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


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Death of Dick Dowling, Confederate Commander

Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer LibraryRichard William “Dick” Dowling, the victorious confederate commander at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass in the American Civil War, dies of yellow fever in Houston, Texas on September 23, 1867.

Dowling is born in the townland of Knockballyvishteal, Milltown, County Galway on January 14, 1837, the second of eight children, born to tenant farmer Patrick and Bridget Dowling (née Qualter). Following the eviction of his family from their home in 1845, the first year of the Great Famine, nine-year-old Dowling leaves Ireland in 1846 with his older sister Honora, bound for New Orleans in the United States.

As a teenager, Dowling displays his entrepreneurial skills by successfully running the Continental Coffeehouse, a saloon in the fashionable French Quarter. His parents and siblings follow from Ireland in 1851, but the joy of reunion is short-lived. In 1853, a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans takes the lives of his parents and one of his younger brothers. With rising anti-Irish feeling growing in New Orleans, following local elections which see a landslide victory for the “Know Nothing” party, Dowling moves to Houston in 1857.

In 1857 Dowling marries Elizabeth Ann Odlum, daughter of Benjamin Digby Odlum, a Kildare-born Irishman, who had fought in the Texas Revolution, being captured at the Battle of Refugio in 1836.

By 1860, Dowling owns a number of saloons. His most successful is named the Bank of Bacchus, located on Courthouse Square in downtown Houston. “The Bank” as it is known locally becomes Houston’s most popular social gathering place in the 1860s and is renowned for its hospitality. He is also involved in setting up Houston’s first gaslight company, and is first to have it installed in his home and “The Bank.” He is a founding member of Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company Number One fire department and is also involved in running the city’s first streetcar company.

Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Dowling makes a name for himself as an able and successful entrepreneur. Among other things, he is involved with a predominantly Irish militia company which serves a more social than military role in Houston society. Upon Secession, this militia company is mustered straight into the Confederate States Army, with Dowling being elected First Lieutenant. The unit names themselves the “Jefferson Davis Guards” in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Davis Guards are initially part of a Texas State Troops/Confederate expedition sent to take over Union Army forts and arsenals along the border with Mexico. The expedition is successfully completed without a shot being fired. They participate in the Battle of Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863, following which they are assigned to a newly constructed artillery post near the mouth of the Sabine River called Fort Sabine.

Sabine Pass was important as a point of arrival and departure for blockade runners. It is suspected that the Union Army will attempt an invasion of Texas via Sabine Pass because of its value as a harbor for blockade runners and its proximity 18 miles southeast of Beaumont, which lies on the railroad between Houston and the eastern part of the Confederacy.

To negotiate Sabine Pass all vessels except small boats take one of the two river channels. No seagoing ship can traverse the Pass without great risk of running aground should it stray from one of the channels. The inevitable course of any steam-powered warship, including shallow-draft gunboats then common to the U.S. Navy, would use one of the channels, both of which are within fair range of the fort’s six smoothbores.

Dowling spends the summer of 1863 at the earthen fort instructing his men in gunnery. On September 8, 1863 a Union Navy flotilla of some 22 gunboats and transports with 5,000 men accompanied by cavalry and artillery arrive off the mouth of Sabine Pass. The plan of invasion is sound, but monumentally mismanaged. Four of the flanking gunboats are to steam up the pass at speed and draw the fire of the fort, two in each channel, a tactic which had been used successfully in subduing the defensive fortifications of Mobile and New Orleans prior to this. This time, however, Dowling’s artillery drills pay off as the Confederates pour a rapid and withering fire onto the incoming gunboats, disabling and capturing two, while the others retreat in disarray. The rest of the flotilla retreats from the mouth of the pass and returns ignominiously to New Orleans, leaving the disabled ships with no option but to surrender to Dowling. With a command of just 47 men, Dowling had thwarted an attempted invasion of Texas, in the process capturing two gunboats, some 350 prisoners and a large quantity of supplies and munitions.

The Confederate government offers its gratitude and admiration to Dowling, now promoted to Major, and his unit, as a result of their battlefield prowess. In gratitude, the ladies of Houston present the unit with specially struck medals, which are actually Mexican eight reale coins with both faces sanded down and inscribed “Sabine Pass, 1864” on one side and a Maltese cross with the letters D and G on the other. Because of the official recognition given to the action, it is now accepted that these Davis Guard Medals are the only medals of honor issued by the Confederate government, and consequently are collector’s items today.

After the battle of Sabine Pass Dowling is elevated to hero status in his hometown of Houston. He subsequently serves as a recruiter for the Confederacy and is personally commended for his action at the battle by Jefferson Davis. After the war he returns to his saloon business and quickly becomes one of the city’s leading businessmen.

Dowling’s promising future is cut short by another yellow fever epidemic which devastates Houston in the late summer of 1867, and he dies on September 23, 1867. He is buried at St. Vincent’s Catholic Cemetery, the oldest Catholic cemetery in Houston.


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Death of Texas Politician John Thomas Browne

John Thomas Browne, Irish-born merchant and politician, dies in Houston, Texas on August 19, 1941. 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 is born March 23, 1845 in Ballylanders, County Limerick to Michael and Winifred (Hennessy) Browne. His family emigrates to the United States in October 1851. Not long after arriving in New Orleans, his father dies. In 1852, Winifred relocates with her five children to Houston to be closer to 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 Company B of the Second Texas Infantry in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. 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 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: 3900 to 600.

Browne’s first term as Mayor of Houston begins the same year as the Panic of 1893. He had 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 is an advocate for lowering municipal utility bills through municipal ownership of the utilities. However, Browne abandons this option due to excessive costs for building a new waterworks and electrical power plant. He refocuses his efforts on a policy of dedicating all capital spending on street paving and sewerage.

Browne proposes converting the Houston Volunteer Firefighters to a professional department under municipal management. The City of Houston would be required to buy existing equipment and horses from the volunteer department, but can lease firehouses rather than buy them. The Houston City Council drafts an ordinance and passes it.

Browne represents Houston in the Texas House of Representatives from 1897 to 1899, and again in 1907. He is a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Columbus.

John Thomas Browne dies on August 19, 1941 of pneumonia in Houston. He is buried at Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. He is survived by six children and thirty-eight grandchildren. In 1979 his former residence in the Fifth Ward is used by an Italian American-owned grocery, Orlando’s Grocery.


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Birth of Merchant & Politician John Thomas Browne

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.