James A. McGonigle

For many reasons James A. McGonigle, contractor and builder and one of Leavenworth’s most respected citizens is regarded as deserving of extended mention in a history of Kansas.

He came to Leavenworth as a pioneer in 1857.  He was an early, brave and loyal soldier in the Union Army until incapacitated by wounds in the Civil war.  He has been more prominent in the up building of the city than any other man.  At the age of 83 he carried on large business operations with the same facility and exactness that won him the reputation of being the foremost contractor in Kansas and other states.  He was one of the wealthiest residents in Leavenworth.
Once referred to as the Dean of American building contractors, Master Builder McGonigle spoke proudly of a lifestyle of temperance and working from early morning until late at night.  When he died in 1925 part of his legacy was 2,300 buildings extending from Pennsylvania to Wyoming.  No man was better known in business circles in Leavenworth.  He was a man of action, and was alert, energetic and resourceful in his later years.  He was a member of the order of Knights of Columbus.  He died February 25th, 1925 at age 91 and is buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Old Circle Section, on his family plot. 

The Beginning

James A. McGonigle was born at Hagerstown, Maryland, February 8, 1834, and was one of eight children. . The father was also a practical man and as such, apprenticed his seventeen-year-old son to a house joiner contractor. The youth served three years, working cheerfully from twelve to fourteen hours a day and with never a suspicion of the eight-hour system of modern times. For his services he was paid the sum of $25 a year, with board and washing additional. After completing his apprenticeship, Mr. McGonigle started to work as a journeyman house joiner for two years with wages of $1.12 ½ per day being carefully saved for the purpose of going West and growing up with the country. ​
In 1857 he started for Leavenworth making the trip from Hagerstown to Martinsburg, Virginia, by stage from there to St. Louis on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, then by steamboat up the Missouri River to Leavenworth.  The entire trip took fourteen days, three days and nights being required to cross the Baltimore Bar.  When he reached his destination he had about $70.00 but was very much encouraged by the industrial conditions he found.  New houses for the rapidly incoming settlers being in great demand and an insufficiency of house builders, he immediately secured employment at $3 for a day’s work of ten hours.  After working as a journeyman for 60 days, he began contracting in a small way and gradually increasing his contracts up to the time when President Lincoln issued his first call for 75,000 men to suppress rebellion in the South.

Lieutenant McGonigle

Governor Robinson of Kansas, in this emergency, ordered two regiments to be raised, and among the first of the loyal young men of Leavenworth to put aside their own private interests and respond, were James A. McGonigle and Daniel McCook, the latter a struggling young lawyer. Together they recruited Company H of the First Kansas Volunteers, of which Mr. McCook was made captain and Mr. McGonigle first lieutenant. Lieutenant McGonigle was in command of the company, owing to the illness of Captain McCook, at the battle of Wilson's Creek, in which engagement the company went into battle with seventy-six men and when it was over eighteen had been killed and twenty-two wounded, Lieutenant McGonigle being one of the latter, a fragment of shell wounding him in the left side. On account of this disaster and the ill health which followed, he resigned his commission and returned home.​
In the spring of 1861 Mr. McGonigle and Daniel McCook, a lawyer of Leavenworth, raised a company which was mustered in on May 31, 1861, as Company H, First Kansas regiment, of which Mr. McCook was made captain and Mr. McGonigle first lieutenant. A little while after the regiment was mustered in it was ordered to Missouri. On account of the illness of Captain McCook, Lieutenant McGonigle was in command of the company until after the battle of Wilson's creek. ​​​

Captain McCook belonged to the celebrated fighting McCook family, and Mr. McGonigle relates how his captain remarked at the beginning of the war that he would either wear a colonel's shoulder straps or fill a soldier's grave. He realized his ambition, for before he was killed in battle in Tennessee he had risen to the rank of brigadier- general.

The First and Second Kansas regiments marched through Kansas City, accompanied by two companies of infantry and two of cavalry, and at Grand river formed a junction with Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, who there took command of the entire army. The objective point was to meet the Confederate forces under Generals Price and McCulloch in Southwest Missouri. After marching south as far as Fayetteville, Ark., and fighting the engagement at Dug Springs, Lyon fell back to Springfield, Price and McCulloch going into camp at Wilson's creek, twelve miles southwest of that town. On the evening of August 9 General Lyon called a council of his officers and it was decided to attack the next morning. This brought on the battle of Wilson's creek, in which the Union forces numbered about 4,800 men and the enemy numbered from 10,000 to 13,000. The battle began about 5:30 in the morning and lasted until 11:30. Lyon secured possession of a hill, which overlooked the Confederate encampment, a position from which the enemy tried in vain to force him. Lyon was killed in the action and Lieutenant McGonigle's company lost nineteen killed and twenty-three wounded, he himself being among the latter. He had the satisfaction of knowing that he was in good company. After being carried to the rear, he was captured and taken to the Texas hospital, where he received careful treatment. From there he was taken to Springfield and when he was able to leave, he was allowed to go to Rolla, where his regiment was stationed. Mr. McGonigle relates how he and another Kansas man called on General Price the day before he left Springfield, and how Price told them it was his intention to wipe out Kansas from one end to the other. Lieutenant McGonigle resigned from the army and resumed his building business. 


Some of his Buildings 

As the years passed became widely known for his work, which could be seen in 11 different states in the form of noble structures. Mr. McGonigle has erected buildings in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado Texas and New Mexico including:
Montezuma Hotel in New Mexico, Union Depots at Pueblo and Denver, Co.
Kansas City Depot in 1877,   Atchison, KS Union Depot,     Santa Fe Freight Depot
Platte County and Hiawatha, Kansas Courthouses,     Post office at Des Moines, IA
College buildings at St Mary’s University,  Post Office in St. Joseph, Missouri
Creighton College in Omaha, Nebraska, Part of the Kansas State Capitol
Santa Fe Office Building in Topeka, Bethel African Methodist Church in LV
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception In LV which accommodated 1,000 worshipers
Catholic Bishops residence at 5th and Kickapoo, which was recently demolished.
17 Buildings at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Solders in LV. Included among them were thirteen Georgian Revival buildings; Franklin Hall, a Romanesque Revival Mess Hall and Kitchen; the Ward Memorial Building; and two residential buildings for hospital employees.  He built 16 Union Stations

McGonigle gained national acclaim for his firm's construction of the Palace of Mechanic Arts at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  McGonigle’s Machinery Hall was almost 850 feet by 500 feet.  Its proportions dwarfed both the U.S. Capitol and England’s Parliament. The Machinery Hall was the largest building in the world when it was built. At the same Expo, he built the Floral Hall and three other major buildings including a number of state and foreign buildings on the fair grounds
He built the Leavenworth Union Depot in 1888 (which is now the local Community Center) and 15 other railroad depots from Missouri to Wyoming. 
He constructed buildings for the Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey’s restaurants along the Santa Fe route.  This was the first restaurant chain in the United States.
He built the classic U.S. Post Office and Court House in Houston, Texas.
One office building at Uniontown, Pa., near his hometown cost $732,000.

Down the street from the McGonigle Mansion is the 22 room Queen Ann mansion at 714 South Broadway.  It was built by James McGonigle from 1883-5 for A. J. Angell at a cost of $15,000.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

In Pueblo, Colorado, he built “The Rosemont”, which is now a museum on the National Register of Historic Places, was built just before he built his own mansion.
An office building erected by him at Uniontown, Pennsylvania cost $800,000.

In Fort Crockett in Galveston, Texas, for the U. S. Government, he constructed 33 buildings of re-enforced steel concrete construction 

The Opera House and First National Bank Building at Pueblo, Co  
$500,000 worth of buildings at Fort Leavenworth, interior finish for the Denver Mint 

The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, established by people who had escaped the savage chains of slavery. At night a light from the church could be seen from the eastern banks of the Missouri River, planting hope for freedom in the hearts of Negroes. This light guided many slaves to refuge and safety in the state of Kansas. The basement, a depot on the "Underground Railroad," housed and fed many escaping slaves. The first church, constructed by James McGonigle, structurally collapsed in 1985. Reverend Glendah H. Warren led the drive to rebuild the church in 1986. 

His territory has extended over a distance of 1,800 miles from east to west, and in all the work he has done, he has been a careful and painstaking contractor, believing that a contract once entered into should be lived up to in good faith. 


The McGonigle Mansion

This is the largest mansion along the row of old mansions.  It was built in 1897 and the McGonigle family moved into it in January of 1898.
The following descibes pictures that are above the fireplace in the foyer of the mansion.  The picture of the mansion shown above was taken around 1911.  Notice the large wrap around porch that was original to the mansion.  The porch started on the North East corner, went around the front of the house, around the turret and across the south side.  You can still see the tar marks from porch roof on the south side of the house.  You may notice other indications of more porches on the back of the house.  There was also a large barn behind the mansion just barely seen on the picture.  The house had about eleven working fireplaces.  It is approximately 12,000 square feet with another 4,000 square foot basement.
The picture below on the left shows a back parlor on the North side of the house on the first floor looking into the library on the north and east side of the house.  Notice the large, heavy Victorian furniture.  

The picture below and on the right shows the foyer of the house.  Notice the spindles on the stairway go all the way up to the second floor.  Originally, you could stand in the foyer and look up through the second floor.  There was a walkway clear around the second story looking down into the foyer. The chandelier used electricity during the day and gas at night when the electricity to the town was turned off.

The kitchen and a large dining room that would seat 30 were in the back of the house.    In the foyer, there was a matching door opposite #1.  It led to a front parlor that included the turret room.  The second floor had five or six bedrooms.  

The entire third floor of McGonigle's home was a ballroom where the couple entertained with elegant parties. The third floor also had a stage.  The walk in closets on the third floor were probably coat closets for the guests. On most Friday nights at one time, many of the Military officers were entertained in the ballroom with music and dancing.

His Family

On Feb. 2, 1864, Mr. McGonigle married Miss Margaret Gelson, whose parents came to Kansas in 1860 from Pittsburgh, Pa. This union has been blessed by eight children, viz. Mary Susan, James Vincent, Stella, Margaret, Blanche, Edward, Grace, and James A., jr. Mr. McGonigle's domestic life had been a happy one. His wife had been a helpmate in every sense of the word and a kind mother to her children, which have been brought up to fill useful places in the world. 

He served in the city council in 1860, before the war, and in 1865 he was again elected to a seat in that body. He was a member of the second state legislature, which met in January 1862.   He served on the City Library Board and was its president several years.  He had always taken an interest in questions of public policy, but he preferred his business interests to a political career.