Biography of James A. McGonigle
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James A. McGonigle. For many reasons may James A. McGonigle, contractor and builder and one of Leavenworth’s most respected citizens, be regarded as deserving of extended mention in a history of Kansas. He came to Leavenworth as a pioneer in 1857; he was an early, brave and loyal soldier in the Union army until incapacitated by wounds in the Civil war; since then had been more prominent in the upbuilding of the city than any other man; and still at the age of eighty-three carries on large business operations and with the same facility and exactness that won him the reputation of being the foremost contractor in Kansas and other states.
James A. McGonigle was born at Hagerstown, Maryland, February 8, 1834. His father, James McGonigle, was born in County Derry, near the Giant’s Causeway, Ireland. When a young man he started out for himself, going to Londonderry and there learning the weaver’s trade, and when about twenty-five years old, in 1813, crossed the Atlantic ocean in one of the old sailing vessels of the time, which, after months on the water, safely landed him at Hagerstown, Maryland. He found work at his trade, hand looms being used exclusively at that time, and continued until the invention and introduction of weaving machinery made hand work unprofitable. He was an industrious man and then turned his attention to farming, in which he was mainly concerned during the rest of his life. He married Miss Susan McLaughlin, also of Irish ancestry. Of their eight children two survive. They were members of the Roman Catholic Church.
James A. McGonigle was reared at Hagerstown. At that time Maryland had no public school system, but his father was an enlightened man, very desirous concerning his children’s education, made provision for his son to attend the subscription schools until he was seventeen years of age. The father was also a practical man and as such, apprenticed his seventeen-year-old son to a house joiner contractor. The youth served three years, working cheerfully from twelve to fourteen hours a day and with never a suspicion of the eight-hour system of modern times. For his services he was paid the sum of $25 a year, with board and washing additional.
After completing his apprenticeship, Mr. McGonigle commenced to work as a journeyman house joiner. At that time the trade of joiner was no part of that of carpenter, but it required a comprehensive knowledge of the latter trade to enable a joiner to do his work perfectly, and it may be added that Mr. McGonigle was as expert in one line as the other. For two years he continued journeyman work in his native place, his wages of $1.12½ per day being carefully saved and for a purpose, that of going West and growing up with the country. This hope made the long hours of many a day’s toil pass quickly. At last, when he considered his amount of capital sufficient for the venture, he listened to the advice of an old friend of the family, a Mr. Tierney, who had already traveled through Kansas territory and had been impressed with the business opportunities the rapidly growing towns would offer in the near future.
In 1857 Mr. McGonigle started for Leavenworth, making the trip from Hagerstown to Martinsburg, Virginia, by stage, from there to St. Louis on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, thence by steamboat up the Missouri River to Leavenworth, the entire trip consuming fourteen days, three days and nights being required to cross the Baltimore Bar. When he reached his destination, Mr. McGonigle had about $70, but he was very much encouraged by the industrial conditions he found, new houses for the rapidly incoming settlers being in great demand and an insufficiency of house builders. He immediately secured employment at $3 for a day’s work of ten hours. After working as a journeyman for sixty days, he began contracting in a small way and kept on, gradually increasing his contracts up to the time when President Lincoln issued his first call for 75,000 men to suppress rebellion in the South.
Governor Robinson of Kansas, in this emergency, ordered two regiments to be raised, and among the first of the loyal young men of Leavenworth to put aside their own private interests and respond, were James A. McGonigle and Daniel McCook, the latter a struggling young lawyer. Together they recruited Company H of the First Kansas Volunteers, of which Mr. McCook was made captain and Mr. McGonigle first lieutenant. Lieutenant McGonigle was in command of the company, owing to the illness of Captain McCook, at the battle of Wilson’s Creek, in which engagement the company went into battle with seventy-six men and when it was over eighteen had been killed and twenty-two wounded, Lieutenant McGonigle being one of the latter, a fragment of shell wounding him in the left side. On account of this disaster and the ill health which followed, he resigned his commission and returned home.
Gradually recuperating he took up contracting again and as the years passed became widely known for his work, his reputation not being confined by any means to Kansas, for in eleven different states may be seen noble structures which are speaking witnesses of his unusual ability. A complete list of his important building contracts could hardly be compiled. Some of them which are especially well known to the the traveling public and have been widely appreciated are noted. One is the Montezuma Hotel in New Mexico. He built the Union depots at Pueblo and Denver, Colorado, and Leavenworth, Kansas, and also the Kansas City depot in 1877. The Catholic Cathedral at Leavenworth, the college buildings at St. Mary’s, Kansas, the Creighton College at Omaha, Nebraska, part of the Kansas State Capitol and the Santa Fe office building at Topeka are monuments to his industry and business organization. He erected the postoffice at Des Moines, Iowa. He was the building contractor of the great Machinery Hall and other buildings on the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, erected in 1892. An office building erected by him at Uniontown, Pennsylvania, cost $800,000. The classic and beautiful United States Postoffice and Federal Building at Houston, Texas, was constructed by James A. McGonigle & Son. For the United States Government this firm constructed at Fort Crockett in Galveston, Texas, thirty buildings of re-enforced steel concrete construction. Besides the Union Depot Mr. McGonigle built at Pueblo, Colorado, the Opera House and the First National Bank Building costing $500,000. He also erected $500,000 worth of buildings at Fort Leavenworth, including St. Mary’s Academy. This firm did the interior finish for the Denver Mint Building.
Mr. McGonigle was married February 2, 1864, to Miss Margaret Gilson, whose parents Patrick and Mary Gilson had come to Leavenworth from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1860. To this marriage the following children were born: Mary Susan, who died in infancy; James Vincent, who died an infant; Stella; Margaret, deceased wife of W. B. Latta; Edward A., who is in business with his father, married Louise Parry and they have one daughter, Elizabeth; Blanche, deceased, was the wife of Doctor Fauntleroy of the United States army; Grace, who is the wife of Captain Gibbens of the United States army, had two children, Margaret, aged six, and Henry, aged three years; and James A., Jr.
Mr. McGonigle was reared in the Catholic Church and had always acknowledged his responsibilities to that faith. Politically a democrat, he usually supports the principles and candidates of that party, but occasionally had cast an independent vote because of policies with which he was not in accord, governing the old party organization. His home town had many times honored him. He was a member of the city council in 1859-1860 and again in 1865. He was a member of the second State Legislature which met in Topeka January, 1862. He also served on the City Library Board and as its president several years. No man is better known in business circles at Leavenworth. He continues as he always had been, a man of action, and when others of his years are enjoying “slippered ease” he is alert, energetic and resourceful as in the years gone by. He is a member of the order of Knights of Columbus, also belonging to the Commandery of The Loyal Legion of Kansas and was at one time its commander.