The Costello family of Brudenell

·10 min read

Those who like to explore the Ottawa Valley know that many ‘ghost’ or forgotten hamlets remain at formerly busy pioneer crossroads such as Brudenell and Bulger’s Corners. These original settlements, with their general stores and post offices, served the settlers’ daily needs and served as gathering points for the loggers and farmers of the sparsely settled countryside.

Despite distance, unlikely connections were often made between one and the other far-flung hamlet. Love and marriage, death, baseball, horses or politics created new family or business ties—sometimes both at the same time. So it was, when sisters Margaret Cecilia and Mary Catherine (Mollie) Costello of Brudenell, successively married Patrick Bulger of Bulger’s Corners. Today, in the first of a two-part story set in our well-known ‘ghost hamlets’, we look at the Costello family of Brudenell.

The Costellos came from Nenagh in County Tipperary and, like many early immigrants from Ireland, first settled in Carleton County near Ottawa. They had skills of blacksmithing and shoemaking which were in high demand in the new settlements further west along the settlement roads toward the big pine timber of the Ottawa Valley. They were good at athletics and were also rumoured to have “Moorish blood and an innate fascination with sport, with horse-flesh and in particular with racing stock”. They would go on to make their mark on Brudenell, then known as Brudenell Corners, named for James Thomas Brudenell, the leader of a famous military action during the Crimean War which is immortalized in the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Brudenell, at the intersection of the Opeongo and Peterson Roads, was rapidly becoming the busiest, most active community on the Opeongo Line. The eldest Costello son, James, born in Ireland before the family emigrated to Canada, had married Rachel Craig of Ottawa. The young couple headed west and took up two tracts of land in Brudenell (lots 284 and 285) on the south side of the Opeongo. James saw opportunity for his father William who was a blacksmith and encouraged his parents and other family to ‘come up the line’ to Brudenell around 1871.

Father and mother, William and Margaret (Murphy), settled into a small log home which still stands near Our Lady of the Angels church. James built the ‘Costello place’ about a mile east along the Opeongo. It was the first frame house on the Opeongo Line and still stands in Brudenell. The Costello home was a grand place with the verandah wrapping around the house, which housed what was surely the only grand piano located along the rough road travelled by lumberjacks and drovers. Legend has it that the piano probably came by river to Farrell’s Landing (near Castleford) and was hauled up the line by a team of oxen—and that part of the wall of the home had to be removed to bring it inside. (In classic ‘didn’t read the manual’ style, it was later discovered the piano was designed with removable legs.)

Community Booming

As a shopkeeper, James Costello, also known as Black Jim, had a reputation as a shrewd businessman who provided credit accounts to the lumbermen’s families so they could buy supplies from his store while the men were away. In spring when the loggers returned to settle their accounts it seemed there was seldom much cash left over once the bills were paid. The list of the merchant accounts tells of the needs of the residents of the countryside. Jack Ring purchased a suit of underwear and the ledger counts two pairs of drawers for Kitty Chipyer, plough points for James Carty and a new broom for Mrs. Jim Divine. Father French is on the books for birdseed and several cans of salmon while Thomas O’Grady (one would hope the correct Thomas as there were seven Thomas O’Gradys in the area) was credited with a load of hay weighing almost a ton.

Aside from his skills as a canny merchant, James, like many of the Irish who settled the Valley, was actively interested in municipal and county politics. He took on the cause of building schoolhouses throughout the township as his family grew to 11 children, including two daughters who, through tragedy, both became wives to the same man.

The Costello daughters enjoyed playing the grand piano with its distinctive Heinzman sound, and Costello family history tells us that a future sister-in-law, May Letang, (daughter of another Brudenell shopkeeper, Oscar Letang) spent happy quiet evenings walking back and forth on the road by the house listening to the music.

But Brudenell was rarely quiet. By this time the village boasted three hotels, three general stores, two blacksmiths, shoemakers and carpenters, a racetrack, a church, a hall, and a school and was gaining historical notoriety as the Sin Bin of the county. (The Costello house is often mistaken for the Costello Hotel, which was built by James’s brother, Michael Costello, and was located on the other side of the road.) On Sunday afternoons, while the men rested after perhaps betting on the ponies racing on the dirt track near the village or nursed their aching heads after carousing at the hotels, many respectable young ladies of the village attended Our Lady of the Angels for afternoon Benediction. After the church service they might stroll in the cemetery, chatting and praying at the graves of departed loved ones.

Wed Sister-in-Law

Perhaps drawn to more exciting lives, most of James and Rachel Costello’s children went on to further education and successful lives and careers away from the village on the Opeongo. A son, Tom, born in 1883, became a lawyer, an MLA and eventually a judge in Goderich. Both Tom and his brother John were excellent baseball players and were both on the University of Ottawa baseball team. (The Costellos were all athletic and once had their own family baseball team.)

In 1892 James and Rachel’s elder daughter, Margaret Cecilia (born about 1869), married Patrick Bulger. The young couple moved to Eganville and built a house at 252 Wellington Street. Patrick Bulger, born in 1854 in Bulger’s Corners, also had shopkeeping in his blood and saw mercantile opportunity in Eganville. He opened his haberdashery in Mrs. Bonfield’s building on John Street in 1892 selling men’s and boys’ clothing, as well as specialty items such as ‘fine imported teas’ to the residents of the growing village. The couple had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. As too often happened in the days before antibiotics and prenatal care, Margaret died in childbirth with her eighth child, John, in 1904 at age 35 leaving Patrick with a business to run and five young motherless children.

Margaret’s younger sister, Mary Catherine, better known as Mollie, a spinster at age 32, relocated from Brudenell to Eganville to care for her young nieces and nephews. Either love or convenience or perhaps a combination of both, resulted in a 1908 wedding for Mollie and her widower brother-in-law. The couple soon had a child of their own whom they named Margaret who sadly died at age two of meningitis. That same year, Mollie’s eldest stepdaughter, Rachel, also died at the young age of 22.

But Mollie was not without the comfort of close family in Eganville. Her younger brother, James, his wife, Mary Letang, and their family, had settled in Barry’s Bay where James worked for the government, scaling lumber from the J.R. Booth timber limits. Mary, who had enjoyed listening to her future sister-in-law playing the grand piano in Brudenell, taught music to the local children. But by 1915 the couple had moved to Eganville where their daughter, Genevieve, the mother of Opeongo’s well-known teacher, Kathleen O’Grady, was born.

By this time Mollie and Patrick were well re-established in Eganville, having survived the loss of their mercantile establishment in the Great Fire of 1911. Eganville had rebounded and rebuilt with businesses, schools, a convent and stately churches serving the growing population. With several priests and nuns in the family, including a stepdaughter, Kathleen (Sister Mary of the Cross), it was only natural that Mollie would be active in the life of St. James the Less Parish in Eganville. She was unanimously voted in as the first president of the newly formed St. James Council of the Catholic Women’s League in 1921.

By all accounts, Mollie was a well-loved stepmother to Patrick’s children and a fond aunt to her young grandnephews, including Brian Costello and the future Reverend Jack Costello SJ of Toronto, both grandsons of James and Mary Costello. Father Jack cites a story of spending a blissful week-long holiday in Mollie’s care at the cottage of his uncle, Father Leonard (Len) Costello (born 1905) who had a pilot’s licence and was known as “the Flying Priest” (not to be confused with the Father Len Costello of northern Ontario who founded the hockey playing Flying Fathers.) Father Len, later Monsignor Costello, became a chaplain in the RCAF during WWII and finished his career in the forces as Chaplain General with the rank of Air Commodore.

The Bulger residence in Eganville remained a busy place during summer holidays as Mollie’s stepchildren returned for visits. Kathleen, now Sister Mary of the Cross, returned from Toronto where she was a popular teacher, coaching sports and effortlessly handling classrooms of unruly boys. Mollie’s stepson, Craig, who studied medicine at McGill University, did his residency in the USA and had settled in White Plains, New York where he joined the American army during WWII. Some credit him with developing the first prototype of the MASH units which became vital components of later wartime medical care. A younger sibling, Francis Bulger Elliot, also moved to the States and held various jobs including a stint with Readers Digest. All of them enjoyed their annual summer gatherings at the family home on Wellington Street.

Patrick Bulger, who was considerably older than his wife, died in 1937. Mollie eventually moved to Montreal, most likely under the guidance of Sister Mary of the Cross who was a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph. According to her obituary in the Eganville Leader after her death at St. Mary’s Hospital in Montreal in 1961, Mollie discharged her duties with ‘becoming grace and dignity’ and was held in high esteem among the residents of Eganville. Her funeral was conducted by her nephew, Monsignor Len Costello, whose mother May, had so enjoyed the piano music in Brudenell. Mollie Costello Bulger is one of five family members named on the Bulger family headstone in the St. James cemetery. There is no mention on Patrick Bulger’s tombstone of his first wife, Margaret Cecilia, the Costello daughter whose marriage bound two prominent families.

The Last Costello

Brudenell had long slipped into the oblivion of an economic backwater as the steady stream of lumbermen, drovers and settlers heading up the Opeongo died down. The final nail in the coffin was the defeat of Sir John A. MacDonald by the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier whose government rerouted the hoped-for railway away from Brudenell.

The final Costello presence in Brudenell was Hugh Costello, also known as Cooey, born in 1878, who remained in Brudenell and took over the general store. Cooey was deemed the ‘best all-around athlete in the Ottawa Valley’ by none other than T.P. Murray, MLA for South Renfrew. As well as his noted athletic skills, Hugh served Brudenell Township as clerk treasurer and reeve. A popular merchant and politician despite being located far away from the centres of power, he was elected Warden of Renfrew County in 1950. He died in 1965 and is buried in Brudenell.

The Opeongo was relegated to a scenic backroad and the settlements along its length began their slow decline. After Hugh Costello’s death the distinctive clapboard home built by his father, James Costello, faded into weatherworn shabbiness in the once bustling village of some 1,500 souls on the Opeongo Line.

Episode two: Daniel Bulger and the Bulger family of Bulger’s Corners.

Johanna Zoners, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

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