Among the more engaging figures in the banking world of Dallas in the closing years of the last century was J. C. O’Connor, the former telegraph operator, stagecoach driver, railway station agent, and gold prospector who came out of the West in the 1870s to find his real fortune in Texas. When he first came to Dallas he was the contractor for the Houston & Texas Central roadway, the first rail line to reach the city. It was not until his thirty-third year that this versatile, popular, and eminently companionable man found his true calling, that of banker and financier. But from 1880 until his retirement more than two decades later, he served as the director of one of the major banks of the city and had a hand in much of the city’s economic advancement.
O’Connor was born in 1847 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, one of several sons in the family of Irish parents. After limited schooling in his hometown he learned telegraphy. On one of his first jobs he “worked at the key” with another novice telegrapher about his own age, Thomas A. Edison. The two became fast friends and O’Connor often visited “the Wizard of Menlo Park” in later years. In company with four other young telegraphers, O’Connor went to Idaho and Montana when those areas were still on the Indian frontier. He was said to have been one of only two survivors of a ferocious Indian raid. After various experiences as a frontiersman, he came to Texas in the latter part of the 1860s with $10,000 in savings. At the close of the Civil War the H&TC had resumed its construction northward toward Dallas and the Red River above Sherman. Joined by his father and a brother, O’Connor pooled his $10,000 in a railroad construction company, which got the
contract to build the roadway for the line. It reached Dallas in July, 1872, and its northern terminus at Sherman later in that same year. O’Connor’s share in profits from constructing the line was $75,000, “upon the payment of which,” it was recorded by one biographer, “he went to Europe and lived in Paris for three years.” This may have sounded a bit frivolous, for the biographer quickly added, “devoting his entire time to study and the improvement of his capabilities.” Another chronicler of O’Connor’s career states that during these same three years in Paris, “he devoted much attention to the study of art.”
In 1876 O’Connor returned to Texas with a considerable portion of his capital intact. He settled in Dallas where he soon became interested in a number of business ventures. He and J. B. Wilson, a Dallas businessman with whom O’Connor formed a partnership, engaged in more than one investment in cattle or cattle land holdings. He also became a principal owner with Jules E. Schneider of the pioneer Dallas Gas Works. Then on January 27, 1880, O’Connor with associates bought the pioneer City Bank of Dallas from its founder, the noted Texas cattleman Col. William E. Hughes. His associates included Schneider, Alfred Davis, and W. C. Connor, the latter being the builder of the city’s first water system; later he was mayor of Dallas. Operating under a new charter as the City National Bank of Dallas, its capital stock was increased to $100,000. O’Connor was the dominant member of the syndicate behind the bank, owning 300 shares of its
stock and controlling about the same number or more held by his father and brother. The next year the private bank of Gannon Brothers was bought and consolidated with the City National. At this time Col. C. C. Slaughter, formerly a director, returned to its directorate. “It might be said,” a resume of the history of the bank declared, “that the City National Bank as a going concern found its business stride with this organization.” (In 1929 the City National combined with the American Exchange National Bank to form the present First National in Dallas.)
Five years later, under O’Connor’s direction, the bank underwent another significant expansion by the purchase of the Dallas National Bank. It had been formed several years before by S. G. Bayne of Pennsylvania, later chairman of the Seaboard National Bank of New York. The merger brought Bayne and a number of leading Dallas citizens as additional members of the board of O’Connor’s bank. Among these were T. L. Marsalis, developer of Oak Cliff; Col. J. T. Trezevant, insurance executive; C. A. Keating, pioneer farm implement and machinery dealer; Alex Sanger, noted Dallas and Texas merchant; and E. M. Reardon. In 1894 E. O. Tenison became cashier; he succeeded O’Connor as president on the latter’s retirement in 1903. During the 1890s O’Connor also returned to the field of contracting, becoming the builder under contract with the federal government of the colossal jetties which provided Galveston with a deepwater harbor.
O’Connor was a lifelong member of the Catholic church and was credited with being a generous contributor to its charities and other good works. He became an intimate friend in Dallas of Father Martiniere, a pioneer Catholic clergyman of the city. In 1889 at the age of fifty-two O’Connor married Mrs. Wandless of Houston, a sister of J. Waddy Tate, railroad traffic representative in Dallas, then drugstore owner and operator, later mayOl’ of Dallas. O’Connor and his wife moved to Paris in 1904, where they made their home until his death in the French capital on January 23, 1913. E. O. Tenison, president of the City National Bank, close friend and protege of O’Connor’s, was notified by cable of his death. “Rated a millionaire several times over,” said Tenison, “Mr. O’Connor was a self-made man. He earned the foundation of his fortune in hard and perilous labors under circumstances where personal courage and individual ability alone counted
Courtesy Dallas Yesterday by Sam H. Achenson.