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Engineering a Family Legacy:

The Story of a Scotch-Irish Family and the Growth of the Empire State

By Sam McElroy (Bio)

This is a story of discovering a heritage and an unknown past, a story both of tracing the roots and branches of a family over the last five centuries and the story of that family itself. It all began with curiosity, a few keywords, a powerful search engine and a remarkable stroke of luck.  Sitting at my home computer, I opened the door to centuries of my family’s history with a few simple Google searches.  Through the wonders of the World Wide Web, I was able to locate a rough sketch of the history of my family from the Reformation Era in Scotland, to Northern Ireland to America.  This chance find, then, led me on a path of personal and historical discovery.  The following is an account of that process and the genealogical, biographical and historical details it uncovered.

After opening the door so to speak, I began to use the information I found to confirm its truth, connect the details and expand upon the history.  What I uncovered was a past not known to my father, my grandfather or anyone else in my family. But it was their vague knowledge of family stories and rediscovered family keepsakes that provided the material if not the impetus for my search.

It all began on a recent visit to my parent’s home. My father showed me some items that my aunt had recently uncovered in the process of rearranging her attic. They were family keepsakes that my dad had not previously known about and that I had never heard of. One of those items was the death certificate of my great grandfather.  The death certificate confused my father and I because it listed his father as Samuel H. McElroy.  It was the middle initial “H” that had us confused.  We found it peculiar because according to family tradition, my father and I both named Samuel A. McElroy were numbers fifteen and sixteen in a long, unbroken line of Samuel A. McElroy’s.  I questioned my father about the initial and he dismissed it as a mistake.  I stared at the certificate and the initial, “H,” incredulously, but the next item diverted my attention.

The next item, which I found fascinating, was an old booklet of a little more than 100 hundred pages, published in 1878, titled “The Hempstead Reservoir: Its engineering theory and results.”  The author was Samuel McElroy, my namesake.  For several generations men in my family had been engineers, a tradition ending with my father, who chose a career in law so there was little surprise in finding out that one of my ancestors was an engineer.  What did surprise me, however, was that by 1878 one of my ancestors had accomplished enough to produce a work of such detail and expertise.  I wondered, “How did an Irish immigrant, who must not have been in the country very long acquire the education needed to produce such a work?”  It really started to make me wonder about how my family arrived here and what their experiences were like.  I, also, wondered about the significance of this booklet.  “Was this man an important engineer?  What is the Hempstead reservoir?  Why does he apparently know so much about it?”

Growing up, my father had been told many stories about the engineering work of his forefathers.  One of these vague recollections recounted by my father was of work done on the Brooklyn Water Works.  My father and I surmised that this booklet had something to do with that old system of reservoirs and pipes that once brought fresh water to Brooklyn.

Wanting to learn something about the Water Works and any involvement my family may have had, I sat with my wife and my sister and Googled “Brooklyn Water Works.”  I learned a bit about the Water Works project and its importance. Then, I added the name “Samuel McElroy C.E.” to the search bar, just as it had appeared on the old booklet. What I found next, with unconscionably improbable luck, opened the door to five hundred years of my family’s past!

It was a view to my own family’s history that confused, amazed, enlightened and entertained me. It turned family legends on their heads! The document that I found that provided this view was a book, available in full view and easily downloadable, published in 1903 by a man named John McConnell McElroy, titled “The History of Scotch-Irish McElroy’s in America A.D. 1717-1900.”

When I saw the listing at the top of search results I immediately thought, “that can’t be my family…I don’t know who John McConnell McElroy is…..I don’t know what Scotch-Irish means…..I’m just Irish-Irish,” Nevertheless, there in bold-faced font below the highlighted link was text containing the words “Samuel McElroy, Civil Engineer, Brooklyn, N.Y.”  Because it was an exact match, I obviously was compelled to browse the document, despite my presumptions, and I clicked on the link and opened the document.

When someone Googles specific words and they appear in a book that has been scanned into Google books, your search takes you to exactly the page in the book where your search words appear and they are highlighted in yellow.  My search returned a page toward the end of the book.  The page included thanks to a Samuel H. McElroy, Civil Engineer, Brooklyn, N.Y., for contributing the most complete family genealogy to this book, which turned out to be a genealogical and biographical sketch of McElroy’s from all over the United States who had common ancestry in County Down and Armagh, Northern Ireland.  I thought, “this cannot possibly be the same Samuel H. McElroy on that death certificate.”  That “H” was a mistake anyway.  I thought!

I searched for his name in other sections of the book and found his name in a section about the Albany McElroy’s.  A very brief biographical sketch was included under his full name and a list of his children.  To my astonishment the information read, “Samuel Haring McElroy b. May 12, 1851; m. Grace E. Fish, May 10, 1876.  A civil engineer. Kings County, N.Y.  Resides at Bensonhurst, L.I.  Their Children: 1. Georgia 2. Samuel Austin 3. Jessie (deceased) 4. Evylyn 5. Malcolm. ”  I was dumbfounded, this was the right Samuel H., this was my family and I knew it.  I was sure because the death certificate that precipitated this search also included the maiden name of my great grandfather’s mother, which was Grace E. Fish.  I thought, “could there be another Grace E. Fish married to a Samuel McElroy who was a civil engineer in Brooklyn with a son that shares the same name as myself, my father and his father and his?”  Of course not!

The death certificate forged the link between the family I already knew about and the family that was described in the pages of this strange book. Part of me wanted this to be my family because it was so incredible to stumble over this history, while part of me was reluctant to believe that “H” wasn’t a mistake.  I wanted to be the sixteenth and I had always felt a little pride in thinking it was true.  I continued to browse through the document and found information about his father, who was also named Samuel McElroy.  The knowledge I gained from reading about this man was further proof of my relation to this McElroy family. It delivered the final blow in destroying that long held, family legend!

Amazingly, the book also had biographical information about the three previous generations.  What I realized was that the name Samuel only began with the father of Samuel H., which would make me the sixth, not the sixteenth.  Before the first Samuel there was a Thomas, an Alexander and another Thomas.

The biographical sketch of that first Samuel McElroy which confirmed my recent revelation was incredible. It read “b. at Albany, October 4, 1825.  A distinguished civil engineer, connected with United States Engineer Corps, designing engineer Brooklyn water works; engineer of various water works, canals, harbor works and railways; prominent expert in waterpower and other cases.  In recent years, he was the oldest hydraulic engineer in practice in the United States. He d. at his Brooklyn residence from heart trouble, December 10, 1898, age seventy-three, and was buried in Albany.  Married, February 1, 1848, Catharine Knapp of Albany, a descendant of the Clark, Haring and Kip families of New York.

This was certainly the same Samuel McElroy whose name appeared on the old booklet that my father had shown me less than an hour before.  A Google web search of this document returned old advertisements for it in textbooks and technical magazines and small views of it from Google books. I even found it in hardcover on for $120.  I was delighted by the information that I found but a part of me was slightly disappointed that the story behind my name did not hold entirely true.

Despite the seemingly certain proof I still had trouble believing what I was reading because finding this information was so improbable.  The fact that the information was so thorough and interesting only exacerbated my disbelief and awe over the luck and the likelihood of the genealogical gold mine I had found.  My wife, and sister and I sat in front of the computer, astonished, as we pieced together the links in the genealogical chain. We were engrossed in the biographical details that were now beginning to clear up confusions and debunk old myths, but I wondered if the biographical details were true or the product of embellishment and imagination.  I had to know and I would later find out but first I wanted to follow this ancestral line as far back as the book documented.

Tracing the lineage laid out in the book brought me back to the early 18th century in County Armagh, Ireland.  I had forgotten for a moment, neglecting to recall from the title of the book I was reading, that these McElroy’s were not originally of Irish ancestry but were originally Scots who had apparently moved to Ireland for some time before coming to America.  I realized this as I continued to read.  I was learning that I was not “Irish-Irish,” I was in fact “Scotch-Irish.”  As I worked my way backwards through this genealogy, I found my way to the section of the book on the origins of the family, the family location in Scotland and Ireland with the reasons for leaving both places.  Again, I was surprised to learn information I had never known, information that contradicted what I thought I knew about my family and their passage to America.

My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all Catholics and for at least as far back as my great-grandfather, we identified ourselves, and our name as Irish. Consequently, I had always assumed that my family came over in the largest wave of Catholic Irish immigration some time around the potato famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.  I was surprised to learn that my family was actually, originally Scottish.  From Scotland, they immigrated to Northern Ireland where they lived for several generations. They then came to America, much earlier than I thought and were in fact Scottish Presbyterian, which is largely the reason why they ended up in Ireland and America.

What I began to see was a larger picture of the story of my family, a story that was wrapped up in the history of the developing modern nations of Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland and the United States of America.  It was a story of a specific culture, Scots-Irish, a culture of which I never knew I was a descendant.  Discovering this had an enormous impact on me.  I had always identified closely with the traditional sense of Catholic Irish-American heritage. I think the tradition behind my name lent strength to that sense of identity.  My grandfather, father and I even had the same confirmation name, Patrick, a tradition I once imagined dated back centuries.  This new knowledge changed a part of the story of my life, it was a different story and one I didn’t know.  In a country made by immigrants, many people find great pride in their national heritage and the contribution their people have made to the making of America.  I had once understood my family story in a particular way but that idea was now turned on its head and I only had a very vague knowledge of the Scotch-Irish heritage and contribution.

I wanted to know more about who the Scotch-Irish people really are and maybe find some clues as to how this identity was forgotten in my family over the generations.  Asking myself, “What made this immigrant group unique and separate from other Scots and Irish immigrants,” I set out searching for an answer.  I quickly learned that there is an extensive body of literature on the subject from novels, to family stories and websites to academic historical texts.

The story of the Scotch-Irish begins in Scotland where a nation and a culture formed over centuries of resistance to the Romans, followed by a blending of Celtic and Germanic people, war and resistance to English domination.   The Scotch-Irish began to carve out their unique identity living in the southern region that bordered England where much of that war and resistance occurred.  The Scots on the border had to live with constant warfare amongst themselves, with England and the struggle to scratch out subsistence on the barren hills and moors of Lowland Scotland.  From these experiences, the Lowland Scots developed a certain sternness, toughness and dourness.  Also, because of these formative experiences, many Scots developed a pioneering spirit and tradition that led them to seek ever better opportunities on new frontiers giving birth to the migrant element of the Scotch-Irish identity.    However, perhaps the most important element of the Scotch-Irish character developed around the 16th century when Calvinist Protestant Reformers succeeded in virtually removing every trace of Roman Catholic influence from Lowland Scotland.  Calvinism and the Scottish Presbyterian Church subsequently became a large factor in the identity of the modern Scot and principal to the Scotch-Irish identity.  So important to the Scots was their strict religious belief that many went to battle with the English monarchy to preserve their church structure and beliefs. Out of this religious conflict with the English, the Scotch-Irish identity first begins to emerge.

The religious conflict between the English and the Scots was caused by the attempt of the English monarchy to bring the Scottish Presbyterian Church under the influence and control of the Anglican bishopric.  The Scottish Presbyterian Church was too democratic and populist for a king to easily control.  The Scottish Kirk as it is called was controlled by local religious leaders from below rather than by Bishops from above.  The Protestant reformation took a different shape in Scotland than it had in England and English Monarchs wanted to eliminate its populist elements.    English attempts to subdue their neighbors to the north and bend them to their will led to violent clashes over the 16th and 17th centuries causing many Scottish families to seek a better life in a new land.  The promise of that better life lay just across the channel in Ulster county Ireland.  The religious clash is not the only reason for the Scots migration. The clan violence, unyielding soil, poor economy, general backwardness and poor standard of living in Scotland during these centuries were also significant factors for many.   Regardless of their reason for moving to Ireland the Scots who left and started a new life in Ireland shared two distinct traits; the courage to leave their home for the faint possibility of a better life and the fortitude to overcome the obstacles that met them on the other side. 

Over the centuries of recorded history there were many migrations of peoples between Scotland and Ireland and Scots have migrated all over the world.   But Catholic Ireland, the Jesuit stronghold of the Catholic Reformation became a destination for many Scots.  The seeds for the settlement of Ulster were planted during the rule of Elizabeth I, who sought to prevent a political flanking move on the part of the Rome allied, Catholic countries of France and Spain, by attempting to transplant Protestants.

Scots began to move to Ulster County, Northern Ireland in the largest numbers when James I began planting the region with Scottish and English Protestants.  This began shortly after 1607 when the English were successful in seizing nearly all of Ulster.  The series of events that led to its capture were the culmination of many years of English attempts to establish a firm footing in Ireland.  First in 1603, two Scots purchased large pieces of land in Ulster, pledging to James I that they would move Protestants to their land.  In the same year, the English lord Deputy for Ireland succeeded in establishing one area of County Antrim as recognizably English Protestant in character.  Then in 1607, much of the Irish aristocracy went into permanent exile leaving their land to be seized by the English and giving them control of most of Ulster.

Scots began to move to Ulster around 1610 at the encouragement of the English and faced serious challenges when they arrived.  Ulster became home to a mix of Calvinist Presbyterians from Lowland Scotland, English Farmers and Irish Catholic natives.   The bloody violence of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, known as “the troubles,” has its roots in the conflict wrought by the plantation of Ulster.  The Ulster Scots came into conflict with hostile Irish natives who were dispossessed of their land and considered a “local annoyance to be subdued and controlled.”   But they also came into conflict with the English Protestants because of their long history of religious and political discord.  Scots found themselves in a precarious situation in Ulster.  “Episcopalians had power in government, Catholics were strong in numbers and the Presbyterians were pressed on every side, forging their loyalty to each other.”   In Ulster, Scots not only had to deal with frequent violent clashes with grievous Irish natives who had been cruelly driven off their land but periods of economic distress and food shortages, exorbitant rents and religious persecution by the English.

For the Scots, who would later move on from Ulster to America, their time and experiences in Ireland would play largely in the character they brought with them.  They would bring to America a bitter distrust of the British for being betrayed after fighting for the Crown in battle and a desire for freedom of religion and participation in government after years of British repression.  Living in Ireland, also, allowed Scots to participate in the manufacture and trade of linen and wool and the improvement of their own land free from the bonds of feudalism.  Leyburn notes the importance of this aspect of the Irish experience in the formation of Scotch-Irish character and the character of their descendants, “…from now on Ulstermen, like their Scotch-Irish descendants, would feel a new freedom to strike their own bargains, a man deciding his future for himself.  The passage to Ulster was a stride toward individualism.”   Scots living in Ulster were exposed to different influences and different opportunities, separating themselves from other Scots who remained in the Lowlands of Scotland.

Unfortunately, for many families Northern Ireland was a promise unfulfilled.  The trials and tribulations they faced over a century in Ireland were not few and their experiences there would drive many of them to again seek out a better life.  The reasons that many Ulster-Scots left Ireland for America is some combination of religious persecution, intermittent periods of economic depression and “rack renting,” the practice of raising rents on lease renewals to exorbitantly high rates.  There is some disagreement as to the principal reasons for emigration to America.  Religious persecution has been traditionally thought of as the most important reason for emigration but contemporary writers seem to agree that economics were a more significant factor.

The economic pressures on the people of Ulster, Ireland during the 17th and 18th century, were considerable.  Ulster was beginning to develop a successful trade in wool by the late 17th century when the English Parliament intervened to eliminate the competition.  At the behest of the English Parliament, the Irish Parliament passed the Woolens Act in 1699 restricting the sale of wool to any place except England and Wales.   Although the linen trade was beginning to grow, the Woolens Act was a serious setback for the Ulster economy. 

There were also frequent periods of economic depression.  The years preceding the early wave of emigration, 1714-1719, were marked by drought and disease.  Over the 18th century, the spurts of emigration from Ulster would coincide with the years of greatest economic distress.  Another significant factor was “rack-renting.”  Scots had leased lands and made improvements and by the time their leases ended their land was in far greater demand and vastly improved.  The landlords raised the cost of the leases, in many cases by more than double. Most Scots stubbornly refused to pay the increased rent.  It forced many Scots to choose between moving back to Scotland or making the longer trek to America.  Also among the economic reasons for the emigration were the promises and early reports of good fortune in the New World.  Those who went in the earliest migrations wrote letters home, encouraging friends and relatives to make the trip to America.  Emigration was promoted at local fairs, in newspaper advertisements and by ship owners who wanted to fill their ships with passengers after delivering loads of flaxseed to Ulster.

“Rack-renting” and trade manipulation hit the Scots population in Ulster hard and the mood shifted from optimism to gloom.  Notions of individual rights and economic freedom were by then not foreign to the people of Ulster and yet it seemed they would always be distant impossibilities as long as they stayed in Ireland.  Exclusion from civil and political life on the basis of religious choice was also a harsh measure that frustrated the Ulster Scots sense of freedom.  It is unclear whether Anglican religious intolerance is most responsible for the Presbyterian exodus from Ulster but one may find the details of that “persecution” as convincing evidence.

In 1703 Queen Ann passed her Test Act.  The Act required all civil and political office holders in Ulster, Ireland to receive the Anglican sacraments.  It effected both Irish Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians but the latter to a much greater extent. Presbyterians who did not conform were removed from the army, the militia, the civil service and from municipal corporations.  Presbyterian ministers were not allowed to hold services, teach or perform marriages.  If they did perform marriages, they were deemed illegal and the children born in these marriages were considered bastards.  In many places Presbyterians couldn’t bury their dead with out the service being conducted by an Episcopalian minister.  Though it was not an unusual action for the time, Queen Anne’s Test Act was especially unjust and misplaced given the context.  The Scots Presbyterians had always been loyal and had done much to help make Ulster a prosperous source of income for England.  Leyburn remarked about the act, “This Test Act was more than just unjust; it was demeaning and it was stupid.”  The Act wasn’t fully repealed until 1782.

Most contemporary writers explain the Scots-Irish migration as a consequence of economic depression but the traditional story and at least one recent commentator would insist that religious persecution was of central importance.  Senator Jim Webb, of Virginia, recently pointed out in “Born Fighting: How the Scotch-Irish Shaped America,” that of the 250,000 to 400,000 who left Ulster for America during the years 1717-1776 “almost all were dissenters and the great majority Presbyterians.”   The strength and the vitality of the Presbyterian Church in colonial America may add some weight to Webb’s consideration.  Regardless, there is little value in assigning an entire migration to one main reason.  Identifying broad causes puts the wave of migrations in context but if leaned on too heavily can obscure the particular differences and mislead one trying to understand their own family story.

The passage to America was long and arduous but the survival rate was high, all things considered.  Between 1717 and the American Revolution nearly a half million Ulsterman came to America on small, overcrowded ships that were disease ridden and took nearly three months to cross the Atlantic.  The journey itself was in fact the biggest drawback to making the trek, not only the difficult ocean crossing, but the expense of the trip.  Because of the expense many Ulsterman came to America as indentured servants.  The practice was familiar and did not at all deter people from travelling.  It was even thought of as a good opportunity to learn the ways of the New World, accumulate necessary supplies, and find good land.  After the pioneering journeys of 1717-1718, the way had been shown for the Presbyterian Scots of Ulster Ireland.  From that point to the Revolution the tides of migrants would grow larger every time the economy in Northern Ireland went sour.  Some historians have viewed this migration as a great loss for Northern Ireland,   “during the first half of the eighteenth century, Down, Antrim, Armagh, and Derry were emptied of their Protestant families who were of more value to Ireland than California gold mines.”

In the early years of emigration, the Scotch-Irish arrived in ports all along the coast including Annapolis, Charleston, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  Scattered settlements were founded in New England and in the Old New York MapMohawk Valley, Otsego County and what later became Ulster and Orange County, New York but for the most part the Scotch-Irish were not welcome in the north east region    By the 1720’s, the preferred ports of entry were Philadelphia, Chester, Pennsylvania and New Castle, Delaware.  From the Pennsylvania-Delaware area the Scotch-Irish sought out the western frontier of the colonies, traveling on foot or horseback if they could afford it.   They moved into and settled in the wilderness regions of southeast Pennsylvania, the valley of Virginia and in the Piedmont of the two Carolinas.  Clearing land for subsistence farms, sometimes claiming squatter’s rights, they built bare log cabins and established Presbyterian congregations.   In Pennsylvania and Virginia, they were encouraged to populate the colonial border with the Native Americans and the French Territory to act as a buffer between the Natives and the settled colonies.  Consequently, fighting with Native Americans played largely in the experience of the frontier Scotch-Irishman.  As Scotch-Irish historian James Leyburn phrases it, “pioneers were insatiable in their land hunger.”  The push into Native territories brought the Scotch-Irish into frequent, violent conflict with Native Americans especially in the second half of the 18th century during and after the French and Indian War.

The Scotch-Irishman was a pioneer, a Presbyterian, a farmer, a warrior and a whiskey drinker.  A constant movement into the wilderness marked Scotch-Irish settlement and culture.  Floods of families were pushing further down the Appalachians and the communities that formed from Pennsylvania to the areas far south and west set up organized institutions similar to those they left in Ulster.  Churches were built and schools were organized, stores and taverns were set up and courts of law were established.  However the transient nature of the population challenged the familiar sense of social classes and the Scotch-Irish developed a rugged individualism and democratic populism on the frontier.  Status was measured by the development and care of one’s land and successive generations were always moving further out to the edges of the frontier to claim their own stake and prove their worth.  Status through filial bond did not hold well in border communities and men were only held in esteem if they had proven themselves.  It has been said that out of this Scotch-Irish frontier culture developed the American sense that family legacy does not prove one’s worth.

A certain rough and wild disposition also developed in the frontiersman, one given to the impulses of a life removed from the disciplinary gaze of a stable society.  There was a tension in the Scotch-Irish experience between living the settled and orderly life and living as the pioneer on the outskirts of colonial civilization. If anything tempered the nature of the Scotch-Irish and guided their behavior it was the Presbyterian Church.  Presbyterianism and Scotch-Irish religious beliefs changed over the colonial years and the frontier life was always a challenge to upright living but the principles of the Calvinist faith served as moral rudder and the foundation of social institutions.   Presbyterian ministers were often scarce in the American backcountry during the 18th century but generally if there was a church and a minister in a community there was also a school.  The minister also served as the teacher.  Since the time of the Reformation in Scotland education played a central role in Presbyterianism.  Over the 18th and 19th centuries many Scotch-Irish converted to the Baptist and Evangelical faiths but they were crucial in propagating the Presbyterian Church and promoting popular education in America.   Recent writers have downplayed the average level of education of the Scotch-Irishman but the long list of early American statesman, ministers and professionals among their descendants is evidence to the contrary.

Despite their contributions to the spread of education and religion in America the notion of the backwoodsman, warrior and “hillbilly” dominates the historical view of the Scotch-Irishman.  Among outsiders on the frontier the Scotch-Irish earned a reputation of being hot-tempered reckless, given to drinking, adept at fighting Native Americans, clannish, aggressive and protective of individual rights.   According to Jim Webb, their warrior nature is deeply rooted in the ways of the Scottish clan.  In his assessment this warrior ethic was born in Scotland in battles with England, nurtured through a century of fighting in Ulster, and proven in the Colonies through the French and Indian war and the great contributions to the Revolution.

Scotch-Irishman made up the core of the Pennsylvania Line of George Washington’s army and somewhere from one third to one-half of the “rebel” soldiers during the Revolutionary War were Scotch-Irish.   The Scotch-Irish fought with a tenacity fueled by a bitter hatred for the British and a ruthlessness developed from years of guerilla fighting with the Natives. The Scotch-Irish were present in large numbers in critical battles leading up to the Revolutionary victory and this, perhaps their most important contribution to making America, has played largely in every historical narrative about the people.                     

On the border between the established settlements of the east and the wilderness and the Native menace to the west, the Scotch-Irish distinguished themselves from the other Scottish and Irish settlers and became an identifiable group.  It is unclear exactly when or why the term Scotch-Irish began to be applied but evidence of such description can be found from as early as 1755.   It is sure, however, that the term came into popular use around the late 19th century when Presbyterians of Irish descent began to distinguish themselves and their contributions to the Republic from the waves of Irish Catholic immigrants entering the country. They declared proudly their distinction and efforts in building America, “The plantation of the Scot into Ulster kept for the world the essential and best features of the lowlander.  But the vast change gave birth to and trained a somewhat new and distinct man, soon to be needed for a great task which only the Ulsterman could do; and that work – which none save God, the guide, foresaw – was with Puritan to work the revolution that gave humanity this republic.”    The Presbyterian Scots from Ulster, Ireland never identified themselves as Scotch-Irish and by a second generation in the new world they were identifying themselves according to their colony, “Virginian,” and later as “Americans.”  They were, however, a people set apart by a unique adaptability to frontier life, an inclination toward democratic institutions, a commitment to religion and education and an instinct and tradition of bravery in battle.

This is the traditional story of the Scotch-Irish and anyone who counts these people among their ancestors may feel a connection to it.  In exploring my own family history and attempting to confirm and expand on what I found in that old book, I learned that the story of my Scotch-Irish family does not exactly fit neatly into this picture.  In many ways, it does fit in to this narrative. But in several important ways, it diverges and reflects a micro-narrative of the Scotch-Irish that is not commonly found in the literature on the people.

The differences go back to Scotland itself.  The McElroy’s of my ancestry were not Lowlanders in the strict sense as most of the Ulster Scots were.  The name McElroy, meaning “son of the red-haired servant,” is Gaelic in origin. The McElroy’s were likely Gaelic Highlanders who migrated to the Lowlands sometime before the time of Knox and the Protestant Reformation.  McElroy’s from Ulster were among the settlers of Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas and the old American western frontier but the McElroy’s in my direct line of ancestry were among the small numbers of Scotch-Irish families to settle in New York.    Another critical difference is that the first McElroy family in my direct line did not immigrate to America until after the Revolution, around 1811.  Their location of settlement and the different nature of social forces and opportunities they were exposed to also led them to different political affiliations than the masses of Scotch-Irish in Pennsylvania and the south.  While Jackson’s populist Democratic party won the favor of Ulsterman in the southern and frontier areas my four-times great-grandfather, representing their opposition in the early years of America, was a Whig and an Old Line Whig, holding on until the party collapsed. 

Though the differences are significant the similarities are undeniable.  McElroy’s were Covenanters in Scotland and strong believers in the Presbyterian faith becoming ministers and elders in their church here in America.  The McElroy’s who settled in New York exhibited both clannish tendencies and the willingness to brave the frontier.  My family moved to New York following their extended families and married second cousins after settling near Rome, on what was then the edge of the state.  Military service and political involvement were valued in the very earliest generations of my family.  My four-times great-grandfather was a Whig Alderman in Albany for many years and despite the Whig preference to avoid war over slavery and secession, my three-times great-grandfather wore the uniform of the Union Army in the Civil War.

Among the most important similarities to the traditional story of the Scotch-Irish, however, is the very loss of the Scotch-Irish identity and heritage over the generations.  The Scotch-Irish never thought of themselves as any kind of minority group before or after the Revolution and very readily identified themselves as Americans and nothing else.  In fact, I believe that the sense of Irish heritage in my family does not even come from my father’s side but from my grandfather’s mother who was the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants.  Unlike, or perhaps exactly like, many American families there were no traces of the “Old Country” in my home.  My mother is a “Smith” and is only in touch with the Hungarian roots on her mother’s side and my father gives me the sense of Irish identity that I have connected with.  But, the only experience of my cultural heritage that I can remember from my youth is eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.  Though I identify with my Irish heritage, I am more than anything a New Yorker and an American and I think that experience is very common among people of Scotch-Irish descent.  The only regrettable effect is that so many families and people lose out on a connection to this heritage and to the family story that fits within it.

I have been fortunate to rediscover this past and to have the opportunity to piece together its fragments with what remains of it.  With the information I have gathered so far, I have begun to trace the events of the lives of my ancestors and my direct line of heritage.

McElroy’s were Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters from the Lowlands who resisted the efforts of King Charles I to force his Anglican religion on them.   The term Covenanter refers to the agreement signed by Presbyterians to practice their faith at all costs.  The results of this royal effort are famous.  Charles I asked Parliament for the tax funds to put down the Covenanters rebellions and Parliament responded by grabbing for more power and started the English Civil War.  Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads beheaded Charles I at the conclusion of the Civil War but the religious intolerance and oppression continued.  The persecution and religious fervor reached a fever pitch around 1688; historians now identify these years as “the killing times” for the horrific violent clashes between the Covenanters and the British.   According to the family history the McElroy’s left Scotland around this time, the “time of the persecutions.”

Under intense persecution from the English and Anglican Church, these Scots from the Lowlands migrated to the Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland, which had been developing as a British Colony by the transplant of large numbers of Protestants.  The McElroy’s migrated to Armagh, Down and Derry but only a generation or two later began to move on again in the waves of Ulster immigration to America that occurred from 1717 to the Revolution.  Though many McElroy’s left Ulster during this period my direct ancestors did not immigrate until after the revolution around 1811.  This obscures the reason for leaving but makes clearer the reasons why they ended up in New York Regardless of the specific reasons for leaving, one thing is certain, this time they left for a place they would stay.  Those McElroy’s who left before the revolution, carrying a bitter, centuries old hatred for the British Crown and Episcopacy ended up serving in the battles that liberated the Colonies from English clutches.   Those that arrived after the revolution embraced the culture and values of the new land and worked hard to make lasting contributions to its growth.

Among other areas around the eastern seaboard, including Kentucky and Pennsylvania, a group of McElroy’s began settling in upstate New York, in the Albany area shortly after the Revolution.  Two brothers, Samuel and James McElroy settled in Albany, New York, coming from County Down, Ireland.  They were educated, successful men who must have left a solidly middle class life in Ulster.  Moving here in their thirties, they both managed to achieve professional success, James as an architect and builder and Samuel as a merchant.  According to the family history the name was well known in the area by the end of the eighteenth century.

In 1811, my five-times great-grandfather, Alexander McElroy and family followed his daughter who left Ulster for New York City in 1809 to marry a cousin.  They were, also, following the groups of McElroy families who had left for New York in the years following the revolution.  Alexander moved his family to Trenton, Oneida County, New York farther north and to the west of earlier McElroy settlers in New York.   They likely came by way of Albany, traveling on the turnpike that rambled through the Mohawk Valley in a wagon or stagecoach amid the “ever moving pageant” of herds of cattle and sheep, yankee peddlers, artisans and farm vehicles.

New York State underwent great transformation in the years following the Revolution and the McElroy family became part of the social, economic and political change that would continue in the early decades of the 19th century.  Opportunities were created for many new families to acquire land.  Land holding was democratized as western lands were opened and settled by freeholders.  Tory land was confiscated and primogeniture was abolished; all of this contributed to breaking up much of the landed aristocracy, shrinking the gulf between rich and poor and loosening social rigidity.  New York became a place for “new” men like Alexander Hamilton and George Clinton.    The biggest change in the land history of New York, between 1790 and 1825, was the division and distribution of large land holdings into the hands of small individual proprietors.

In the early years of the 19th century, Rome was on the frontier of New York State.  It was at the center of the divide between “new” New York and “old” New York.  Years before Alexander and family settled, much of the area was virtually unbroken wilderness.  In Trenton, Oneida County, near Rome, is where Alexander and family settled.  By 1814, Alexander had gathered the means necessary to own and operate a farm and he and two of his brothers names appear on the land census of Oneida County in 1814.   Farming boomed in upstate New York in the years from 1783 to 1825 and improved farmland rose from about 1,000,000 acres in 1784 to 5,500,000 acres in 1821.  Historians have observed, however, that these numbers do little to describe the brutal and backbreaking tasks required of the frontiersman of New York to transform the wilderness into farmland.  “Their struggle with the forest deserves retelling if only to remind urbanized New Yorkers of a fascinating chapter in the development of the Empire State.”

Alexander’s family assimilated into the American culture, his daughters marrying local native landowners and his sons taking advantage of opportunities to work off of the farm.  They were accustomed to a hard life and were bred with centuries of toughness born out of struggles in Scotland and Ireland.  They came with the force of a turbulent history, full of hope and desperate for opportunity that would secure freedom and happiness.  It is a very typical American story of a family leaving a troubled place for the immense possibilities in America.  Not six years after they moved to New York, that opportunity came in the form of a project that would not only change the course of the history of my family but the history of the United States.

In 1817 work began on the historic Erie Canal.  The project was commenced with a ceremony in Rome on the auspicious day of July 4th, 1817; only miles from Trenton and the fortunate location Alexander had chosen to make a new life.  Many people were in attendance to see Governor Clinton put the first shovel in the ground, “exulting in the past, enjoying the present and anticipating the future.”   The Erie Canal was a project of unprecedented ambition to connect the great Lake Erie with the Hudson River in order to produce one uninterrupted channel of water from the Atlantic to what was then the Old Northwest (Ohio and the region now known as the Midwest).

The prospects for benefit were obvious.  The Canal was to be a channel for hastened communication of goods and people and a means of politically and culturally linking the people of the growing Old Northwest with the developed Eastern Seaboard.   Its success would also prevent encroachment from the Spanish and British who bordered the Old Northwest on the other side.  The engineering challenges, however, made the realization of such a canal seemingly impossible.  Elkanah Watson, an early planner of a similar but much smaller canal thought a canal from the Erie to the Hudson was inconceivable, “We should not have considered it much more extravagant to build a canal to the moon.”   Compounding the engineering difficulties was the glaring fact that America lacked engineers who knew anything about canals.  At the time, there was little thought that the United Sates could furnish engineers of sufficient ability and experience to accomplish such a monumental and entirely new task.  Thomas Jefferson had even dismissed the idea, “Why sir, you talk of making a canal three hundred and fifty miles long through wilderness!  It is a little short of madness to think of it at this day!

Many people were skeptical but the Erie turned out to be an enormous success, and possibly, the most important public work ever built in America. It brought commercial trade from far and wide through New York at the mouth of the Hudson, enriching New York City and the cities along its path and opening the great lakes and the Mississippi to the Atlantic trade.  It was also an immense achievement for those who worked on it, “none but those who had examined the line previous to commencement of the work, who had seen the rude and undulating surface which is traversed, the rocks which were to be blasted, the irregular ledges, filled with chasms and fissures, which were to form the basis of a water tight canal – the spongy swamps and gravel beds and quick sands which were to be made impervious to water, and in short, the huge masses of rough materials, which, with uncommon labor, were to be reduced to symmetry and form, can duly appreciate the efforts which it has required to surmount these serious obstacle.”

Alexander’s sons James, Thomas, and William were young men; Thomas eighteen, at the time that work on the canal began in 1817.  They worked their way up to become engineers or assistant engineers at “America’s first school of engineering,” the Erie Canal.  Many working on the canal had the title engineer long before they had earned it. Mostly, everyone who worked on the project was learning as they went.   It was always known that engineering had long been the family business up to and including my grandfather, but it was always a mystery as to why or how that began.  I was proud to learn that that the skill and knowledge that had provided opportunity to so many subsequent generations of my family had been hard won and passed down carefully through the years.  A story like this strikes at the very heart of the idea of American opportunity and enterprise and largely represents the strength of a growing nation in its infancy.  The Erie Canal proved to be a resounding success, exceeding all expectations of benefit and its creation produced the first generation of truly American engineers.  It also helped to forge together a growing nation and made New York, “The Empire State.”

Thomas, my four-times great-grandfather worked his way up to assistant engineer in the two years he worked on the Erie Canal.  After learning the skill of surveying and leveling land under the legendary engineer Canvass White, Thomas moved on to the bustling city of Albany to ply his trade. There he would marry a distant cousin, Margaret McElroy, the daughter of one of the first McElroy settlers in the Albany area, Samuel McElroy.  The year of the completion of the canal was of personal importance for Thomas, who married and had his first child Samuel; born the same month the Canal was opened.

That month there was a grand ceremony in Albany attended by large numbers of people.  “Twenty-four pieces of cannon were planted on the pier, from which a grand salute was fired as the boats passed from the canal into the basin, down which they proceeded, towed by yawls manned by 24 masters of vessels, and cheered onward by bands of music, and the huzzas of thousands of rejoicing citizens, who crowded the wharves, the south bridge, the vessels, and a double line of canal boats, which extended through the whole length of the basin.”   It was an exciting time to live in Albany.  The canal had stimulated economic activity, raised land values and offered opportunities to a wider class of people.   With the growth of business, economic success and the flood of immigration, cities grew rapidly in New York from 1825 to 1856 and Albany was no exception.  In 1825, the population of Albany was 15,971 and it more than tripled within thirty years to 57,333.

In Albany, Thomas became an active member of his church, a civil engineer and, later, a merchant, a prominent local politician and one of his city’s “most estimable citizens.”   The success of the Erie Canal encouraged other internal improvements and being a civil engineer and a beneficiary of public works projects, Thomas became a supporter of the Whig party in New York.  The Whig Party favored raising public dollars for public improvements.   Becoming a politician puts Thomas firmly within the characteristic view of the early Scotch-Irish settlers and reflects his people’s eagerness to become involved in their own governance after years of British mistreatment.  “Since the denial of the franchise to the non-conformists in Ireland threw the Scotch-Irish back upon their church assemblies for exercise in government they were perhaps more eager for participation in affairs of state when they reached America.  Accustomed to close reasoning in debate the Scotch-Irish leaders from Maine to Georgia accepted political responsibility promptly and successfully."

By 1838, Thomas was thirty-nine and had risen to a level of some local public importance.  That year, he was named both an original trustee of the Albany Medical College and elected an Alderman of Albany City.   Thomas and Margaret also gave birth to three girls Eleanor, Jane and Margaret and two other boys Alexander and Thomas.  Margaret died at the age of fifteen and Thomas at the age of thirty-four.  After serving in the Navy for the Union during the Civil War, he served under Admiral Worden and died in 1868 at Callao, Peru. Thomas was a faithful member of the Whig Party and an “Old-Line Whig,” hanging on to the bitter end as the party dissolved over the slavery question.   He was Alderman of his ward for many years.   Living a long and productive life in Albany, he became a prominent citizen and an elder in the First Dutch Reformed Church on Pearl St. Later in life he became a successful merchant and grocer. Despite his change in profession and desire to see one of his sons become a Presbyterian minister, Thomas ensured that his sons were instructed in the emerging sciences of engineering.  His sons Samuel and Alexander both became engineers.   Described as an industrious and frugal man who acquired sufficient means to provide a comfortable home and life for his family, Thomas was widely admired by a large circle of friends.  Thomas died on October 21, 1881, in Albany.  After purchasing a bouquet of flowers, Thomas headed for the railroad tracks and the cemetery that was on the other side.  Not noticing the south bound line coming behind the north bound line, he crossed and crossed safely but was hit on the back of the neck and head by the north bound line and thrown thirty feet to his death.  The body was taken to his residence at 244 N. Pearl St.  Thomas left his wife Margaret who died two years later, two sons and two daughters.

Incredibly, within the pages of that family history book I found a picture of Thomas McElroy.  An old engraving ofThomas McElroy his face had been reproduced and included in the book. I was speechless when I came across it.  There in front of me was the face of a man who was my direct ancestor, born before the year 1800.  This was a man, who at one time, I never knew existed and he was now staring me in the face from the glowing computer screen.  What’s amazing is that he was just sitting out there in the middle of a vast expanse of endless information that is useless, priceless and everything in between.  He was waiting to be seen, waiting to be discovered.  The odds that I would find his story were highly unlikely, the odds that I would see the face of the man six generations my senior, were infinitely smaller and I still marvel at that chance find.

Engineering continued in the family and Samuel, the son of Thomas and my five- times great-grandfather for whom five successive generations were named, became prominent in his profession.  He played a central role in many important public works projects in the City of Brooklyn and Kings County during the second half of the 19th century.  I found numerous newspaper articles, references in history and engineering books and engineering papers that were either written by him, referenced his comments or documented his work.

Samuel was born in Albany and was frequently in ill health as a child, with a weakness in his lungs.  His physician recommended outdoor activity as the best remedy and, consequently, much of his education occurred outside the closed confines of a schoolroom.  If it were not for this condition, Samuel would have been educated with a view to the ministry as, Thomas, his father was very much set on his oldest son becoming a minister.   After finishing a course at the Albany Academy, Samuel was taught by private tutor on horseback as they rode through the hills surrounding Albany.  Through a devotion to reading and studying in the open air, Samuel obtained an education in the arts, philosophy and engineering.   He went to work in the office of the city surveyor as a very young man and, as would become characteristic, took to his work with great success.  In his earliest years of work, he won a prize of five hundred dollars for designing a water supply system for the city of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and the system was built in the year of his twenty second birthday.  At the age of twenty-three, he was appointed assistant city surveyor of Albany and was immediately put to work on remodeling the Albany water supply.

Samuel started a professional life and a family in Albany New York.  In 1848, Samuel married Catherine Knapp of Albany, daughter of Mary Haring and Hubel Knapp.  Here is the origin and meaning of the initial “H” in the name of my great-great grandfather.  The name Haring comes down from one of the earliest Dutch settlers of New York State, Jan Pietersen Haring and Mary Haring was the granddaughter of a Revolutionary hero and member of the first continental congress, John Clark. Samuel and Catherine had a first child, Irving, who would later become a Presbyterian minister, born in 1849 followed by Samuel Haring, who would follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer, he was born in 1851.

As a young man, Samuel found himself filled with patriotism. He enlisted and served for seven years time as an assistant engineer in the United States Navy.   He was one of the first to serve in the then new Engineers Corps of the United States Navy. His work consisted of designing, building and running the naval steamer Fulton.  After leaving the service, Samuel continued a dedicated study of engineering, learning French to read what he believed to be superior engineering texts.  The Navy had brought Samuel and his family to Brooklyn where he would spend the remainder of his life.

In 1854, at the age of twenty-nine, Samuel would receive an opportunity that would propel his career and local reputation.  General Ward B. Burnett was charged with the task of determining how to supply Brooklyn with aBrooklyn WaterWorks Map permanent supply of water.  In that year, Samuel was called by Gen. Burnett to assist in making a survey of the conditions and situation.  Proving his ability, Samuel was promoted to Chief Engineer of the Nassau Water Works Company one year later in 1855.  It became his task to oversee the construction of a distribution pipe and hydrant system in the borough, the construction of the Prospect Hill and Ridgewood reservoirs and a closed conduit from the Ridgewood pumping station to the Baisley Pond. For all of these elements of the project Samuel prepared the plans and specifications. Though he resigned as chief engineer before the project was completed, he has been recognized as integral to its success.  The waterworks were a famous achievement and opened to fireworks and great celebration.  In later years, Samuel would become embroiled in bitter public controversies with competing engineering firms over projects to extend the works. The controversy was well documented in the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Times over the years.

Today, the reservoirs that once supplied the fresh water for Brooklyn are still filled with water but are now idle and in most cases stocked with fish.  The reservoirs are no longer needed to wash the masses of Brooklyn and are no longer the vital public asset they once were.  Conduit Blvd. or Sunrise Hwy, as it’s called in Nassau County, was built on the right-of-way that was purchased by the City of Brooklyn to build the major pipe system that conducted the water.  Later in the 1920’s, Robert Moses used the right-of-ways and the land around theses conduits and reservoirs in his plans to build much of his state park and parkway system on Long island.  By the 1920’s, New York City had incorporated Brooklyn and these properties became assets of the City making it easier for Moses to build in Nassau and Suffolk County.

There are buildings and pump houses that were situated between the reservoirs that were built to maintain the water works.  These buildings and structures still lie along the edges of Sunrise Highway on Long Island, crumbling, in various states of disrepair.  Their lurking presence has garnered the attention and interest of many, from developers, to local historians interested in the peculiar ruins of a bygone era, to average passersby.      

Locals, on the south shore of Long Island near towns like, Merrick, Freeport, Bellmore and Wantagh, know these small reservoirs well. Surrounded by thin forest that split the neighborhoods north of Sunrise Highway, they are generally and accidentally the only woodsy respite to be found in these classic suburban towns. The local people now find use for them despite whatever restrictions may be placed on them. I, as well as many of my local contemporaries, found the reservoirs to be especially useful for general mischief and fishing.  Throughout my youth I engaged in both fishing and mischief at these reservoirs or “the res” as we called them.  I was ignorant of the source of the colloquialism we used to identify these little ponds, knowing that they no longer supplied water to any homes.  I never knew nor could have imagined that my three-times great-grandfather had used them in his design more than one hundred and thirty years earlier.

The Brooklyn Water Works, I learned was the beginning of his long and active career, a career that was largely put on hold when the Civil War began in 1861.  Samuel attempted to re-enlist in the Navy but was rejected by the physician and unable to serve with his two brothers.  He instead directed his energies to increasing the water supply of Washington D.C. who had a system that was not designed to meet the wartime requirements.  After the war, Samuel went to Peru and made surveys and plans for rebuilding the aqueducts once used by the Incas for irrigating the Santa Valley, then, returned to Brooklyn and turned his attention to local work. 

Samuel was an accomplished engineer of water works projects, being also associated with projects in Hartford and Watertown as well as Brooklyn, Washington D.C. and Hamilton Canada. In a career longer than fifty years Samuel also worked on important projects in engineering fields including roads, railroads, canals, rivers and harbors.  

One of his first large projects after the end of the Civil War was to make plans for constructing a basin, docks and streets in and near Wallabout Bay (Henry Stiles, A History of the City of Brooklyn the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh vol iii. (Brooklyn: Subscription, 1870) 585.) There was great popular desire to link the eastern and western divisions of the city and the project was initiated by an act of the legislature on May 11, 1867. Samuel McElroy was the chief engineer on the project that transformed the salt marshes that once adjoined the Navy Yards into what an early observer described a “magnificent basin that fronted the East River.”  The effects of the new basin and docks on the growing city were great and many; it provided the wards of the city a port for the delivery of supplies that the citizens urgently needed such as building materials and coal, it encouraged manufacturing in the Wallabout valley and it attracted the location of railroad depots and markets in an area of the city that was previously inaccessible.

The Wallabout Bay improvement was not the only project that garnered Samuel’s attention at the close of the war.  As early as 1800, there had been talk of building a bridge between Brooklyn and New York but it was not until the 1860’s that the bridge talk became serious and plans were developed.  John Roebling’s great vision of a bridge spanning the East River was not the only plan, though it was the most favorable and several local engineers offered different plans as well as criticism of Roebling’s plan.  Samuel, having risen to a level of local notoriety by this time, offered a different plan and gave lectures to interested parties detailing his vision.  He wanted to damn the East River and build a 450 foot wide peer linking the two boroughs, with three causeway passes and room for a train line.  He presented his ideas early in 1869 in lectures at the American Institute and in an article in the New York Times just as Roebling’s “East River Bridge” plans were only beginning to come to fruition.   A commentator of the time lambasted Samuel and other local engineers for what he described as opportunistic interest in the bridge proposal.  After the death of John Roebling, they were accused of offering their criticism and opposing plans as a means of obtaining some free advertising in the local papers.   The writer offered no reasons for this claim. It is clear that Samuel, at least, was intent on having his proposal considered and built as he drafted detailed plans.   It is interesting to wonder how that stretch of river might appear today if Roebling’s design had not won out.  The beauty and grace of the Brooklyn Bridge, with its towering gothic arches and intricate stonework is perhaps the most enduring and recognizable figure of the city’s landscape; it is hard to even imagine that there were alternatives.

Samuel would make further contributions to the growth of Brooklyn but not in the area of bridge building.  In 1870, and as late as 1890, Kings County was still the second largest producer of vegetables in the country behind Queens County and a constant supplier to Manhattan.  The towns surrounding the city of Brooklyn, which was incorporated in 1848, were rural farmlands.  Across the river, New York City was growing by leaps and bounds, pushing residential development further and further to the edges of Manhattan and property values further and further upward.   In the late 19th century, Kings County would, also, experience tremendous growth as the city of Brooklyn, already the third largest in the country by the 1850’s, spread out across Kings County linking its towns.   

As a civil engineer, Samuel made significant contributions to the development of Brooklyn as an independent city and eventually integral part of the larger city of New York.

It was, also, in Brooklyn that Samuel and Catherine continued to grow a family that would stay there for nearly a century.  Daughters Mary, Margaret and Kate were born in 1854, 1857 and 1865.   Brooklyn was bustling; it experienced unprecedented growth in the second half of the 19th century, increasing its population tenfold from 1850 to 1900.  Not only was Samuel’s work essential in bringing fresh water to this growing city but he also became a key player in the plan to lay the modern street system of Brooklyn. 

Samuel served as the superintendent of the commission to survey and design a street system for Kings County.   In the 1870’s, much of Brooklyn was farmland.  Leading citizens, developers and speculators saw the spectacular growth of Manhattan and lamented Brooklyn’s slow crawl toward the same growth.  Though the project was underway, the Brooklyn Bridge had yet to be completed and property value was of far lower value in Brooklyn because of its poor communication with Manhattan.   In the 1875 survey, Samuel observed, “Through this whole area there is no direct steam railway communication with New York; no way in which with regularity, frequency, comfort and speed, a business man can be carried to and from the city, as he can be carried in any other direction; and in consequence of this an acre of building lots in the rocks or swamps of Harlem, six or seven miles from the Battery is worth twenty-five times as much as one in Kings County no farther away!

Samuel and many others in Brooklyn were of the belief that Kings County was particularly well suited for growth if farmland was converted to planned, residential property and transportation was improved.  He described this land as “admirably adapted to street and house construction,” later in the same report he went on, “this area which represents 15 1/3 percent in size cannot be surpassed in its advantages for suburban residence.”   Samuel, whose reports reflected a flair for rhetorical style, used an exaggerated but well crafted metaphor to describe his view of Brooklyn in his survey. Samuel stated, “If New York City is the active elephant’s trunk which ministers to a whole nation, these five towns of Kings County lay comparatively, supinely on the Bay and Harbor in the form of a huge turtle.”   He envisioned carefully planned uniform streets and avenues with new residences crossing the county and eventually a direct steam rail line to Manhattan.

Samuel created a design that was very unpopular with the farmers of Kings County but it created the infrastructure for growth that many desired. The city of Brooklyn was the only developed residential center in Kings County. So, Samuel planned aBrooklyn Street Pattern system that extended the roads of that city through the other towns and farms of the county in straight lines, forming grids across the county. The farmers were unhappy but the land speculators and developers were delighted and the government was pleased with the new source of tax revenues.  The street system was a catalyst for the sharp population growth in Brooklyn in the latter half of the 19th century. The design of the street system, backed by moneyed interests and political action has been pointed to by recent historians Linder and Zacharias as a case of planned redevelopment of agricultural land rather than as an inevitable process of Manhattan’s outward growth.  This encroachment into rural lands through planned growth became characteristic of the American suburban sprawl that continues up to this day.   In fact, it continued on Long Island, especially, only with a less dense character after Robert Moses built the Northern, Southern, Meadowbrook, Wantagh and other parkways.  In much the same way, the developers, real estate and construction interests benefited enormously.

The years that Samuel spent working on the street system of Kings County were not just a time of change for the city of Brooklyn it was also a time of change in the life and career of Samuel and his family.  During this time, his son Samuel H. began working with him after graduating from Brooklyn Polytechnic.  And on December 27th, 1878, Catherine, wife of Samuel and mother of five children died.   Samuel would later remarry and events that unfolded shortly after his death call in to question the happiness of his marriage to Catherine, or Kate as she was called.

It seems that Samuel’s great love was his work and after Catherine’s death he continued a long life of ambitious endeavors.  Later in his career, he would turn his attention to the building of railroads. He became the chief engineer of many lines in and around Brooklyn and New York City, as well as the engineer of an early Underground Railway Company and the Chief Engineer of a company set out to build the first continental railroad.

The summer resort of Coney Island was developing in the years between 1870 and 1880 and Samuel was involved chiefly in railroads serving this area.  He laid out the New York, Bay Ridge & Jamaica, the New York & Hempstead, the New York & Sea Beach and the New York & Coney Island Railroads. Perhaps his most significant railway work was on underground rails. He was the chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Underground Railway Company, which never succeeded in completing an underground line.   He has been credited with being the first to conceive of the idea that an underground railway, or subway as it is now known, would be desirable for Brooklyn.  It was also he, who despite being scoffed at, built the first underground rail line, a short one, not discovered by city engineers until after his death.    From 1884 until his death, he worked as the Chief Engineer of the Continental Railroad form New York to California direct and was always confident the project would be completed.

At the end of his career he also served as an expert in various railway, bridge and hydraulic cases. His opinions concerning water projects were frequently sought. He was often cited in New York Times and Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles covering debates of public improvement projects.  His opinion was sought on nearly every significant civil engineering project in Brooklyn for nearly a half century and he devoted much time in his later career to consulting on various cases.  In 1885 Samuel, was invited to London by the Royal Engineering Society of Great Britain to read a paper on hydraulics where he was enthusiastically welcomed and entertained.

Samuel’s career often brought him away from home for frequent and extended periods of time, a fact, which evidently became a sore point in his marriage to Catherine and a sore point with the woman he married after she died.  When Catherine died, Samuel married her cousin Mary Louise (Clark) McElroy.  Little more than a month after his death, December 10th, 1898, an article appeared in the Brooklyn eagle with the headline, “Samuel McElroy’s Will causes his Wife to Speak.” Apparently, Samuel did not leave much for Mary Louise in the will, claiming she was insane.  Mary Louise was strongly denying the charge and reported to interviewers that she had an unhappy marriage and that the two were not getting along. Mrs. McElroy told of Samuel’s many nights spent away from home and of more than once finding love letters in his jacket pocket upon his return.   Mary Louise also said that Catherine her cousin had similar complaints during their marriage.  When she confronted Samuel with this, he said Catherine was crazy too.  She went on to complain that though Samuel made more than $100 a day on most jobs, she rarely saw the benefits, living in a plain home as she described their residence at 50 Johnson in Brooklyn.  Son, Samuel H. McElroy and his brother and sisters saw no reason to believe she was in fact insane and told reporters that every need would be provided for.  Samuel H. was quoted in the Brooklyn Eagle, “It is our intention to take good care of our father’s widow, it is not our purpose to cheat her out of anything that rightfully belongs to her and as I say she will never want for anything.  We do not maintain that she is insane.”  Samuel H. attributed his father’s nights spent away from home to his active career and the insanity claim to his father and stepmother’s growing discord.  It was an interesting bit of personal details I was glad to find in the public record.

In a long and successful career, Samuel enjoyed a wide reputation of expertise and ability in fields at the cutting edge of human knowledge and productivity.  Samuel had a firm and persistent hand in the work of industrial and population growth in New York City and Sate in the second half of the nineteenth century.  His career and life, I think, represents the great differences between the story of my family and the story of the Scotch-Irish family found in the traditional narrative.  The Ulster, Ireland that my family left was more prosperous than it had been in earlier years and the people had been exposed to the Enlightenment.  The first generation of my family to marry in the new world already had knowledge of practical sciences and bourgeois aspirations.  A second generation was instantly imbued with the sense that education could provide the tools necessary to make the world understandable and transformable.  Growing up, Samuel was surrounded by engineers and surely, affected by the spirit of possibility and confidence that was characteristic of the 19th century American Civil Engineer.  His career is a classic example of the modern man’s drive to bring the forces of nature under his own control, to bend the world to his will.  Samuel’s story represents both the heart of American innovation and ingenuity in the 19th century.

Samuel H. continued the work of his father in Brooklyn, becoming city surveyor before Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City.  After graduating from Brooklyn Polytechnic, he joined his father’s firm and was soon at work on the street survey of Kings County.   Samuel H. married Grace Eileen Fish and had three sons, Samuel Austin, Jessie and Malcolm and two daughters Georgia and Evelyn.  Over his career, Samuel H. was the recipient of many public contracts; apparently often at the undue expense of the taxpayers, but such was the state of Brooklyn politics at the time.  An article appearing in the Brooklyn Eagle titled, “Had no Chance,” revealed that Samuel H. received contracts from the city regardless of the price of his bid for those projects and, that other engineers “had no chance.”  The article cited several specific projects that Samuel H. had entered a considerably higher bid than the lowest bidder yet still received the contract for the projects.

Samuel H. and his family lived in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Kings County, which was developed as a residential community as a result of the survey and street plans that he worked on with his father.   By the early 1890’s, “the habits of the average metropolitan” were changing and Bensonhurst had become an attractive suburb pulling New Yorkers and Brooklynites out of the city.  In an 1891 article, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the growing “desire on the part of the busy city man to seek at night some cool, quiet abiding place far away from the noise and atmosphere of the seat of his everyday operations.”  The article went on, “To this class of people Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea appeals with more than ordinary force.” Bensonhurst was advertised as a “model settlement where some of the most refined, intelligent and cultured of New York and Brooklyn’s citizens have built their homes.”  In the 1999 book, Of Cabbages and Kings County, Linder and Zacharias observe that “Bensonhurst was suitable for financial and social elites, as a brother of Mrs. Vanderbilt, an architect, a physician, an assemblyman” and Samuel H. McElroy, “lived there.”   It seems that Samuel H. did have a robust social life and he was an active mason, reflecting the interests and aspirations of the upper middle class in the gilded age.  He was a thirty-second degree mason, a member of the Kismet Temple of the Mystic Shrine, a member of Aurora Grata club, Carleton club and Gravesend Yacht Club.

Sadly, Samuel H. died a young and unexpected death being shocked by a trolley car and having a heart attack a month later in his office at 26 Court St. on May 22, 1903.   His death came shortly after he made a contribution to that McElroy genealogy that John McConnell McElroy put together and that I found more than a century later.  The book was published less than two years before his death.  His budding career was cut short and the family firm was passed to his sons and one of the engineers who worked for him.  Samuel Austin went into a partnership with a man named James J. Byrne and continued working as a surveyor and engineer in Brooklyn, later bringing his own son, Samuel Austin, into the business.

As the years passed, competition for business increased in Brooklyn but as the city and borough continued to experience growth there was much work to be found and for two more generations following Samuel H. there were men named Samuel McElroy working as engineers and surveyors on Court St. in Brooklyn.   The four generations succeeding Samuel H. McElroy, including myself have lived and worked in the New York City and Long Island area and engineering survived as the family business for more than one and hundred and fifty years until the late 1970’s. 

The story of my family in America is one of building a country and becoming a country.  McElroy’s worked on major public and private works that forged cities and a nation over its first two hundred years.  They were not men and women who claimed heroics or riches but simple people who met opportunity with hard work.  McElroy men in my family served and some died in American military service from the Civil War and World War II, right up to my father’s service as a draftee in Vietnam.  The McElroy’s built American roots and an American life and they defended it when asked to.  They left a desperate home, bereft of opportunity, beaten by religious oppression and sought a new hope across the ocean.  Here they flourished living, working and worshiping freely in this great country and contributing to its economic and industrial growth.

Unearthing the buried centuries of family history and piecing together this story is a process that continues to astound me.  It is not difficult to see how so much history can be lost from one generation to the next. In a society where all information of importance is written down, the oral history of a family that is often handed down through generations by way of separate and random stories told over time can be shuffled aside and forgotten over the years.  Family histories are buried with lives cut short and stories untold.  Histories are lost when tales of the past fall on deaf or uninterested ears.  This happens to most families and it is rare for one to know their ancestral history more than a few generations back.  There is a passage in the book The Scotch-Irish McElroy’s that eloquently describes how family traditions have been lost over the centuries:

Among our Celtic forbears in the dim and distant past, the doings of heroes and families and clans and their chiefs were rehearsed, on special occasions, by the bards, in the numbers of rude verse, with pantomime and extravagance and with small regard for the line between fact and legend.  The progress of civilization has retired the ancient bard and written history has taken the place of his rude poetry.  In regard to family history, however, the pen has not come into universal use. There are intelligent people and good citizens busied with the activities of social and business and life who have no written family record.  That they may have grandparents they do not call into question, but they do not know who they were.  By and by they or their children will wake up to the importance of knowing something about their ancestry.”

Although those words were written one hundred years ago, they still ring true today.  So many of us write only text messages and emails, are too busy with the affairs of life to document our family record and have no knowledge of our families beyond our grandparents.  I am grateful to my two-times great-grandfather Samuel H. McElroy for providing, as John McConnell McElroy described, “the fullest and best record” to that genealogy.

Finding this hundred-year-old history has laid an imperative before me.  It presents a charge to pick up the history I have found, fill in the holes, expand it and continue it.  To honor my ancestors, to preserve their legacy and to provide for posterity a view to their own past, I feel obligated.  This story of a family and the social, cultural and historical forces that shaped their lives over the 19th century in America is an effort to that end.

Sam McElroyBio: Sam McElroy M.S., is a History teacher in Queens, New York.  He is currently (2009) doing research for a book on his Scotch-Irish paternal ancestors and their relationship to the history of Albany and Brooklyn, New York in the 19th century.  He lives with his wife in Babylon, New York.

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