Congressman Kirwan’s own story

From 1937 to his death in 1970, Michael J. Kirwan represented the 19th Congressional District of Ohio in the United States House of Representatives. Several years after his death, Rep. Kirwan’s papers were deposited with Youngstown State University’s William F. Maag Library. Unfortunately, as YSU had no archival facility at the time, the congressman’s papers sat in storage for nearly thirty years, largely ignored. Today, with Archives & Special Collections having been firmly established on campus, the Kirwan Collection has begun to see the light of day.

Among these papers, catalogued by Maag Library but forgotten and stored with the rest of the Kirwan Collection, is an unpublished manuscript entitled The Kirwan Story: From Breaker Boy to Congress Leader. Styled as “An autobiography (sic) of Congressman Michael J. Kirwan of Ohio, composed and written by Robert G. Nixon on the basis of extensive personal interviews,” this typewritten narrative provides a surprisingly candid chronicle of the late congressman’s life. Included in the account are Kirwan’s recollections about:

  • His humble origins in the coal fields of Pennsylvania;
  • His sometimes-tempestuous relationships with U.S. Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson (In one stormy encounter, Kirwan told Harry S Truman to “go to Hell” when the president failed to consult the congressman on a matter of a political appointment);
  • His work within the United States Congress on behalf of the Democratic Party;
  • His battles for the conservation of natural resources, through the construction of dams and reservoirs; and
  • Noted Capitol Hill personalities, including Jim Farley, Sam Rayburn, and John McCormack.

An entire chapter is also devoted to Kirwan’s favorite project: The Lake Erie-Ohio River Inter-Connecting Waterway. Kirwan envisioned the cheap waterborne transportation of goods into the American heartland, as well as the creation of a connecting link between the Atlantic Ocean (via the St. Lawrence Seaway) with the Gulf of Mexico (by way of the Mississippi River). Kirwan fought a thirty-year struggle for the Waterway’s construction, but failed in the end when the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Raymond P. Shafer, killed the Waterway by refusing to grant a right-of-way passage through his state. Would the canal have provided the economic benefits that its supporters promised? Long after the project’s demise, the question remains academic, but Mike Kirwan never doubted for a moment the wisdom of the plan. It was through such conviction, combined with a high regard for his constituents, that Kirwan became a legislative and political Olympian amongst his peers in Washington, D.C.

YSU Archives & Special Collections is proud to make Congressman Kirwan’s records available to the public. Interested persons may download and read The Kirwan Story online at Autobiography.