History lesson: Ogdensburg was destination for many Irish immigrants

History lesson: Irish immigration to the north country
Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 6:36 AM EDT
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OGDENSBURG, New York (WWNY) - In 1845, the main source of food in Ireland was plagued with fungus and the Irish potato famine was set in motion.

This caused the death of more than 1 million people and the emigration of a million more. Many Irish immigrants wound up here.

Julie Madlin is the Ogdensburg historian and a history teacher. Her great-great-grandparents came here to escape the famine.

“I guess you’re told in school that they went through Ellis Island,” she said. “That’s not true for this area. They came through Montreal. A lot of the Irish came through Quebec and crossed the St. Lawrence River and came into Ogdensburg.”

These fleeing Irish sailed over on coffin ships, named for their deadly conditions.

“They had bare floors, there wasn’t enough drinking water, typhus is a disease that spread quickly on these ships,” Madlin said. Many coming through Quebec came to Grosse Isle and had to quarantine, and if you survived the quarantine, then you were allowed to proceed into Montreal.”

From there, they were able to make it to Ogdensburg, a major port city at that time.

“it was natural to go from Montreal to Ogdensburg,” Madlin said. “There were ships running that all the time.”

They took the jobs no one wanted, back-breaking labor building railroads, mining iron, and digging canals.

“They built pretty much every canal we have,” Madlin said. “There were 13 canals they built. That equals about 900 miles of canals.”

By 1855, 10% of the county’s population was Irish immigrants. Once settled, they became prominent figures in the community and drove the organization of the Diocese of Ogdensburg.

“There was no Diocese of Ogdensburg,” Madlin said. “The church becomes important because of the Irish, so Ogdensburg becomes a pretty cosmopolitan place.”

There are still many families in the area that trace back to the potato famine. The circumstances for coming here were unfortunate, but the north country was made a better place because of it.