Irishtown Bend

Excavating an Irish Immigrant's Life

When he wasn't on the police beat, John Quinn lived in a frame house on a street that hugged the arc of the Cuyahoga River. Although many frowned upon his neighborhood, this Irish immigrant became a rather well off and influential man who defied stereotypes about the residents of Irishtown Bend.

John Quinn lived in Irishtown Bend, an Irish settlement on the west bank of the flats, from 1870 to 1912 and became one of the enclave’s best-known denizens. In the late 1980s, archaeologists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History excavated his homesite, unearthing many artifacts that helped shed light on his life in Irishtown Bend. Quinn held several jobs before finally working as a police officer until he retired. As a police officer, he was well known both at Irishtown Bend, where he started out, and on Whiskey Island, where he worked the longest. Not only was he a hard worker but he also had a large family to take care of.

His story, like that of all immigrants, starts before he even set foot in the United States. John Arthur Quinn was born on June 4, 1846, in the village of Ardfinnan, Ireland, and in 1860 Quinn, his parents, and his younger siblings immigrated to the United States. Many people left Ireland during this time because of the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849. Once immigrants arrived in the United States, they had to find jobs, which became increasingly difficult due to discrimination against Irish immigrants. The Quinn family’s history resurfaces in 1860, around this time they immigrated to the United States. At this time, John started working as a mechanic for the Cuyahoga Steam Furnace Company.

In 1871, Quinn worked as a bricklayer and had a house in Irishtown Bend. This was an Irish community first established in the 1820s. One of the reasons why so many Irish immigrants settled in this area was because of the construction of the Ohio Canal, which opened in 1832. Many Irish immigrants had the opportunity to work as both as ditch diggers for the canal and on the ore docks. Between these jobs, there was a lot of draw for Irish immigrants to settle in Irishtown Bend.

Irishtown Bend was a place marred by several stigmas attached to it. One of these stigmas was due to the area’s poor and hazardous living conditions. Prior to the 1860s, Irishtown Bend was a shantytown filled with one-room shacks, most of which were poorly built. The whole family would oftentimes live in these one-room shacks. They were a huge fire hazard and in 1877 the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a story about a fire that started with a stove being knocked over, spread quickly, and burned down five shanties. The Bend was unsanitary because there were many factories located by the river. At this time, there were no regulations in place for proper waste management, making it all too easy for factories to dump waste and sewage into the river. These conditions caused the whole area to be known as the “open sewer of the city.”

Another stigma attached to Irishtown Bend was that it was notable for being very crude and unsavory. There were often fights and usually these fights ended up in the newspaper because of arrests or involvement with the police. For example, in 1889 a Plain Dealer article titled “The Irishtown Battlers” relayed how the two suspects were charged for resisting the constable and were arrested. The notoriety of Irishtown Bend did not help Irish immigrants in the area to get decent jobs because these incidences continually reinforced its reputation.

In 1870, John Quinn married a woman named Ellen, also an Irish immigrant, and in 1870 they had their first child, a boy named John. After a few years, the Quinn family moved to the north side of West River Road in Irishtown Bend. By that time, Irishtown Bend was no longer filled with one-room shacks. While there was still a stigma attached to the area as a “shantytown,” the buildings that occupied the area were of decent quality.

On May 16, 1871, John Quinn became a police officer and served for 32 years as a patrolman. Over the years many, newspaper articles featured him. His first couple of months as a police officer were spent in the Ninth Precinct. From early on it was clear that John Quinn had a “special talent for finding thieves and arresting them.” After his first year as a police officer, his record was so good when it came to dealing with difficult people that he was transferred to Whiskey Island, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Both Irishtown Bend and Whiskey Island were very difficult to patrol, but Quinn was up to the task. In dealing with difficult people the interviewer from the Plain Dealer asked him in 1903 how difficult his work was and if he had ever gotten hurt. He remarked that it was not too difficult after people realized that he meant business. As far as being hurt, he said that he had been bitten on his hands several times. He went on to say that he had no other marks and that in all the years that he had been patrolling he had never had to draw his weapon on a man. He became very well known in this area and in Irishtown Bend for being a fair but stern policeman.

On May 30, 1903, Quinn resigned from the police force. However, he remained active in the community, including serving on a committee that oversaw the creation of a park in Irishtown Bend in 1905. In 1912 the Quinn residence was demolished, and John Quinn and his family moved from Irishtown Bend. Some years after this, a May 20, 1918, obituary for Quinn revealed that he died after being ill. The obituary’s title, “Whiskey Island’s Iron ‘Mayor’ Dies,” suggests how well respected he was to be given the respectable nickname of ‘mayor’.

After John Quinn's death, Irishtown Bend continued to be demolished and all of the residents moved away. During CMNH’s 1980s archaeological dig in the area, The Quinn house at 435 West River Road was one of the properties that had been uncovered. While many artifacts were uncovered, some of the most interesting were high price ceramics and glass objects, all of which show that the Quinn residence became financially quite well off. As a policeman, Quinn most likely stayed in the area because of this connection to his community. Not only was he connected to the community, the discrimination that Irish immigrants faced meant that they often had to live in ethnic communities to avoid some of the harsher aspects of the biases that they faced. Among the other most interesting items found were ceramic insulators, demonstrating that Quinn at some point had electricity, which was very rare. This suggests that he was a diligent worker and that he most likely saved whatever money he could so that when he was older, he had a fair amount of wealth established. It also shows that he rose above the discrimination against Irish immigrants by proving that most of the stigmas applied towards Irish people were not applicable to him. Quinn’s story, illuminated through archaeological work, adds dimension to the Irish-American experience in Cleveland’s Irishtown Bend.

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