The restless hunger of America

Who are we, fellow Americans? 

Are we words printed on sacred documents? Are we a melting pot or a tossed salad? Doubtless, we are new growth on a gash in the Earth. 

Now, as we revel in our annual celebration of independence, we would do well to consider what that word means.

John Power

Irish-American attorney and unsuccessful politician John Power.

In 1863, John Power voyaged alone from Waterford, Ireland, to New York City for reasons unclear. He was 17. He might have run away from home. It seems, however, he simply sought glory and prosperity far from his large family and the stagnant economy that enveloped Ireland.

My oldest son is 17. I remember being 17. What would cause a boy that age to leave his home, his continent, forever? It would take extraordinary circumstances and a peculiar personality. John Power possessed both.

Power left Ireland to save it; part of a middle class radicalized by punitive British financial policies, but too young to know that’s why his father was mad all the time. Many young Irishmen emigrated that year to join the Union Army. Some wanted to defeat slavery, because they felt like slaves. Others saw global democracy in peril and wanted to save the noble American experiment. 

Still others saw the U.S. Civil War as a proxy fight with the British, who were offering tepid support to the Confederacy. Many Irish believed they would gain valuable fighting experience in America and then return home to fight for Irish independence. Given John Power’s Irish nationalist views later in life, this seems plausible. Anyway, he never went back. He was an American, now.

Power arrived in New York amid the 1863 draft riots. You might have seen this event depicted in the Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs of New York.” Irish immigrants lashed out against an American-born, Protestant class that was beginning to lose its grip on power. They opposed the draft because the poor could not escape it while the rich bought their way out. But mixed in with this uprising was a toxic stew of anarchism and racism, all fueled by fear of classes that might replace these long-suffering Irish. The mob committed wanton murder that drove Black families out of Manhattan for generations. 

During all of this, John Power joined the Union army and may have been quickly mustered into service to stare down his fellow Irishmen in the streets of New York. Soon after, he was on a train to the South, where he fought all the way to the Atlantic Ocean under General William T. Sherman. More than half of Power’s unit were killed in the war, hundreds of them freezing to death in the mountains of Tennessee.

After the war was over, Power was transferred to a unit for disabled combat soldiers. He didn’t like that, so he deserted. A short time later he re-enlisted in the Army under a false name and was shipped to Copper Harbor, Michigan on the frigid shores of Lake Superior. He served capably as camp sergeant, overseeing all routine activity at the fort. He confessed to his commanding officer about his desertion and false name. Apparently he was so good at his job that the officer forgave him and restored Power’s rank under his real name.

From there, Power left the service, got married to the most eligible Catholic woman on the peninsula, and set about to win at life. At one point, he was the principal of the school, postmaster, and the keeper of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse all at the same time. Even as he set about this chaotic schedule, he spent his nights at the lighthouse residence studying law books, later passing the bar without having set foot in a law school.

What was John Power working so hard to accomplish? Everything? Indeed, that seemed the case. He desperately wanted to be in Congress. His stubborn loyalty to the Democratic Party prevented that. Power became hardened by his pursuit, distrustful of people outside his personal and ethnic Irish circles. He shipped his oldest daughter, who married a Protestant and later divorced, to an institute for fallen women.

John Power had five sons and three daughters, whom he drove hard to be successful. All became educated career people. The youngest boy, seventh overall, was named Victor. 

Unlike most of his older siblings, Victor eschewed the career ladder at first, becoming a blue collar laborer in Michigan and later in Hibbing, Minnesota. But he, too, would become driven to succeed by the unspoken power of fatherly discord. Victor laid down the hammer of a blacksmith and took up law school. He became a Republican, if only because his father wasn’t one.

By the 1910s, Victor Power was arguably the Iron Range’s most important political figure, a crusading lawyer and mayor of Hibbing who insisted that iron mining companies pay the same percentage of taxes as other businesses. This amount equaled more than double Hibbing’s budget today, when adjusted for inflation.

Hibbing’s downtown, city hall, and ornate historic high school all owe at least some of their existence to the work of Victor Power. And yet, despite the ambition, the empty hole would not be filled. Vic Power died young, just a few years after his father, John.

When I went to Escanaba to research Victor L. Power and his father, I found little evidence they had ever lived there. John Power was one of Escanaba’s most prominent citizens in the late 19th Century, but time washes away all vainglory. 

Fact is, you only know John Power because I told you about him. And even though his son was a prominent Iron Range historical figure, most people began forgetting Victor Power before I was even born in the town Power built twice. Both the Power houses — the one in Escanaba, and the one in Hibbing where Vic died in 1926 — no longer stand.

America was built on the kind of hunger John Power bequeathed to his sons, the same hunger that seems to fuel our constant desire for bigger trucks, bigger houses, and more consumption of goods. 

As we consider our country today, however, we must contend with a fact that mature nations all accept if they wish to survive. That kind of hunger can never be sated. It is a hole that will never fill. Ambition of this kind might be a critical ingredient in much of America’s perceived greatness. However, it must also be tempered with wisdom, empathy and conservation. 

Mansions become haunted houses. Legacies become dust. However, we create energy in life that outlasts us. Today, America overflows with its mixed heritage and sharp-edged historical truths. Let us finally slow down and reckon, before it is too late.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 3, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. John Hakes says

    Thank you for this revealing piece on the Powell family, and the twist at the end inferring the value of showing more consumer restraint to become a mature society. Love the thinking !!

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