Lineman was an occupation that was most likely unknown to the famine generation of Irish in Providence, or anyone in the city for that matter. The first linemen were the men who set the poles and strung the wires for telegraph lines beginning in the 1840’s. When the telephone made its appearance in the 1870’s, the position of lineman became a bit more common. But it was not until the telephone became cheap enough for the working-class family and when electrification of housing became common in the twentieth century that the lineman became a mainstream of American life. Fifty years after this photograph was taken, my Dad, Ray Sr., went to work for the Narragansett Electric Company and did similar work.
And until three weeks ago, I never considered writing an essay on linemen. But then I received a note and photograph from Mike McKenna, who had grown up in the same neighborhood in Providence, Mount Pleasant, in which my father grew up. Mike is my age (born in 1950) but not a relative. Rather, like Dad and me, he is a descendant of the Famine era Tyrone/Monaghan migration to Providence.
The picture that Mike sent to me is of a line crew from perhaps 1892 or 1893. In this photograph, Mike’s great grandfather, Vannes V. Bowers, is in the foreground. Vannes, a Yankee, was the foreman of the crew. Climbing on the pole is Mike’s grandfather, William Henry Bowers. Vannes was born in Massachusetts in 1852 and moved to Providence as a very young man. By age 13, he was working in the city. As a young man he variously worked as a farmer, a fireman and brakeman for the Providence and Worcester Railroad, a blacksmith’s helper and eventually a lineman for the telegraph company.
In 1874 he fell in love with and married an Irish girl, Mary Ann McCurdy. Together, they started a family. Like many working men of his time, he moved from flat to flat in the city, depending on rent. By 1879, he was working as a lineman for the telegraph company. He continued this work as the company evolved into the telephone company, eventually becoming foreman. Mike McKenna was told as a young man that Vannes was the superintendent for Narragansett Electric when they put electricity in South County. Vannes died in 1906.
In the 1890’s, being a lineman was a treacherous occupation. Electicutions were not uncommon. It was this danger that led to the creation of the Electrical Wiremen and Linemen’s Union, No. 5221, in St. Louis in 1890. The following year, the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers became one of the early national trade unions. Line work remained dangerous into the 1930’s and has really never become entirely safe.
A half a century later, after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School at the age of seventeen in 1940, my Dad took his father Bill’s advice and joined the Narragansett Electric Company. His father told him that if he joined the company and the union he would always have a job and would thus be able to provide for his family. This advise came from a man who grew up poor and had a good job as a truck driver until he was struck down by a stroke in 1931. Bill McKenna was never able to fully work after that. He wanted more security for Dad.
Dad worked for the Narragansett Electric Company until retiring at age sixty-five in 1988. And he did provide very well for his family.
The picture above fascinates me. Pictures of workers from the period are rare. Along with William Henry Bowers, there were no doubt other Irish-Americas working for the telegraph and telephone companies. It was dangerous, and perhaps that is why the job was open to immigrants. Ed McCaffrey, Frank McDonald, John McMahon and James McNeal were all working in Providence as linemen at the time this photo was taken. The photo is an illustration of the work that my Dad, Ray McKenna Sr., did for the Narragansett Electric Company, beginning in 1939 and then after he returned from the war.
Here is my Dad (center) in the early 1950’s with some of his co-workers. He was the one called out in the middle of the night when people lost power. I still can remember my mother carrying me over to a neighbor’s house in sideways rain and frightening wind during Hurricane Carol in 1954. I was just four years old and was sick. The neighbor was a nurse and thus our trip. With us was my sister, Barbara. Meanwhile, Dad was working close to twenty hour shifts. We didn’t see Dad until a few days later.