patrick and sure enough, at the bottom of the window were the words, “Gift of Daniel Sr. and Jr. and Catherine Heffernan.”

This window was not mentioned at all in the family narrative. Finding it was an unexpected delight, and more than made up for the loss of Daniel’s initials on the Petersburg bridge. I stood in front of the window imagining my great great grandparents as old ones in the last years of their lives, sitting in a pew at this church, near the glowing light of the St. Patrick’s window, contemplating their journey from Ireland to these final years of long and fruitful life.

St. Patrick window, St. Peter's Church, Montgomery IN

St. Patrick window, St. Peter’s Church, Montgomery IN

Our last stop was the St. Peter’s Cemetery. There we found the grave stones of children born to Daniel and Catherine who died young. We also found the gravestone of Daniel’s brother Michael and Daniel’s neighbor and drinking buddy Peter Griffin, also an immigrant from Ireland. Finally, we found the large granite headstone for Daniel and Catherine, located in the center of the old section of the cemetery, not far from the stone of the priest who served their church during my great-great grandparent’s lifetime.

Gravestone in St. Peter's Cemetery

Gravestone in St. Peter’s Cemetery

I sat on the grass next to this stone and felt an unexpected peace and connection. So much of the canal that was a central focus of the first half of my grandparent’s adult lives has fallen to ruin and been lost to time. I had not expected to find in southern Indiana so much lasting evidence of my ancestors, or such confirmation that they had been well loved, life-giving citizens to their community. I knew now more than ever how connected they were to this land, as pioneers in the state’s early settlement, as hard working immigrants, as parents to a large family, and as respected members of their church and small town community. Somehow finding such lasting evidence of their presence in this world makes my own life feel more rooted, more meaningful.