By Peter McDermott
Some have it that the Irish built New York. In the case of Jim Rodgers’s family it could be said to be literally true.
His great-great-grandfather Cornelius Gallagher established a business empire that, among other achievements, provided most of the sand that was used in the construction of Manhattan north of 14th street and it made him extraordinarily wealthy
“He was a billionaire in modern terms,” Rodgers estimated of an ancestor who was 85 when he died in 1932.
“The charm of his character was his thorough naturalness, [and] perhaps it was this that carried him so triumphantly through his career,” said an obituary published by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. “In all, he was a lovable character and an affectionate friend.”
If this Famine-era immigrant born to a Donegal family wasn’t exactly “old money,” he was based in a part of Long Island that suggested he was. The patriarch had an address at East 38th Street in Manhattan, but summered at Port Washington on the North Shore with his wife Annie, his children and their families.
“This was a time when only a very few old WASP families went out to the Hamptons,” said Rodgers, the married father of two teenage children.
Instead, the action was on the North Shore. The newly affluent and famous, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived on Great Neck, which the novelist fictionalized as “West Egg” in “The Great Gatsby.” But he did go to parties across the bay on the Sands Point peninsula, or old-moneyed “East Egg” in the novel, which is where the love of Gatsby’s life, Daisy Buchanan, grew up and where the real-life Gallaghers were based.
“This was someone whom I was interested in since I was 15,” he said of the “Gatsby” author. When he read biographies as an adult, he saw a possible connection to his family.
“I like to think that Fitzgerald went to the Gallaghers’,” he said, referring primarily to the home of his great-grandfather Peter and his wife Mimi.
“They were a colorful family that partied for 100 years, because there was always money,” Rodgers said of the Gallagher clan. “They knew how to make money and they knew how to spend it.
“They were a family of raconteurs,” he added. By the time he came along the stories remained, but the money, for the most part, had been spent.
Rodgers is a downtown Manhattan lawyer who has completed two as yet unpublished novels. A popular reader at both the Irish American Writers & Artists salon and its spinoff Artists Without Walls, he writes about his world and what he knows. And while he’s fascinated by and feels close to the Gallaghers, he hasn’t been tempted to fictionalize their sprawling multi-generational story. For one thing, it might be a little too melodramatic for his literary style.
In or around 1926, his great-grandfather Peter C. Gallagher Sr. died in circumstances that were never made public. There were two main conflicting stories or theories. One was that he fell or was pushed in front of a subway train. The other, passed on to Rodgers by his mother, rings truer for him. In that version, Peter fell and hit his head off of the side of a yacht during a fight with one of his three brothers. One point of tension was Mimi, Peter’s wife, whom the brother had once loved, too.
The widowed Mimi (formerly Alice Mae Murray), who was born into an allied clan involved in the business, became the matriarch after Cornelius and Annie passed away. She made sure that her two sons -- Rodgers’s grandfather Peter C. Gallagher Jr. and John Murray Gallagher -- would assume key roles in the running of the business.
A generation later, after Peter’s death in the late 1950s, the neighbors on the North Shore said: “Enough!”
Rodgers said: “They [the Gallaghers] had stripped the dunes at Port Washington.” Articles in the local press ran with headlines like “The rape of the sand dunes.”
Emphasis on fun
His mother’s brothers and her cousins sold Gallagher Brothers Sand & Gravel in 1960 and went into the shipyard business. That went bankrupt in the 1990s, but some family members made a “tidy sum” by selling the lease of the dry dock and shipyard to IKEA for its store at Red Hook in Brooklyn.
Rodgers’s mother, the former Helen “Chickie” Gallagher, grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, spending one part of the year in Palm Beach, Fla., and the other in New York. She went to elite Catholic schools in both places.
The Gallaghers belonged to a group of wealthy Irish Catholic families on the Upper East Side that had intermarried and were otherwise interconnected over the generations.
The emphasis was always on fun. “My mother’s was the last generation to enjoy that lifestyle,” Rodgers said. During Chickie Gallagher’s high school and college days, parties often meant 20 or more friends staying overnight.
“I thought she’d exaggerated some of it, but a friend of hers confirmed to me it was all true,” he added.
The Gallaghers had servants, of course, including a chauffeur named Eddie Dillon, whose body, when his time came, was entombed in the Gallagher plot. Rodgers later learned that the family retainer he knew as a child had changed his name from Halpern to avoid discrimination as a driver.
“The family claimed he was the only Jew buried in Calvary,” he said.
Chickie met her future husband, James H. Rodgers Jr., in Westhampton, where the family had been spending its summers since the late 1940s. He was from a Catholic family in New Jersey of English, Scottish and Irish heritage. “His father had a company, but they weren’t wealthy like the Gallaghers,” said his son. The young couple married in 1955.
“My father really loved and respected the Gallaghers,” Jim Rodgers Jr. said.
Rodgers Sr. was sorry that his seven children didn’t know his parents-in-law – they both died in their 50s – but he was a keen observer who could relate what he’d seen and heard. And his wife, brothers-in-laws and sisters-in-laws were there, too, and so the storytelling and the laughter continued.
“Thanksgiving was always with the Gallagher family,” Rodgers said of a 1960s and ‘70s childhood. “Christmases were spent with my father’s side.”
Despite the family’s profile and wealth, Rodgers’s mother hadn’t known about the most public and controversial episode in the family’s business history. In 1920, Goodwin-Gallagher Sand and Gravel Corporation and allied companies were prosecuted by the Justice Department under the terms of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
A story in the New York Times on Dec. 20 of that year ran with a subhead: “Eleven Individuals and Four Corporations accused of plot to Control Sand Trade.” The charge was they had established their own “Board of Trade” and that it fixed prices. Rodgers said that it’s clear from press interviews that his great-grandfather Peter and his brothers John, Joseph and Frank didn’t understand quite what they were doing wrong. (Their father, Cornelius Gallagher, had recently retired.)
The Times reported: “The indictments charge that for three years the sand dealers named in the indictment have dug ‘Cow-bay’ sand on Long Island for use throughout a great part of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.”
“As a lawyer, I understand the legalities. But you can see that there’s a disconnect with them. They just didn’t get it,” Rodgers said. “But they paid the fine.
“I find it a source of pride, a weird source of pride, that a child of the Famine had such a monopoly,” he said.
A new company, Gallagher Brothers Sand and Gravel, was formed after the dismantling of the old one. Rodgers has no information about what Mimi Gallagher’s brothers-in-law did after she established control of the company, but he believes it’s likely they continued to make money.
Reviewing the arc of the family’s history, he said: “Goodwin-Gallagher or Gallagher Brothers supplied the bulk of the sand and gravel for most of what was built north of 14th Street, including the subways, the Queensboro Bridge, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.”
“I don’t know if we can confirm if Cornelius came over because of the Famine,” Rodgers said of the patriarch.
The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick obituary said his birth took place on July 4, 1845. The New York Times, in a news report announcing his death, suggested he was born the following year and added that he left Ireland as a child.
“He was essentially a New Yorker, having lived all his life in the old Twenty-first Ward, where as a boy, early education was received at a public school on East 25th Street,” the Friendly Sons’ obit reported.
“He saw his father lay out streets from 26th Street to 40th Street,” it continued.
It’s not clear, however, if “lay out” meant the father was a ditch digger or that he had a more supervisory role.
“It has been recorded that he [Cornelius] brought sand and gravel from Long Island by schooner, first in 1866,” the Friendly Sons obit said.
Gallagher bought out the competition that was hauling sand and gravel from the bluffs of Port Washington, and then merged with another sand king named Goodwin.
“From the hardy stock from which he sprang Mr. Gallagher inherited an iron constitution, capable of great physical endurance and a capacity for hard, continuous work,” the Friendly Sons added.
His wasn’t the only hard work being done. At one point, the business was shipping in 800 Italian immigrant workers from the Lower East Side. The Italians, in time, preferred to live nearby and a school was built. The workers’ side of the story also gets its due at Port Washington Public Library with the help of oral histories. Some of them record the same positive attitude towards Cornelius Gallagher that is evident in the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick obituary.
Rodgers said there were two surprises for him, his siblings and his cousins from the recently discovered Times news report and the Friendly Sons Gallagher obituary. The first was that the business empire went well beyond sand and gravel.
The obituary said: “He was vice-president of, and one of three who organized the National Conduit & Cable Company. To him much credit is due for the perfecting of lighting cables for traction and lighting purposes, as well as the completing and laying of the Broadway cable with its famous ‘Post-Office loop.’
“He installed underground cable systems for telegraph and telephone companies as well as for the fire and police departments when the pole system was removed from our streets and the underground plan substituted,” it said. “His fame spread to London, England, when he directed the first complete line from Beggars Bush to the Glasgow Bank of England. He was president of the Norristown, Bridgeport & Conshohocken Traction & Trolley Co., which in later years was known as the Philadelphia Traction System.”
The Times reported that National Conduit & Cable Company was sold to a Wall Street syndicate in 1917 for $8 million ($134 million in today’s money), of which Gallagher got a reported quarter.
The second surprise was the headline of the Times news report: “C. GALLAGHER DEAD; HONORED BY POPE. The subhead read: “Made Knight of St. Gregory by Pius XI in Recognition of his Activities as Layman.”
“We had no idea he was religious,” Rodgers said, referring to his generation of Gallagher cousins.
The Friendly Sons described him as a “devoted husband, a loving father and a distinguished Catholic gentleman.”
Seven months later, Cornelius’s great-granddaughter Chickie was born. When she was undergoing cancer surgery in 1989, Jim Rodgers and his father were told by doctors that they should leave and come back later. They anxiously paced the pathways of Carl Schurz Park near Gracie Mansion. Then, the older man spotted something out on the East River that immediately lifted his spirits. He declared it a good sign.
And indeed, Jim Rodgers Sr. lived another 15 years and his wife Chickie survives him. What the elder Rodgers saw was a tug boat pulling an old barge. As it got closer, the barge’s lettering, which had faded over the decades, became more visible. Finally he could read: “Gallagher Bros.”