The Irish Built Railroad

Written by Meghan Gattignolo, Visitor Services Coordinator

St. Patrick’s Day has long been associated with and celebrated by the Irish, particularly North American Irish immigrants longing for home. Let’s remember how local Irish immigrants have impacted our region, building the railroad that made Clarksville a valuable city during the Civil War and inadvertently creating an emerald gem of a tourist destination in the middle of rural Tennessee.

A large number of the labor force in mid-to late-nineteenth-century America came from a sudden influx of immigrants, not the least of which was Irish. The Great Potato Famine tragedy between 1845 and 1852 led to a significant number of Irish emigrating to the United States and Canada in the basic hope of not starving to death. The big American cities were difficult for Irish immigrants. Most were extremely poor with no marketable skills, and Americans at the time were prejudiced against poor Irish immigrants. The St. Patrick’s Day tradition of eating corned beef and cabbage came from these impoverished urban immigrants, who boiled cabbage with this cheaper meat choice. The type of work available was often in factories or doing physical labor. Far from the bustle of the industrial cities of the North were rural Kentucky and Tennessee, where railroad construction was underway. 

L&N train and riders

Six-month family ticket for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, 1924

Before the 1850s, Houston County and Erin, Tennessee did not exist. Irish immigrants who found honest work in constructing the branch of the L&N railroad that connected Memphis and Clarksville with Louisville discovered a charming little green valley that reminded them of Ireland. While they worked, they camped here. Erin, Tennessee is found on federal maps as a stop on the L&N as early as 1861, as the track was completed just days before the Civil War started. The workers stayed and settled in the new town of Erin, the poetic name for Ireland.

Poster for Nashville-Clarksville Railroad Proposition

The L&N railroad proved a valuable asset during the Civil War. The railroads and rivers were the highways of the nineteenth century, and the L&N crossed right through the borders of the Union and the Confederacy. Control of the L&N during the Civil War meant having the upper hand in the fight. The ability to get supplies when and where soldiers needed them often was synonymous with winning a battle. The L&N is still a valuable asset to Clarksville and the surrounding areas. Manufacturing companies use the railroad to cheaply and quickly get materials from one place to another. You can even see the Clarksville train depot that was built later on for passenger trains. Right off 10th Street, close to where it connects to Madison Street, you’ll see the depot from around 1890. 

F&M Bank Huff & Puff Express Model Trains

Every Sunday and Wednesday you can catch our model trains run at the F&M Bank Huff & Puff Model Train exhibit on the Lower Level! Just a short drive southwest of Clarksville, you can visit Irish Town Tennessee to see what the railroad crews saw when they set up camp. Erin is well-known for its annual Irish Day to celebrate the founders of the town. The accompanying parade is a spectacle and the best St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the region. You can also take a selfie at the Clarksville train depot and tag the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center on Facebook and Instagram!


Meghan Gattignolo

Meghan Gattignolo is the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center’s Visitor Services Coordinator and regularly contributes articles to the Museum’s blog. From a military family, Meghan has spent most of her life in Clarksville. She loves learning about Clarksville’s history and writing. Meghan holds a B.A. in History from Austin Peay State University, with minors in German and Political Science. She lives in Clarksville with her husband and two daughters. 

Maegan Collins, Media & Communications Coordinator, prepares photographs and visual images as well as prepares the blog posts for the web.

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