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Tobias Boland: An Irish Pioneer

In the Spring 2010 issue of Holy Cross Magazine, writer James Dempsey described how the earliest settlers, and the Native Americans before them, prized Mount St. James for its abundance of water. In fact, when Fr. James Fitton bought the land in 1843 that would become the College of the Holy Cross, it included a working farm that relied on the flowing waters of the Blackstone River. The farm stayed, and helped feed the first 30 students and their instructors after Worcester contractor and benefactor Tobias F. Boland built an academy two stories high and 70 feet long on the property.

Boland’s own story is an interesting tale of adventure, travel, faith, love lost and love found. His great-granddaughter, Margaret Boland, and Thomas L. Rooney have written
The Irish Pioneer, a historical novel about Boland’s life, including his vital contributions to the founding of Holy Cross (Magnolia Mansions Press, 2009). This excerpt sheds light on the Irish immigrant’s life and legacy:

Tobey’s work on the Blackstone Canal had given him a reputation for reliable construction and confirmed his ability to recruit and control workers. Many of the Irish crews had remained in the Shanty Town and were available to pick up their traveling shacks and begin construction on short notice on another job. The latest was the Boston and Worcester Railroad.

The legislature had incorporated the Boston and Worcester Railroad in 1831, for it had not escaped the notice of Boston that with the opening of the Blackstone Canal, Worcester merchants were increasing their supplies through Providence rather than Boston. They could not allow this to happen. And so the push to complete the Boston and Worcester Railroad became important, and because of his sterling reputation as a builder and contractor, Tobey was awarded the contract.

Work commenced at once and by 1833 Tobey and his Irish workers had brought the railway halfway along its 44-mile stretch between the two towns. The course was gradually rising to Worcester on the eastern border where the rail bed had to take a sharp detour to the south to get around Lake Quinsigamond. West of the lake, the roadbed turned north between the lake and the eastern flank of Sagatabscot Hill. Here there was only a narrow separation between the hill and the shore of the lake and cuts had to be made through solid granite.

“We’ve never hit such hard digging,” Michael Callahan said to Tobey as they stood overlooking the lay of the land beneath them. “We can’t get through here with only picks and shovels,” Michael continued. “We will have to use black blasting powder.”

“You’re right, of course,” Tobey said. “I wish we didn’t have to do that because the powder is so very dangerous. I’m afraid using it will result in some bad and even fatal accidents.”

“We’ve no choice,” Michael said. “And we’ll have another especially deep cut when the road turns west again to resume a direct course into the village of Worcester.”

At this point in the story, with a deadline of opening the railroad in early 1835, work with the blasting powder begins. Trouble follows when several Irish workers are killed in accidents, and women and children living in the nearby shantytown are injured after a faulty blast caused a rockslide that struck the flimsy structures. Boland is called in to quell growing concern among the workers, who refuse to work until conditions improve. He arrives with Rev. James Fitton, S.J., pastor of the Irish immigrants in the Worcester area. Mediation results in changes to help the workers, and on July 6, 1835, the Boston and Worcester railroad opened. …

…The opening of the new railroad gave Worcester a connection to Boston in the first of a series of movements that improved access to raw materials and markets and launched the village into a major inland manufacturing center. Tobey’s foresight in predicting the railroad’s impact gained new respect for his opinions. His engineering abilities made him a rich man and brought him continued contracts and an even higher opinion of his abilities as a builder. He became known as the fellow who could do a good job and have it ready on time.

As soon as the Boston and Worcester railroad was completed, and with funds now in his possession, Tobey set out to build what he had dreamed of for so long—a church for the Irish community. Fr. Fitton was now permanently assigned to Worcester and he and Tobey worked together on the plans for this sanctuary and set about to erect the first church building.

Tobey, who had always been interested and ambitious for more education, also committed to provide Fr. Fitton with two wooden academy buildings that were in the future to serve as St. James Academy. He set about to procure land arrangements so this needed educational project could begin to grow.

Boland ran into hurdles that faced many of the Irish of that time, and decided after several days of discussion with his wife, Mary Ellen, that he would never return to the land of his birth and he should become a full American citizen. On April 21, 1837, he did just that and moved forward on the work for a school.

The Bolands moved to their now completed new house on Green Street and Tobey’s work continued to prosper. The boys were growing fast, and Mary Ellen was concerned about their education. The Irish were still not accepted in the Worcester schools, so Mary Ellen suggested she start a school in the Boland home and teach her own children as well as those of some of the Irish neighbors until they were old enough to attend Fr. Fitton’s St. James Academy. Tobey agreed that this was a splendid idea. He promptly hired two Irish girls to move in as domestic and help with the household duties and attend to the children, which freed Mary Ellen to do some of the teaching.

Fr. Fitton still had dreams of his proposed academy, but he was in favor of Mary Ellen’s idea and offered his cooperation. Since Tobey was gone from home so much on contracting jobs, he left the running of the house and the raising of the children to Mary Ellen and the two Irish domestics. The classes began and were successful beyond anticipation.

In keeping with his promise to the priest, Tobey built a school for Fr. Fitton, which was called St. James Academy. It was located at Green and Temple Street. Mary Ellen moved some of her classes and teaching there as they were outgrowing the house. Fr. Fitton was pleased with these developments but he did not lose sight of his idea to have a Catholic boarding school for boys. He dreamed of obtaining a larger property out from town with room to expand. It disturbed the good father that the Baptists had in 1834 opened the Worcester Country Manuel Labor High School. He hoped that the bishop, the Right Reverend Fenwick, who was a Jesuit, would join him in this quest for Jesuit education in New England.

On January 22, 1836, with the help of Tobey, Fr. Fitton bought a tract of land for $2,000 case in the southwestern part of the town on the northerly side of Bogachoag Hill. This was part of the farm of Henry Patch who had recently died. The land had a house and a barn on it. With the largest donation from Tobey Boland, Fr. Fitton solicited other funds and he and Tobey moved St. James Academy to Pakachoag Hill. Tobey not only pledged the necessary funds, but he sent his Irish crews to construct two wooden buildings on the property. One was a two-story structure 70 feet long, which was to contain classrooms. The other was a modest cottage, which would serve as the residence for priests.

Read more about the tale of Tobey Boland in the novel
The Irish Pioneer (Magnolia Mansions Press, 2009). Reprinted with permission.