October 18, 2021

As Cortland grew, so did its Irish population

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Ribbons from the Emerald Hose Co.

From farmers and factory workers to firefighters, Cortland’s Irish immigrants not only supplied businesses with manpower but also led to the foundation of a central fire department in 1915 that still operates today.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day. Of the 30,000 Cortland County residents who identify their ethnic heritage, more than 6,000 claim at least some Irish ancestry, behind the 9,200 who identify as English, but ahead of the 5,300 Germans and 4,000 Italians. It’s a large chunk of the county’s population.

Irish immigrants began coming to Cortland in the early to mid-1850s and settled the East Side, said City Historian Mary Ann Kane. What brought them here? Jobs.

Jobs at businesses along the Tioughnioga River, at the corset factories and the Wickwire Bros. factory. In 1853, Kane said, the Lehigh Valley Railroad supplied many jobs.

Besides having jobs, family also drew Irish immigrants to Cortland. Around seven miles southwest of Cortland, many Irish farmers settled in McLean, Kane said. Those immigrants continued to farm and their relatives in Cortland had small gardens.

As time progressed, many of the Irish stayed in the area due to factories continuing to develop and provide jobs, Kane said.

“Between 1850 and 1900 the factories were very productive,” she said.

Many of the Irish had a house and a job. “There wasn’t any big reason to leave,” Kane said.

In 1878, the Irish in Cortland formed the Emerald Hose Company No. 4, an elite fire company made up of the best of the best Irish Catholics, said Cortland City Deputy Fire Chief Wayne Friedman. “It was a big deal to be selected to be a volunteer firefighter then.”

During the 1800s into part of the 1900s, company bylaws allowed only so many members to join, Friedman said. The Emerald Hose Company No. 4 had 35 members.

The company was one of five that would later create the a central fire station in 1915, which still sits at 21 Court St. Before 1915, Company No. 4 operated out of a station at Church Street and Central Avenue that now houses the Catholic charities Wishing Wellness Center, Friedman said.

Before working together, each company operated as a separate entity, said Cortland City Fire Chief Charles Glover.

People always heard about early fire companies fighting one another for fires, and Glover said it did happen. However, in an interest to better serve the community, the companies decided to work together.

The Emerald Hose Company No. 4 was disbanded in 2015, said City Fire Department Historian Duke Glover.