William James Conners, Sr. - LINKS
William James Conners, Sr.
By Edward T. Dunn
An excerpt from
Buffalo's Delaware Avenue: Mansions and Families, by Edward T. Dunn. Pub. by Canisius College Press, 2003, pp. 514-518
[1140 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY, was originally built for Thomas C. Meadows, general manager of Buffalo Fertilizer Company. Before its completion in 1908, Mr. Meadows sold the home to] self-made multimillionaire and tycoon William James ("Fingy") Conners, who was born in Buffalo in 1857, son of Peter Conners, who was born and raised in Canada and was a university graduate, and his wife, the former Mary Scanlan, a native of Ireland. Their home stood near the corner of Louisiana and South Streets in the First ward. William attended P.S. 4 on Elk Street and then P.S. 30 on what became O'Connell Street.
He [Conners] earned his first money ferrying scoopers working on the elevators along Buffalo Creek and the City Canal across the Ohio Basin:
It was at the age of 13 that Mr. Conners began work on a lake steamboat, a connection which he afterwards expanded and retained until the day of his death. Those were rough days on the docks. His early companions were stevedores, grain shovelers, and sailors.One had to be handy with his fists in the primitive struggle for place which marked the Great Lakes ports in the early 70s.
There is abundant record that Mr. Conners early became a leader among those with whom his lot was cast. It was a school that bred leaders in more than one walk of life. The Sheehans, John C., and William E, were graduates of it. So was the late Archbishop Quigley. So is former Supreme Court justice Daniel J. Kenefick. (Courier Express, January 2, 1948)
Mr. Conners became a stevedore. Of keener mind than his mates he saw the possibilities of organization.There were boss scoopers who held sway in the business of unloading grain, why not a similar system among the stevedores.
Mr. Conners answered the question by gradual expansion of his sphere of authority until he controlled the loading and unloading of package freight at all the important ports on the Great Lakes: Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth. With other business enterprises in which he later became interested he headed an army upwards of 6000 employees. (Buffalo Evening News, October 5, 1929.)
There is much sweeping of facts under the rug here, a careless use of chronology, and a failure to mention intimidation of workingmen by Conners and his henchmen.
The Sheehans were standard late nineteenth century Irish-American machine politicians, more adept at ballot-stuffing than good government.
William C. moved to new York where he became a power in Tammany Hall.
In the early 1870s James Quigley was a student at Saint Joseph's College and in 1874 began five years of study for the priesthood in Rome. As Bishop of Buffalo in 1899 his role in settling a dockers' strike was in direct opposition to that of Conners.
Judge Kenefick was born in 1863, so that at the beginning of the 1870s he would have been seven years old.
Very different from the viewpoint of the News is that of Professor J. David Valaik, in the Canisius College Chronicle for February 1985:
In the spring of 1899, 10,000 Buffalo dockworkers went on strike against the corrupting tyranny of William J. Conners. For years "Boss" Conners was the sole employer of almost every laboring man on the docks. If not chosen by a Conners henchman, you didn't work. To be paid, you went to a Conners salon, of which there were many near the docks; there you spent your hard-earned pay, or you didn't work again. It was cruel, it was degrading, but it worked, and it made Conners a rich man. The "white slaves" of the docks, as Buffalo's Catholic newspaper referred to the workers, made him a wealthy man,and seeking respectability, Conners bought newspapers, the Enquirer in 1895 and the Courier in 1897.
Impressed not at all, the workers formed a union independent of Conners' control, and when locked out by his henchman, they struck not for more money, not for fewer hours, but for elementary justice. Soon the effects of the strike were felt as far west as Chicago and cast to the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania, and as the strike persisted the prospect of violence increased. There were two shootings, but in spite of numerous provocations the striking workers, a very large percentage of whom were Irish, remained peaceful as their priests were urging.
Taking their signal from Albany, the A. F. of L. came to town and endorsed the credentials of the new, anti-Conners union. The State Board decided in their favor and a few "mysterious" businessmen from out of town visited Conners, as did from the shipping companies which had contracts with him. Then to the very forefront of the battle lines stepped Bishop James E. Quigley, who boldly championed the strikers' cause. Week after week, the Catholic Union and Times urged restraint upon the workers but pounded away at Conners as an "atrocious liar," and charged him with seeking to incite mutiny and murder. By May 23, 1899, the battle was won. Conners' power was broken, and the rights of Buffalo's workers were advanced. (J. David Valaik, "Theodore Roosevelt in Buffalo," Canisius College Chronicle, 15, #5, February 1985, pp. 6-7)
The most recent historian of Erie County [W. Dunn] in a garbled account of the 1890 dock strike, while conceding that Quigley's intervention was "very effective indeed," that "Conners ceased the struggle," and that "in time it became clear that the workers were victorious," also pointed out that "these gains were wiped out in spite of the growth of the labor movement, after only a few years." Grain scooping was not a skill, and workers who enjoyed gains at the time were members of skilled trade unions.
Conners moved from freight handling to other fields. In 1889 he became president of the Vulcanite Asphalt Paving Company, and a year later president of Magnus Beck Brewing. He acquired extensive land holdings in South Buffalo and built whole neighborhoods. It was the period of the city's greatest population growth.
Conners had concurrently been moving into newspaper publishing, probably as a prelude to politics. In 1895 he purchased a controlling interest in the Buffalo Enquirer. A year later he acquired complete control and modernized its printing plant with a Hoe press, equal to the best in the state. Soon circulation of the Enquirer tripled.
At the same time he launched the Morning Record, an immediate success. In 1897 he bought the Buffalo Courier and merged it with the Record under the name of Courier-Record, later shortened to Buffalo Courier. He continued with the Courier until January 1925 when it was transformed into a tabloid and christened the Daily Star. The Star may not have been a success since in 1926 it was discontinued after the merger of the Courier and the Express into the Courier-Express, which survived until 1982. The new paper was the first in Buffalo to come out with a colored supplement and cutouts.
Long nominally a Republican, Conners threw off the mask when he bought the Courier and was elected chairman of the Democratic State Committee 1906. His man for governor that year was the mercurial William Randolph Hearst, whose national chain of newspapers specialized in non-news. He was defeated by the more admirable Charles Evans Hughes, but the rest of the Democratic state-wide ticket won. Conners' last hurrah in politics came in 1922 when he tried to capture control of the Erie County Democracy in the interests, once again, of Hearst as candidate for governor. The Hearst-Conners forces were handily defeated by others led by former Governor Alfred E. Smith and Buffalo's own William H. Fitzpatrick.
Great Lakes Transit Corporation
The waterfront had not seen its last of Conners:
Mr. Conners was 59 years old when, in 1916, he undertook what many describe as his greatest achievement, the organization of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation, which gave him control of practically all of the railroad lake transportation interests, including the largest fleet of package freight and passenger steamships, with one exception, that ever had been assembled by a single American company on the Great Lakes. Congress having passed a law forbidding railroad lines from owning, controlling or operating water transportation lines, Mr. Conners conceived the plan of forming a corporation to take over the great fleets of steamships operated on the lakes by the railroads and which under the provisions of the act, they would be obliged to abandon. Through the organization of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation, Mr. Conners brought his stupendous plan to complete consummation [sic] and, as chairman of the board of that corporation, he became the head of a company controlling about 85 percent of the package freighters on the Great Lakes .....
It was the Panama Canal act that forced the railroads to surrender their steamship lines. At that time seven great trunk lines were operating fleets of freight and passenger boats on the lakes, among them the New York Central, Pennsylvania, Erie, Lackawanna, Rutland, and Lehigh Valley roads. The Great Lakes Transit Corporation's stock was fixed at $20,000,000 and it took over about 35 big freight boats, some passenger vessels and in addition, acquired splendid terminal facilities in many lake cities." (Courier-Express, October 5, 1929)
The government's war on the railroads, which had begun in earnest under TR, had moved into high gear. The nation would be the loser.
In 1917 Conners became interested in Florida, where he had a winter home at Palm Beach. He purchased about 5,000 acres along the shore of Lake Okeechobee for a model farm. Reclamation progressed on a big scale. The land was stocked with cattle and hogs and became one of the outstanding stock farms in South Florida.
In 1923 he began a fifty-mile highway around the shore of Lake Okeechobee which connected with a road out of Palm Beach. This was finished the following year and operated as a toll road by the Conners Florida Highway Company. He also contracted with the state to build the Harding Memorial Bridge across the Kissimmee River west of Lake Okeechobee which was completed in record time.
William J. Conners, Jr.
Desiring more time in Florida, Conners turned over direction of his newspapers in 1919 to William J. Conners, Jr., who became the publisher. The father likewise turned over to junior the direction of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation, the W J. Conners Contracting Company, the George W. Jennings Lumber Company, and the William J. Conners Car Shops - the former New York Central shops in East Buffalo.
William J. Conners, Sr.'s marriages
William J. Conners, Sr. was married three times:
- In 1881 to Catherine Mahaney of Buffalo, who died leaving three children, Peter Newell, who died in 1908, Mary, who married Edwin C. Andrews, and Katherine, the wife of Francis X. Ryan of Pasadena
- In 1893 Conners married Mary Alice Jordan of West Seneca, by whom he had three children, the youngest of whom was William, Jr.
- In March 1924 he married Grace Hammond who survived him.
The Courier-Express Building
Shortly before his death Conners unveiled plans for a modern printing plant at Main and Goodell. It was completed in December 1930.
Meanwhile Conners had died at seventy-two on October 5, 1929. Within two weeks the Panic of 1929 struck Wall Street followed by the Depression Decade of the 1930s.
William J. Conners, Jr.
William J. Conners, Jr., had been born in 1895. He attended Nichols and Harstrom School in Norwalk, Connecticut, in preparation for Yale.
In October 23, 1917, he married Corinne H. Tilford of New York.
One of the first naval air units was formed at Yale, and Conners immediately joined. After the Armistice he returned to Buffalo, became head of most of his father's enterprises and continued to live in the paternal home at #1140 Delaware.
He was recalled to active service in the Navy during World War II, which he spent in administrative duties in Buffalo, the Panama Canal Zone,and at Sampson Naval Training Center in New York.
He was an indefatigable sportsman engaged in hunting, sailing, and deep-sea fishing. His memberships included the Saturn, Country, and Buffalo clubs, and the Anglo-American Fish & Game Club in Canada. Besides involvement in strictly family enterprises, he was a director of Marine Trust, Sterling Engine Company, Maxson-Cadillac, Dold Meat Packing, and American Shipbuilding, and was a trustee of Millard Fillmore Hospital.
He died at fifty-five on in 1951 and was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna. All the companies forming the Conners industrial empire, save for the Courier Express, were being dissolved at the time of his death.
Number 1140 Delaware was sold to Irving Rosen, owner of United Recovery Company, a scrap-metal firm that dealt with industrial plants. He was also president of R & R Salvage Company, which worked with auto wreckers. Rosen said that he intended to occupy the twenty-room house.
He noted that it was built in 1908 of stone and marble.
The basement contained a gaming room, two fireplaces, a swimming pool, and a gymnasium.
On the first floor was a large reception room, a semicircular solarium, and a mahogany paneled dining room.
There were five bedrooms and four bathrooms on the second floor, plus a large library. More bedrooms could be found on the third floor together with a stage and dressing rooms on the third.
The four-car stone garage had two apartments on the second floor. (Buffalo Evening News, May 2, 1951)
Illustration source: "Men of Buffalo," Chicago: A. N. Marquis & Co., 1902