Tracking Ryan family from Ireland to Copper Country

Copper Country's past and people

Limerick Junction was not a junction in 1829 when John Cornelius Ryan was born. It was not much of a town, either. In fact, it did not become a junction until 1845, when the Waterford and Limerick Railway laid its tracks.

The railway did little to boost the town.

In George Henry Basset’s 1889 “The Book of County Tipperary,” Limerick Junction consisted of a hotel, a post office, a railway office, and a grocery and liquor store that was operated by Patrick Ryan. It was known more for farming than anything.

County Tipperary was also also known for mining. Silver, copper, lead and zinc were mined in the north part of the county, and coal in the south. It was also known for Ryans, particularly John.

John Ryan was listed in records as boarding with the family of John Taylor. Taylor was listed as a laborer, but whether on a farm, the railroad, or at a mine, the record does not indicate. Ryan’s occupation is not listed, but considering the town, and its surroundings, he was probably a tenant farmer and a miner.

John Ryan came from good Gaelic stock. His father’s name was Cornelius Runon. His mother was Mary (Plunk). Beyond her name, and probable year of birth, 1797-1800, Mary’s record is silent.

At some point, John married Magaret Cooney, and they had 11 children together.

In Munster Province, County Tipperary, the Ryans probably fared no better than any other Irish subjects of the English crown. But for whatever reason, in 1848, John and Margaret quit Ireland and emigrated to the United States. With them went all 11 children, all but one of whom was fully grown. Edward was 14 years old.

Ryan and his small clan settled on a farm in the lead mining district of Lafayette County, Wisconsin, where the father and his older sons worked as miners and farmers. John and Margaret’s fifth-born son, John C., however, was not a farmer at heart. At heart, he was a hard-rock, deep-shaft miner, and in 1852, at the age of 23, he left the lead district for the Lake Superior copper district, where he went to work for the Quincy Mining Company for two years. He then moved to Houghton, where he went to to work at the Grand Portage mine. He was working there in 1857 when his youngest brother, Edward, came to Houghton to live with him, and went to work for the town’s founder, Ransom Shelden.

If the Ryans had come to America seeking a better life than what was possible in Ireland, they had three things in their favor: timing, skill, and ambition.

Their timing could not have been better, because John had arrived in the Portage Lake District at the time mining was shifting from the Keweenaw and Ontonagon districts to the center of the region. The Quincy Mine was tottering on the brink of failure, but it was there, and immediately north of it was the Pewabic Mining Company, a new firm on a rich amygdaloid copper lode. Several mines were just opening in Houghton, including the Isle Royale, Huron, Columbian, Shelden, Casique, and the Grand Portage.

William Ryan, the oldest brother, and Edward, the youngest, formed a partnership and opened the Ryan General Mercantile in Hancock in 1862. William, like his younger brother John, was also a mining captain, and in 1864, he sold his interest in the store to Edward.

Edward seems to have never forgotten conditions in Ireland, even though he was only 14 years old when the family immigrated. In 1861, he won the election of Houghton County Sheriff, and his record seems to indicate he was more favorable to workers than business owners. He demonstrated that also in the village of Red Jacket, where he had opened up a second store. In 1872, the workers of the newly formed Calumet & Hecla Mining Company went out on strike. Edward welcomed all strikers to his store, regardless of ability to pay. Ambitious to a fault, in addition to his stores in Hancock and Red Jacket, he organized the First National Bank in Red Jacket in 1886, and remained its president until he died in 1900. It did not take Edward long to become wealthy after arriving in the copper district.

In 1877, he organized the Hancock Mining Company, and with his brother John as mining captain, operated the mine until 1885. In 1880, Edward, along with Ransom Shelden and a few other local investors built the Portage Lake Copper Works, which operated successfully for many years. He was also instrumental in the organization of the Peninsula Electric Light and Power Company.

Sadly, the mother, Mary, died in 1866. But she lived to see her sons achieve a level of success she had never dreamed of. The father, John, relocated to Houghton, where he was well provided for by his sons. He died in Calumet at the age of 86, in 1882.

John and Mary had done well by their children to see that each of them were raised and educated in more than one skill. They had done well by them in getting them out Ireland and out from under the heel of the English government. Perhaps they wondered what Great Britain, and Ireland could have achieved economically if her sons and others like them had had the freedoms to excel in Great Britain as they were allowed to in the United States.