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A Story of James "Jimmie" BRAIDWOOD


by Robin F. Woods    

 [ robinwoods@cox.net ]

James Braidwood

Ellen Ralston Braidwood


James BRAIDWOOD was known for sinking the first deep coal mining shaft in Will County, Illinois, near the town of Wilmington. In addition to his knowledge and experience in mining, he was also widely recognized for his compassion and concern for coal miners and their families. It is interesting to note that John P. Mitchell, United Mine Workers' President from 1898 to 1908, was born in 1870, at Braidwood, Illinois, nine years before my Great Grandfather died. I like to think they knew each other, and that perhaps some of James BRAIDWOOD's ideas helped to form young Mitchell's dedication to the welfare of coal miners and their families.

James was born in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1832. Growing up, after age five, in the home of a stepfather, Andrew DUNSMORE, "Jimmie" entered the coal mines for hire at the age of nine years; Apparently he worked in a number of mines in Ayrshire and Renfrewshire. He later learned the trade of boiler maker with a shipbuilding firm; and at age 17 1/2 he went to sea as a fireman, an occupation he followed a few years although it seems he returned to mine both coal and iron.

James was employed as a coal miner at the time he was married, in 1854, to Miss Helen RALSTON, also born in Johnstone, Scotland. James soon returned to the sea-faring life and shipped with the East India Company in its latter days. According to stories James told his sons, he was shipwrecked three times, once about 1856, when he was given up for lost. However, he returned, after three days in a lifeboat with neither food nor water. Coming ashore, he found his wife seeking news of him at the Liverpool shipping office.

Another shipwreck James experiences was said to be a deliberate grounding by the Captain at La Corunna, Spain. A Braidwood son recorded stories his father told, although locating documentation has so far eluded descendants.

In 1859 he returned to mining, probably because he found the sea much more dangerous than mining, or because his wife and five children preferred that he have both feet on the ground---or "under it". Leaving seafaring behind forever, James became underground manager for William Dixon, mine owner, at Govan, Scotland. After two years he went to work at The Den in Ayrshire, Scotland.

In 1863 James BRAIDWOOD immigrated to the United States. He went directly from New York City to coal fields at Middlesex, Pennsylvania, where he worked a few months before going west to Iowa seeking more opportunity. There he heard of the newly discovered coal field near Chicago, Illinois. Because of his knowledge and experience with underground water problems in Scotland, James BRAIDWOOD was hired by Chicago and Wilmington Coal Company to superintend the sinking of a deep shaft for mining coal. Later C & W, named this the "B" shaft. That first coal mine "B" shaft, and its approximately 300 workers, became the nucleus of the town which was named Braidwood, in honor of James. It continues to exist today. Being settled with a good job, James sent for his family. His wife, Helen, and six Scottish-born children arrived in 1865. Arriving to find conditions so primitive, and her home with no roof over it, Helen burst into tears. Slowly James and his friends built a house for the family as his work permitted. Recovering herself, Helen set to work, learning the American style of living.

James BRAIDWOOD next oversaw the sinking of Chicago & Wilmington's "C" shaft, and another 400 workers came to work in that coal mine. Altogether, C & W had about 18 mines in the area and, over the next 50 years, approximately 50 mines were operated by both large and small companies in the Braidwood, Illinois area.

Jimmie BRAIDWOOD joined with others to form a Cooperative that sank its own shaft and called it the Eagle Mine. In 1866 they sold it to C & W, which renamed it the "A" shaft. After about four years it became filled with water and had to be abandoned.

James BRAIDWOOD patented a special type of crib that permitted drilling where marshes and quick-sand were problems. As a result he was successful, where others had failed, in sinking the first pier for the Chicago water works in 1874. James then made the first bore under the Chicago River for a traffic tunnel at what is now Wacker Drive. It would be of interest to know if that is the tunnel that flooded downtown Chicago, Illinois in recent years. The location is about right. If it was Jimmie's tunnel, it lasted a long, long, time ... well over a hundred years. 

Returning to Braidwood, Illinois, James bought the old Eagle mine, rebuilt it, and named it the BRODIE MINE. His BRAIDWOOD COAL COMPANY was his dream come true. From poor, immigrant coal miner he had, with hard work and native intelligence, moved through management for Chicago & Wilmington into becoming owner of his own coal mine.

The Will County History (published in 1879/80) said that James BRAIDWOOD paid higher wages than other area coal mining companies, which was only one of the reasons he had been honored by having the town named for him. He was apparently highly respected in the coal mining industry for his knowledge, experience, and ability, and concern for others.

James operated the BRODIE MINE successfully for five years. He hired 85 to 100 men and was widely known for his concern for miners. He not only had been a miner from childhood, but he had six sons who became coal miners. All of them entered the mines at early ages, at a time when every family member who was able to do so contributed to the support of the family.

The BRAIDWOOD COAL COMPANY also operated other mines in the area, called the CRUMBIE MINES.

James BRAIDWOOD died prematurely, February 1, 1879, of a sudden illness-pneumonia, complicated by lung problems associated with long exposure to unhealthy conditions in the mines of both Scotland and the U.S.A. News stories at James' death praised him highly. They stated that he was one of the "cooler heads" in the mining strike that caused military troops to be sent to the town of Braidwood, Illinois, to keep the peace, a year or so before James died. Obituaries for James "Jimmie" BRAIDWOOD made note of his deep concern for coal miners and their families, which by that time had included all of his six sons. His was called a "voice of reason" in troubled times. The town of Braidwood turned out en masse for James's funeral, with a miner's band playing and local officials accompanying the body. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery where a tall monument marks his grave to this day. It stands on a small hill and is visible from the front gate of Oakwood Cemetery.

Nearby is a smaller monument marking the burial spot of James' first-born son, James Jr., killed by lightning only eight years earlier, as he prepared to go to work in the mines. James Senior's Mother, Helen HERCULES Braidwood Dunsmore, also lies in Oakwood Cemetery, beneath a large flat gravestone which was engraved shortly before James followed her in death.

After James died, the family apparently was forced to sell the BRODIE Mine. A wry joke of the time had been that a bad debt would be "paid when BRODIE pays." James' oldest surviving son had been an officer of the BRAIDWOOD COAL COMPANY. However, at age 22, John Ralston BRAIDWOOD was not able to save his father's dream, and BRAIDWOOD COAL COMPANY soon "went broke." The family was destitute, partly due to uncollectible debts due from "those in trouble", to whom James BRAIDWOOD had loaned money. If James had lived, these debts would undoubtedly have been repaid over time. When confronted with the need for immediate repayment, many honest men simply could not pay the estate. These uncollected debts are listed in James BRAIDWOOD's probate packet.

All the surviving BRAIDWOOD sons went west, becoming coal miners in Kansas, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Indian Territory. Within five years Helen RALSTON Braidwood took her younger children and joined grown sons in Kansas. She later lived many long years with her youngest daughter, Janet "Jennie" and her son-in-law, William W. Campbell, in Monette, Missouri. She died in 1916 and was buried beside her husband in Oakwood Cemetery at Braidwood, Illinois.

To this day any Braidwood descendant is treated with much interest and respect whenever they visit Braidwood, Illinois. The Fossil Ridge library in Braidwood, and other Illinois archives, have references from which some of this information was gathered through many years by a number of BRAIDWOOD descendants.






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