This much I know to be true. William Edwin Loughlin, the oldest of the eight children of Michael Loughlin, was born on September 9, 1878. He came to the United States from Ireland sometime in 1881 and the family originally settled in Worcester, Massachusetts. Soon after, they moved to New York City where most of the family remained for over the next century.

My grandfather died when I was nine; so although I have some direct memories of him, most of my knowledge of him and that portion of our family history comes from my father, aunts, uncles and cousins. I remember him as a large man with a thick torso and a gentle laugh.

My great-grandfather was a laborer and my grandfather, William, left school early and never graduated from grammar school, presumably to help support the growing family. Uniformly, all of my relatives who knew him said he was very intelligent and hard working. One of my memories of him was that he had beautiful handwriting. I assume the nuns may have had access to him, if only for a few years. I remember this vividly as he would help me with my own script.

William married my grandmother, Kathleen, and they had three children, Edwin born in 1908, Viola in 1909 and my father, Raymond in 1920. This is where the family legend or “memory” begins. Grandpa, as I called him, like his father before him, was a laborer and learned a trade to become a plasterer.

Again, family legend recounted, that due to his industriousness and intelligence, he started his own plastering business and was quite successful before the depression, when he lost everything and became unemployed. There was indirect verification of this as it was related to me that his two older children, Edwin and Viola, had more available to them growing up than my father who was more than ten years their junior.
The ecphoneme, real or not, of William’s life was that his company played a large role in the plastering of the ceiling of Grand Central Station. I had always accepted this as dogma and throughout my life whenever I passed through Grand Central Station, my eyes would glance upward and I would feel a private sense of pride.

So now to begin the search to verify the veracity of family memory. What drives my search? Perhaps, as I am his only grandson, I feel a sense of legacy. I have no children and I am the last male in the Loughlin lineage. Maybe this accounts for my curiosity with an urgency that time is running out to tell our family story.

Railroads ruled the day in the later part of the 19th century and the terminal that would later evolve into what was to become Grand Central Station was started in 1871. However, the impressive structure now known as Grand Central Station opened on February 2, 1913. It was under construction for the prior ten years. Therefore, Grandpa would have been twenty-five when the ceiling plastering began and thirty-five when it was completed.

The ceiling of Grand Central Station has its own history far beyond the plastering. The ceiling took dozens of people to create but was primarily the work of five men: architect Whitney Warren, the French artist Paul Heller, muralist J. Monroe Hewlett, painter Charles Basing and astronomer Doctor Harold Jacoby of Columbia University.

The ceiling mural of the constellation Orion was based primarily on John Bayer’s 1603 star atlas, Uranometria, of the constellations. It was ironic that less than two months after completion of the Terminal, an astute commuter noticed the design of the mural was actually laid out backwards, right to left being reversed.

So, may I cast a critical eye at my family’s memory? I assume that most of the underlying plastering occurred early on, starting in 1903. Nobody ever claimed that my grandfather was either an artist or an astronomer. To be fair, I am highly skeptical that even an intelligent, ambitious immigrant at age 25, without either political connections or many resources, could have owned a company that had a role in plastering the ceiling in one of the architectural triumphs of that era.

However, I have no doubt that he may have been tangentially involved in the construction of Grand Central Station. Could he have been employed as a plasterer for a large company while still in his twenties? Perhaps.

But could he have had another role? The Irish immigrants of that time, like other immigrant groups, before and since, were an insular community. The Irish in New York in the late 1800s and early 20th century were heavily involved in all aspects of the building trades. New York was a rapidly growing city and construction required little training or skill other than a strong back.

Beneath Manhattan there is an elaborate network of all types of tunnels: sewer, water and train. The construction of these tunnels was dominated by the Irish who became known as the Sandhogs. They got their name from working close to the water and moving into the hard rock. Their early work can be traced to laying the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1860s. They toiled in compression chambers on the bed of the East River and some perished from the bends due to ignorance about compressed air and disregard for worker safety by the contractors.

The Sandhogs formed one of the earliest unions in the United States and employed some freed slaves after the Civil War. However, the Sandhogs continued to be dominated by the Irish for decades. Working in the tunnels was hard and dangerous work. They had a saying, “A man a mile.” For every mile of tunnel dug, there would be a dead tunnel worker.

So where does all this leave my family memory? Like all memories, time has left us with uncertainty. One can imagine William, in his late twenties or early thirties, with a wife and two small children to support looking for work wherever he could find it. It is reasonable to speculate that the Irish immigrant network funneled many young men into various trades in the construction of Grand Central Station.

What if I could time travel back if only for a day. If I could walk shoulder to shoulder with him beneath the streets of Manhattan in those narrow dusty tunnels. Would I introduce myself to him as his grandson? Would I tell him that because of his work in those tunnels, his grandson was able to walk the corridors of some of the greatest hospitals in the world just above his tunnels? Would I share with him the debt I owe to him? What would he say to me?

Did my grandfather have a role in the plastering of that magnificent ceiling or was he a Sandhog? Does it matter? Like so many of that era, he raised a family that enabled his youngest child to become the first family member to graduate from college and his only grandson to become a surgeon. This much I know to be true. The next time I walk through Grand Central Station, I will look up at that ceiling, stop, think of Grandpa, and my heart will again fill with pride.


Kevin R. Loughlin MD is a retired surgeon. He has an interest in writing both fiction and nonfiction.