It was a lucky day for Malvina Gauthier and her daughter Delcina when Michael Donlon decided to leave behind his native Ireland and move to Meriden, Conn.
Donlon came to America at the turn of the century from County Galway.
Before the passage of restrictive quotas in 1921, the promise of good wages lured thousands of Irish farmers to America.
Michael lodged in Meriden with his uncle for several years and found work at the Meriden freight depot. He would work his way up to the baggage depot at the train station. Donlon’s three sisters had joined him in America, while his three brothers remained in Ireland with his parents.
The morning of Jan. 4, 1909 was an ordinary one at the train station, with passengers dashing to-and-fro, along with porters like Michael.
The New York-Boston Express was pulling into the station on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford railroad line. Throngs of people crowded the tracks.
Donlon was pulling a cart to collect luggage as Malvina and eight-year-old Delcina, along with a group of other passengers, crossed the tracks to the station.
Accounts differed about the particulars of what happened next. Some said Delcina tripped while crossing and her mother rushed back to pull her off the tracks. Others said the little girl impulsively dashed back to the tracks, pursued by her mother.
Donlon saw the little girl and her mother on the tracks in front of the oncoming express, and he abandoned his cart.
With his back turned to the train, he tossed the child to the side of the tracks. He hastily shoved Malvina out of the way. But as he tried to jump to safety himself, Donlon ran out of time.
The engine of the train plowed into him, tossing him to the side of the tracks. Donlon’s rescuers held out hope for his survival and carried him to the hospital, unconscious. He was bleeding from a head injury, but was otherwise intact.
By midnight, however, Donlon had died from the injury at the base of his skull.
At Donlon’s funeral, the city’s mayor sang his praises. “This modest, unassuming young Irishman faithfully following his daily duties was called upon to face a situation that tries men’s souls. Hesitation meant death to the helpless; action meant death to the helper. Without a moment’s faltering, he leaped to the rescue. His strong, willing arms bore the fear-palsied mother and her little girl off the track of death as the on-rushing train whizzed by. They were saved but the horror-stricken people who witnessed the heroic act knew that the brave young fellow was hurt unto death.”
He was awarded a Carnegie Medal for heroism.
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This story last updated in 2023.