Pittsburgh’s John Kane: Coming to America

When my stepfather sent for me, I didn’t want to go to America. I was doing well in my own country and was becoming more and more in love with Scotland all the time. But Mother thought I ought to go.… And accordingly, I went. 

The son of Irish Catholic parents, John Cain (later Kane) grew up in West Calder, Scotland. Around the time of his birth, shale oil was discovered nearby leading to a boom in the economy and providing work for laborers such as the Cain’s.

IMAGE: Postcard, “Bird’s Eye View, West Calder,” 1900–10. The mines and factories ringing West Calder are visible in the background. Courtesy Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry at Almond Valley Heritage Trust.

Kane’s formal schooling ended when his father died. Just 10 years old, he went to work, helping his brother Patrick in the shale mines. Kane earned 10 pence a day pulling shale cars in the mine, roughly 14 cents in today’s money. Two years later he joined other young men in West Calder, making candles from shale oil at the massive Addiewell Works of Young’s Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Company. Kane took pride in his skills, estimating he made hundreds of thousands of candles in the three years he worked there. Though hard work became central to his life, Kane always carried scraps of paper and a pencil in his pocket, finding moments to sit and draw.

IMAGE: The Girl I Left Behind, by John Kane, oil on board, 1927. Collection of Mickey Cartin. © Estate of John Kane, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York. Kane was over 60 when he painted himself as “a young man leaving Scotland” more than 40 years before.

In 1879 Kane’s stepfather Patrick Frazier, his brother Patrick Cain, and his cousins Patrick and John Coyne, left to seek work in America. A year later they asked him to join them. Though Kane had a good job in Scotland, his mother urged him to make the journey. So, in 1880 Kane packed his small trunk and set off with his cousin Tom Coyne on the SS State of Indiana. He described what he carried:  

I had a regular suit of clothes, of course, of good heavy Scotch woolen. On my head was the little cheese-cutter, a cap with a peak like a chauffeurs, only tilted backward toward the crown like the hats of the Union soldiers. I had other garments, just as curious, on board in my little tin steamer trunk where I had stowed my flute.  

Kane began playing the tin whistle and flute as a boy. He joined a neighborhood fife and drum band that performed Irish and Scottish folk and military tunes. When he left Scotland, his music traveled with him, bringing joy, and providing a lifelong connection to his heritage. 

IMAGE: Tin whistle and flute used by John Kane, undated. Courtesy of The Leon A. Arkus Collection of John Kane, 1931-1987, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections

After leaving from Glasgow, Kane’s ship stopped in Larne, Ireland, for repairs. Kane visited his parent’s homeland for the first and only time before sailing across the roiling sea for New York. 

He likely landed at Castle Garden in New York. Between 1855 and 1890, more than eight million people were processed through this station used prior to Ellis Island’s opening in 1892. 

Kane then traveled by train to join his family in Braddock. In 1880, when he arrived in the region, most immigrants still came from Great Britain and Germany. But the influx of immigrants to the U.S. quickly began to swell. Pittsburgh’s population reflected this trend – between 1880 and 1910 it tripled, from 156,000 to almost 534,000 as waves of people poured in from new destinations such as Italy, Russia, and southern and Eastern Europe. 

IMAGE: Immigrants Landing at Castle Garden, from Harper’s Weekly, drawn by A.B. Shults, May 29, 1880.

These immigrant laborers came seeking jobs and a better life. They found hard work that paid as little as 12 cents an hour and demanded that a body endure 10-hour days, brutal conditions, and little security. Many labored seven days a week. Kane quit one job vowing, “I’m never going to work on a Sunday again!” Though he relished the physical challenges of the work he found, first in steel, then in the coal mines and coke works, Kane moved often. Like many immigrant laborers, he went from place to place and job to job searching for something better – more money and less arduous conditions.

IMAGE: Blast furnace, Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Braddock, Pa., photo by Frederick T. Gretton, 1886. Braddock’s population grew as the steel mill expanded and attracted workers—more than doubling in size in the 1880s and then expanding to almost 16,000 residents by 1900. Gift of Mrs. Wilbur Galbraith

Though many immigrants returned to the Old World – traveling back across the ocean like “birds of passage,” Kane and his family stayed and made a life here in Western Pa. In 1898, he became a U.S. citizen, later saying, “America is my country and I love it….I love Scotland too. It is the land of my birth and my childhood.”  

IMAGE: Naturalization document for John Cain (Kane), August 31, 1898. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Kane’s heritage and his art sustained him and provided a record of his immigrant experience. After toiling for decades in the workshops of the region, drawing and painting when he could snatch the time, the art world discovered him, sharing his unique vision of Pittsburgh. Kane took immense pride in his work and in his city. Asked why he painted Pittsburgh so often he replied “Why shouldn’t I? I helped to build Pittsburgh’s mills and homes; I paved its streets, made its steel, and painted its houses. It is my city; why shouldn’t I paint it.”  

IMAGE: Scots Day at Kennywood, by John Kane, oil on canvas, 1932. Courtesy of Lea Simonds. © Estate of John Kane, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York. Although he based this scene’s figures on Scottish photographs, the footrace and background buildings, including the roller coaster, are all of Kennywood.

It is this story we tell in the exhibition – the story of a man whose life experiences were both remarkedly common for his time and uniquely his own. It is the story of an artist and his art, but also of an immigrant worker and his world. Through Kane’s art we see the pride immigrants took in their heritage and the Old-World traditions they held onto, but also the challenges of a new life. We understand the values that sustained migrants and the obstacles they faced – the world as it was and as they hoped it might be. In the art and in his words Kane’s vision, his imagination, and his reality are preserved.  

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