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Mini Biographies of Scots and Scots Descendants (B)
Braidwood, James


A Story of James "Jimmie" BRAIDWOOD
1832-1879
by Robin F. Woods

James 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. In times of strife between miners and employers, "Jimmie" Braidwood was a recognized as a "voice of reason" who had the respect of both labor and management.

James was born in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1832. His father was recorded as James BROADWOOD upon his 1829 marriage to Helen HERCULES in Abbey Parish, Paisley. Before Jimmie and his two sisters, Janet and Ann Hodgert BRAIDWOOD, reached school-age, their coal miner father died and the three children grew up in the home of a stepfather, Andrew DUNSMORE who married Helen Hercules in 1836. "Jimmie" apparently thought enough of Andrew DUNSMORE to give that name to his third son.

James "Jimmie" BRAIDWOOD is said to have entered the coal mines for hire at the age of nine years in Scotland. 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 he seemed to occasionally return to coalmining. Possibly he followed both occupations when employment was slow in one or the other.

Helen Ralston Braidwood 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 after the ship sank with published reports of "all hands 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.

After another shipwreck, James is said to have wakened in an unfamiliar beach hovel to see a ragged man busily sharpening a large knife. Soon the man left and thoughts of safely escaping became uppermost in James's thoughts. However, before he could slip out, the shepherd returned with a lamb, freshly slaughtered. Fear turned to relief and James accepted the crude, but welcome hospitality of his rescuer.

Another shipwreck James experienced was said to have been a deliberate grounding of the ship, by its Captain, on the shores of La Corunna, Spain. One of Braidwood's sons recorded these stories which his father told, although locating documentation for any of them has so far eluded descendants.

In 1859 James 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 there, 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 not far from Chicago.

Being settled with a good job, James sent for his family. His wife, Helen, and six Scottish-born children arrived about 1865. Finding conditions so primitive in Illinois, and her home with no roof over it, Helen burst into tears upon reaching her destination. Recovering herself, Helen gathered her children and their few possessions about her, and went to work. She is said to have spent the first few weeks in America, employed at a hotel in Wilmington, learning to cook and keep house in the "American Way of Life". Slowly James, with help of friends,  built a house for the family as his work permitted. As soon as possible, the family moved to the home near the mine, and the older Braidwood sons began to work as coal miners.

James BRAIDWOOD next oversaw the sinking of Chicago & Wilmington's "C" shaft, and another 400 workers came to work in that coal mine.  C & W eventually had about 18 mines in the area and, over the next 50 years, approximately 50 mines were operated near Braidwood, Illinois, by both large and small companies. Jimmie BRAIDWOOD joined with others to form a Cooperative that sank its own shaft called the Eagle Mine. In 1866 they sold it to C & W, which renamed it the "A" shaft, but after about four years it filled with water and had to be abandoned.

A town grew around the mining area, and experienced miners were recruited to come to Illinois, even being encouraged to immigrate from Scotland. In 1867, a Scot, named Alexander McDonald, visited the mining village, by that time named Braidwood in honor of "Jimmie". McDonald reported in the Glasgow "Sentinel" that he had been greeted in Braidwood, Illinois by 500 miners, almost all of whom were former Scottish miners. He stated he was a guest at James Braidwood's well-built wooden home standing in the midst of land where the family had chickens, a few hogs, and cows. Calling James by his familiar "call" name of  "Brodie", McDonald stated that he asked how long it would have taken James to acquire such a home and land in Scotland.  Jimmie's reply was, " Never."

James BRAIDWOOD patented a special type of crib that permitted drilling where water, 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 same tunnel that flooded down-town 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, collapsing near the end of the 20th century, only after reportedly "gross neglect in upkeep".

Returning to Braidwood, Illinois, James bought the old Eagle mine, rebuilt it, and named it the BRODIE MINE. He formed the  BRAIDWOOD COAL COMPANY, which was his dream come true. >From poor, immigrant coal miner he had, with hard work and native intelligence, moved from miner, through management for Chicago & Wilmington, to organizing a Co-operative, and finally to 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 was honored by having the Illinois town named for him.  James operated the BRODIE MINE successfully for five years, hiring 85 to 100 men. He was highly respected in the coal mining industry for his knowledge, experience, and ability, as well as his concern for others ... especially the well-being of coal miners, which eventually included all six of his own sons, James Jr., John Ralston, Andrew Dunsmore, Robert Bruce, Peter Barr,  and Alexander. All of them entered the mines at early ages, at a time when every family member 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. He was called, in one obituary, 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 as he prepared to go to work in the mines 
some eight years prior to his father's death. Jimmie'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 was 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, possibly to help bring Scottish miners and families from the "auld" country. 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. Her older daughters, Helen and Ann married and left  Braidwood. 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 there in 1916 but 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, where colored portraits of James and Helen are prominently displayed in the Fossil Ridge library. BRAIDWOOD descendants live all over the U.S.A. and have contributed much to their native land for five or six generations now. But after 138 years, their Scottish origin and heritage have never been forgotten.

Contributed to Electric Scotland's Mini Bios, June 2001, by Robin F. Woods


My son scanned the two portraits I have of James "Jimmie" BRAIDWOOD and his wife, Helen "Ellen" RALSTON Braidwood. Hope you can see them. They are copied from oil portraits in the possession of Don BRAIDWOOD of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Many years of being in an oval frame left some discoloration around that we couldn't remove, so I framed my 8 inch by 10 inch color copies in oval mats as a pair.


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