BARNEY GILROY

By P.B.Caulkins, March 1934

HARLEM VALLEY TIMES

Edited by Dewey Barry, March 1974

Amended by Elizabeth C. Strauss, March 2012

Bernard J. Gilroy, Amenia’s last surviving Civil War veteran, died February 28, 1934, at 91 years of age. “Barney” was an outgoing and indomitable old gentleman and a popular figure in the community during the years of his retirement. His life-long Amenia friend, Platt B. Caulkins, recorded the details of Barneyʼs life in a newspaper article in March of 1934, from which we learn of the adventures of our hometown hero.

Statue SqBarneyʼs parents, Daniel and Mary Gilroy, along with four children, emigrated from Ireland in December of 1846. Barney was 3 or 4 years old at the time. The family lived first in Pawling, NY, before moving to Amenia around 1855. Their home in Amenia was a short distance up the track from the depot. Therefore, Barney came to know a great deal about the daily railroad operations.

gilroy2The upper switch for the railroad track was located near the Gilroy house. Barney knew the schedule and observed, one morning, that most of the freight train going north had coupled behind it several carloads of rock plaster consigned to a local miller. He knew that after the cars were “kicked” off to the sidetrack, the train would continue on to Sharon Station where it was to take siding, or park and wait, to allow a fast passenger train from Millerton to pass. The first scheduled stop for the passenger train was Dover Plains, and it would be coming through Amenia at a high rate of speed.

When Barney came out of his house, he saw that the switch had been left open. He knew that was wrong and so he closed it. As the passenger train raced through Sharon Station, the crewmember of the freight train suddenly remembered that he had failed to close the switch, and he waited in anguish to hear the news of a disastrous wreck. But after a sufficient time had elapsed and no such news was received, he began to breathe easier.

When the freight train reached Amenia that night on its return trip, Barney was there to confront the conductor. “Someone forgot to close the switch this morning,” he said. When the conductor learned that Barney was the one who had closed the switch, he gave him a generous reward and they became fast friends.

gilroy3Barney’s confidence in himself was strengthened further by his learning to use the telegraph. An improved telegraph instrument had been devised and one was being installed in the Amenia office. A few boys were standing around watching the installation, and the agent, Mr. Vincent, knowing that Barney had been practicing on an old instrument at home, asked him if he thought he could work this one. After a little instruction, Barney was successful in operating it. That was when he decided he wanted to follow a railroad career. Barney was given the job of telegraph operator at just 16 years of age.

Two years later, in 1861, when the Civil War broke out and the call for volunteers came, Barney went to Sharon, CT, and enlisted in the Fifth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. He mustered in as a corporal, and his contingent was placed under the banner of the Army of the Potomac, which took part in many of the major engagements of the War.

gilroy4In the following year he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. It was at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Va., he lost the tip of one finger, was captured along with others of his regiment. After being held in Libby Prison for three months, there was an exchange of prisoners between the North and South, and he was allowed to return to his regiment.

gilroy5Together, with other comrades from Amenia, including James Newman, William H. Bartlett and George T. Willson, he fought in the decisive and bloody Battle of Gettysburg. He was afterward promoted to the rank of lieutenant and saw his last action in the Battle of Lookout Mountain. There he received a bullet wound in the leg. After being hospitalized for a time, he was given his honorable discharge and was permitted to return home. For the next year, he required the use of crutches to get around and was then rehired by the railroad company, again as the local telegraph operator.

gilroy6During the War, Barney had acquired a taste for liquor, when the “Commissary” provided to the battle-weary combatants who were permitted to have a ration of whiskey at such times. For a few years thereafter, his periodic bouts with alcohol resulted in his being laid off from work several times. On such occasions, he would enlist the aid of some of his influential friends, who would intercede for his reinstatement, following his promise to do better. It was not that he ever got out of bounds to the neglect of his duties, or that he engaged in any questionable conduct. But his superiors became concerned about his repeated lapses and began to lose faith in his ability to lick the habit. Finally, he was fired.

His last employment with the company was as a caboose brakeman on a freight train. One night the train became stalled in deep snow about a half mile from the Martindale station. It was around midnight and the conductor thought he had no other alternative than to wait with his crew until the station would be opened in the morning, when the situation could then be reported. Barney proposed to the conductor that he be allowed to walk to the station, where he would try to gain entrance by forcing a window and report by wire to the White Plains dispatcher. The conductor gave his permission and Barney plodded the half-mile through the deep snow. Within the next hour the dispatcher had received the report and help was on its way, hours sooner than it otherwise would have been.

gilroy7It was only a few months later that Barney was again found to be imbibing too freely, and the company decided that it could do without his further services. Barney had at last come to the end of the line as an employee of the New York and Harlem Railroad. For the next six years he lived at home, working only occasionally and continuing his drinking habit, until the time of his mother’s death in 1874. She had said that as long as she lived, Barney would always have a home. Her death had a sobering effect on Barney, and his pride would not allow him to continue to be a burden on his sisters, who had never lost their faith in him.

Pledging that he had taken his last drink — a pledge that he faithfully kept — and with only a little money in his pocket, he boarded a train that took him to New York. There he found employment in a restaurant, where he worked for several months. Then, he saw an advertisement for trainmen with the Third Avenue Elevated Company. He applied for the job and was hired.

gilroy8One day a car truck on one of his trains ran off the track and traffic was blocked. No one seemed to be doing anything about it, so Barney decided to take some action of his own. He persuaded the other trainmen to help and was issuing orders in his characteristically vigorous manner, when a railroad official appeared on the scene. Seeing that some progress was being made, he inquired who the man was that was in charge of the work. Upon learning that it was one of the trainmen, he approached Barney and asked him who had given him authority to issue orders. Barney’s reply was, “No one did, but if you want to keep the wheels moving, someone has to give the orders.”

The result was that Barney was given the opportunity to qualify as a train dispatcher at the City Hall terminal and he was soon appointed to the position. During the next 20 years, in the course of which he moved up to become chief dispatcher of the line, he was always on the move and kept the trains moving, too.

In the morning and evening rush hours, trains were then running on a two-minute schedule. Barney’s ability to take on greater responsibilities had long been recognized by the company, and when the position of train master became open, he was appointed to fill the vacancy as chief dispatcher with his headquarters at 125th Street and Third Avenue. In his new position of authority, he continued to evidence his flair for decisive action, whenever the situation called for it.

As one who had risen through the ranks and remembered his own earlier failings, Barney was always considerate of the problems of the workers, whom he treated with understanding and fairness. In turn, he came to earn their respect and support. Barney’s fortunes, which had been on the rise, ever since he first became employed by the company and, which in the normal course of events, could be expected to continue, until the time of his retirement (he was then nearly 70 years old), suddenly took an unexpected and ironic twist. The trainmen went on strike and Barney was caught in the middle.

gilroy9Although he was in sympathy with the cause of the men, he did not allow his feelings for them to conflict with his duties as an official of the company to which he owed his allegiance. Then an incident occurred, when Barney, in the course of his duties, was sighted by a group of strikers who shouted, “Hurray for Gilroy!”

The gesture of good will was mistaken by the company as evidence of his divided loyalties, and he was called on the carpet. Barney felt that his long term of faithful service needed no defense, and rather than continue in the service without benefit of the complete confidence of his employers, he decided to resign and close out his railroad career. His wife had died a few years earlier (1908), and so he returned to Amenia to make his home with his sister, Margaret.

gilroy10One day in 1917, Barney was in McKelvey’s Market when a salesman came in and said he had enlisted in the Army; and since he would no longer need his car, he offered to sell it for $300. Barney made a lower offer and after some dickering, a bargain was struck. Barney took out his wallet, peeled off the necessary bills and took ownership of the Ford runabout. Charlie Newman was there at the time and offered to drive Barney home. It was the only driving lesson he ever needed.

gilroy11Almost every morning thereafter, weather permitting, until within a few years of his death, he drove to the village, accompanied by his faithful dog, to pick up the mail, do the shopping and complete his usual rounds. His last stop was at the office of the railroad station where, between visits with the office staff, he kept an ear tuned to the clicking of the telegraph instruments.

Several of the images used to illustrate this story were taken from the internet and are not authentic to Amenia or to the persons mentioned in this story.

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