Ryan was born in Limerick, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States at 15. In 1903, he married Lucille Kelly Ryan and moved to Manhattan from Chicago.
In 1907 the couple moved to Oak Street in Richmond Hill. They would later live at 216 Maple Avenue and 441 Bedford Avenue (Welling Street).
Ryan was a member of the Church of St. Benedict Joseph in Morris Park. Not long after, he became president of the church’s Holy Name Society. He was also respected as an originator of the Friendly Sons of Ireland organization.
Shortly before his death, he began taking photos of Forest Hills. They are some of the earliest personal photos of the neighborhood in existence.
Ryan photographed tennis courts behind the Forest Hills Inn at 20 Continental Avenue and Station Square with the rare view of an American flag rising over the adjacent Raleigh apartments.
Steps above, he documented the Long Island Railroad station in operation, Church-in-the-Gardens, and Tudor homes with undeveloped Forest Hills Gardens lots that is titled “Looking down Greenway North from hill in Forest Hills due north.”
Queens Boulevard was formerly known as Hoffman Boulevard, named after Mayor John Hoffman, and featured a trolley line from Manhattan. Ryan’s photos feature the trolley and a narrow road with automobiles.
When Ryan passed away, a high requiem mass was held at Church of the Holy Child Jesus featuring over 100 floral pieces and a carriage procession of several blocks.
Today, Ryan’s photos are housed at the Richmond Hill Historical Society (RHHS).
“The past of our town is our roots,” said RHHS vice president Carl Ballenas. “We must take civic pride in our community, and it should start with learning about the past, where maps, stories, and artifacts are vital links.”
They were donated in December by his grandchildren, Molly Ryan of McLean, Virginia, Cordelia “Cory” Ryan of Chicago, and Bill Ryan of River Forest, Illinois.
“Our father saved copies of his father’s obituaries, some family letters, and other items which our mother passed on to us after our father’s death in 1983,” said Cory. “We thought that the Queens photos might be of interest to local historians. We learned that our grandfather was a valued member of the community, a leader, organizer, and builder.”
The siblings have an undated clipping from the New York Herald noting the formation of The Uptown Catholic Club of New York. Among the seven directors was W.H. Ryan.
“The Friendly Sons and the Catholic Club helped celebrate and preserve our grandfather’s Irish heritage, of which he was so proud,” Cory said. “They also provided social and networking opportunities for the Irish, who like other groups were excluded from membership in older men’s clubs in New York City.”
There have been other attempts to uncover the family’s history in Queens. The siblings’ father visited Richmond Hill in 1957 on a business trip.
“Rented a car at LaGuardia Airport and drove to Richmond Hill,” his dairy read. “Unable to locate with certainty our houses on Maple St and Welling St. A Mrs. Scott lives at 8739 113th St (old Maple St) 2 doors south of Jim Munro, still alive but retired. Bedford Ave seems to have had name changes over the last 45 years: Welling St when father died there in 1916. Sometime later it was called Colonial (at least according to old street signs). Now and for many years it is 110th St.”
“We really know very little about our grandfather, since he died when our father was 12, and our grandmother died when I was only five,” said Molly. “For our father, his happy upwardly mobile Irish family life changed dramatically. His mother, now a widow with no income, moved back to Chicago, where she was born and where her father and three sisters lived.”
Referencing the photographic finds, Molly said, “I think we can say that our grandfather’s interest was simply to document his environment and his family.”
“Reading about his dedication to his neighborhood, his family, and the churches he belonged to makes me think about the families living here today that have the same dedication and love of community,” said RHHS president Helen Day. “In the few short years that he lived here, he made an indelible mark through his leadership and kindness.”