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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Birth of Merchant & Politician John Thomas Browne

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John Thomas Browne, Irish-born merchant and politician, is born in Ballylanders, County Limerick, on March 23, 1845. He serves on the Houston City Council, serves two terms as Mayor of Houston, and serves three terms in the Texas House of Representatives.

Browne’s family emigrates to the United States in October 1851. His father dies not long after they arrive in New Orleans. In 1852, his mother relocates with her five children to Houston, Texas, to be closer to the family of her mother. Browne spends much of the 1850s on Spann Plantation in Washington County, Texas, at the behest of Father Gunnard, where he also receives an education. At age fourteen in 1859, he leaves the plantation and finds work hauling bricks in Madison County, Texas. He returns to Houston to first work as a baggage hauler, then performs messenger duties for Commercial and Southwestern Express Company before settling in at the Houston and Texas Central Railroad.

Browne joins the Confederacy, officially serving in Company A, 36 Texas Cavalry. He serves in Houston, detached from his unit, maintaining employment with the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, but in a new capacity as a fireman. He is briefly dispatched to the defense of Galveston, Texas. He is officially released from military duty in Houston on June 27, 1865.

Browne returns to messenger service in Houston after the Civil War. He works for Adams Express Company, then for Southern Express Company. He transitions into the grocery business first as a bookkeeper and clerk for H.P. Levy. Browne marries Mary Jane “Mollie” Bergin on September 13, 1871. They are the first marriage to be recorded at Annunciation Catholic Church. In 1872, Browne and Charles Bollfrass start a business as wholesale and retail grocers with $500 in capital. By the early 1890s, this grocery is amassing about $340,000 in annual sales. He is also a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Columbus.

Browne is elected to the Houston City Council, representing the Fifth Ward while chairing the Finance Committee in 1887. He runs for Mayor of Houston in 1892 and wins in a landslide. Browne’s first term as Mayor of Houston begins the same year as the Panic of 1893. He has campaigned on a platform of balancing the budget. The City of Houston runs budget deficits during Browne’s first term, but these deficits are proportionately lower than those in previous years. Browne had been an advocate for lowering municipal utility bills through municipal ownership of the utilities, however estimates for the City of Houston to build its own waterworks and electrical power plant go up to a range $500,000 to $900,000. Browne abandons this option while favoring a policy of dedicating all capital spending on street paving and sewerage. The Browne administration also hires a city planning expert to study demands based hypothetically on a population of 75,000.

Mayor Browne proposes converting the Houston Volunteer Firefighters to a professional department under municipal management. The City of Houston would have to buy existing equipment and horses from the volunteer department, but could lease firehouses and not be required to buy them. Houston City Council drafts an ordinance and passes it.

In April 1895, the Texas Supreme Court ruling in Higgins v. Bordages, “held that special assessment tax liens were unenforceable against urban homesteads.” The City of Houston imposes special tax levies for road and sewerage projects on owners of property abutting the sections of street being improved. The ruling effectively removes the only tool the city has for enforcing payment of the special assessments by homeowners. Road construction contractors stop all work because they fear the city will not pay them. Many homeowners stop paying their assessment bills.

To meet this immediate revenue crisis, the Browne administration devises a plan to issue $500,000 in municipal bonds to be sold over a three to four year period. The Labor Council opposes the bonding measure and organizes to defeat the measure when the referendum makes it to the ballot. The City of Houston has to find another way to compensate for $300,000 in uncollected taxes.

Browne represents Houston in the Texas House of Representatives from 1897 to 1899, and again in 1907.

John Thomas Browne dies August 19, 1941 died of pneumonia in Houston and is buried at Glenwood Cemetery.

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