From Ireland to Hancock: One family’s journey from the Emerald Isle to work Hancock’s canal

by Kate Shunney

American history is full of the stories of immigrants who came from other lands to see what fortunes lay in store for them here. Hancock is by no means an exception. One of those stories is the history of the Little family, which begins in County Cavan in north-central Ireland and continued along the banks of the Potomac River and the C&O Canal in Hancock.

One pivotal moment in local history came in 1839 with the opening of the canal to Hancock.

The extension of the Bank Road into the National Pike in 1818 had already made Hancock a growing town along a growing transportation route. As the town’s website notes:

“Hancock experienced a huge building boom. Blacksmith shops, liveries, and stage inns packed Baltimore Street, which is now our Main Street. It flourished as a commercial center and the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to this point in 1839 brought an influx of Irish immigrants, Welsh stonemasons, and many others.”

Among the Irish immigrants were laborers and boatmen looking for opportunity.

In his extensive 2011 history of the Little family in Hancock, C&O Canal Association volunteer William Bauman collected generations of recollections, records and documents to chronicle that family’s arrival from Ireland and rise to local prominence.

Philip Thomas “P.T.” came to be a successful merchant along the canal in Hancock in the late 19th century, building and operating a barn, warehouse, shops and other commercial buildings along the canal and elsewhere in town. But P.T. Little arrived years after the first Little — his Uncle Patrick- – settled in town in 1836 and worked as a canal laborer. Patrick married Isabelle Dugan in 1843 and the couple lived east of Round Top, historians have found. They stayed there until the 1852 flood washed away their home and they moved into Hancock. At that time, the census says Patrick was still a day laborer, probably on the canal.

His brother, Thomas Little, was also born in County Cavan in Ireland, and found his way to Hancock to work along the canal.

According to Bauman’s research, Thomas, at the age of 35, made his way from his Irish home with a wife and two of their five children toward America. In 1850, the family arrived in New Orleans from Liverpool, England, then made their way up the Mississippi River to the Ohio River. From Brownsvilla, Pa., the family took wagons to Cumberland. From there, they made their way to brother Patrick Little’s home west of Hancock. Thomas took work on a canal repair gang, then moved on to boating.

Philip Thomas “P.T.” was one of Thomas’ children that remained in Ireland for several years after their parents emigrated to America. Three years after his parents and two siblings sailed across the Atlantic, P.T. took a five-week voyage to the new land, arriving in New York City. His father collected him and brought him to Hancock, where he attended school. In 1859, at the age of 13, P.T. Little was driving mules for his father on the C&O Canal. By the age of 16, P.T. had been promoted to the position of steersman of a boat. In winter, when the canals were partially drained and frozen over, he continued his studies.

His father, Thomas, by 1861 had bought the canal boat Frederick Mertens for $1,325, according to county records. The boat carried coal between Cumberland and Georgetown at a rate of $45 per trip to pay for the boat in installments, according to Bauman’s research. It was the first of several canal boats Thomas Little would buy and operate from Hancock. Thomas would also come to own several lots around town as business grew.

Canal boat traffic and traffic along the National Road made Hancock a bustling place in the mid 19th century, with a business district facing the canal.

P.T. Little’s name would one day be painted on buildings along that waterfront district as a proprietor of a canal boat enterprise and warehouse business. Other members of the Little family, from siblings to cousins, continued in the boating business and later in banking, store keeping and warehousing.

The family’s fortunes, which began on a family farm in the heart of Ireland, would follow that of the canal and the railroad through Hancock, as local history will tell.

The P.T. Little warehouse and store in Hancock, built between 1875 and 1880. photo from the Gorman and Myrna Palmer Collection


Next week: Little enterprises grow into the new century