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California Genealogy and History Archives

Biographies
of
Sacramento County

 

THOMAS W. O'NEIL

The associations of a lifetime bound Mr. O'Neil closely to Sacramento county. While the interests of business took him temporarily to other parts of California he always considered himself a citizen of his native county and never lost his intense loyalty and affectionate devotion to this section of the state. In return he received the admiring respect of an unusually large circle of acquaintances. It is given to few to possess the friendship of all, yet it may be said of Mr. O'Neil, notwithstanding his activity in politics and his frankness in expressing his opinion concerning public questions, that even his political opposers bore him no ill will, but on the contrary reposed the highest confidence in his honor, integrity and patriotic loyalty.

Born at Folsom, Sacramento county, August 4, 1855, Mr. O'Neil began to learn the trade of frescoing at an early age and for seven years he followed the occupation in San Francisco and San Jose, always, however, retaining his home in Sacramento county. During 1876 he began to work at his trade in Sacramento, where he made a specialty of frescoing, decorating interiors and treating wall finish. By the exercise of good business judgment and artistic skill he established a reputation in his chosen line and was reckoned one of the most successful frescoers in this part of the state. During 1887 he married the daughter of the late John Rooney of Brighton (now called Perkins), Sacramento county, and at the time of his demise he left to mourn him his devoted wife, also two daughters and five sons, the eldest of whom was not yet seventeen.

From boyhood Mr. O'Neil took an active part in polities. For many years he was a local Democratic leader and a member of the county and state central committees. As sheriff in 1893-94 he established a reputation for fearlessness. During his term every industry in the city and county was paralyzed by the A. E. IT. strike and the city was under martial law. Another important affair connected with his official service was the suppression of gambling in the county. When the chief of police and local officers stated they could not suppress gambling in the city, he stepped in. declared that gambling must stop and saw to it that not another deal was made while he acted as sheriff. Although a staunch Democrat he was chosen by President McKinley to act as census marshal for Northern California. When the Union Building and Loan Association went into the hands of a receiver he was chosen by Judge Hughes for that position. Under his oversight chaos was reduced to order, justice was secured for all concerned and the litigation was about completed in every detail at the time of his death. After he retired from the sheriff's office he engaged in the hop business, but a decline occurred in the price about that time and hops were scarcely worth the gathering, so that his accumulations in a lifetime of energy and labor were swept away in a legitimate enterprise.

As organizer Mr. O'Neil was connected with Sacramento Parlor No. 3, N. S. Gr. W., and he was also prominent in the United Commercial Travelers' Association. As a member of the firm of M. Cronan & Co., of Sacramento, he traveled throughout Northern California and during one of his trips he was seized with a heart attack at Colfax, Placer county, March 12, 1905. In a few hours he passed away. The remains were brought back to the bereaved family and interment was made in the Sacramento cemetery. Universal regret was expressed that a man of such sterling qualities should be taken while yet in the prime of manhood. Many tributes were paid to his memory by those who had known and honored him for years. From one of these testimonials we quote as follows :

"Only those whose privilege it was to enjoy a personal acquaintance with the late T. W. O'Neil appreciate the noble qualities of the man. It is doubtful whether the unexpected death of any other man in the city of Sacramento would have elicited more sincere expression of sorrow. Tom O'Neil was a true man in every one of life's manifold relationships. He loved his family and was devoted to his friends, while toward those who differed with him in the affairs that called his attention, political or personal, his generous heart could cherish no antagonism. All his life was free and open. He never knowingly oppressed a human being. In his great heart there was no place for resentment, yet he was indomitable in defense of his opinions and like a man faced vicissitudes with courageous resolution. It happened to him that the course of his career led him sometimes into politics, but Tom O'Neil never lost his self-esteem, his natural love of truth, his friendly devotion in all the manipulation of that strange game where men rarely scruple if failure is the alternative. Tom 'Neil's sincerity never forsook him. Under every circumstance his compass was set by the stars and he pursued the rioid reckoning, lead where it might. The death of such a man and so true a friend comes as a personal loss to the humble writer of these lines, as it does to every man who knew him well enough to appreciate him at his worth. He was too noble to be base, too conscientious to deceive, too loyal to dissimulate. Upon his brow God set the seal of truth, in his heart no taint of dishonor could abide. And the world will revolve and the days go on and on, and you will be forgotten, Tom, but not by those who languish now in tears for love of you, nor yet by this penman, nor by the large number of others who, from knowing you, called you friend."

Mrs. O'Neil, who survives her husband, now fills the office of county superintendent of schools, having been elected to the office in 1906 and re-elected in 1910. She is the daughter of the late John Rooney and a sister of James and Peter Rooney. Her father was born in County Louth, Ireland, and came to the United States in 1847, when twenty-one years of age, landing in New York, whence he proceeded to Boston. Next he went south to Kings county, Ala. November 20, 1849, he started for California via Panama and landed in San Francisco on the 27th of January, then coming to Sacramento February 2 following. For nine months he worked in the mines of Georgetown, Eldorado county. His mining ventures were so remarkably successful that by 1852 he had netted $25,000, but years later financial reverses came to him and swept much of his splendid property into ruin. In 1852 lie began farming, and purchasing six hundred and ten acres of raw land near what is now Perkins, Sacramento county, he followed agriculture and stock raising on that place. About 1881 he began hop raising and developed what was said to be the largest hop-field in the entire world. In 1853 he married Mary Clark, a native of the same county in Ireland. For years they presided over a home where hospitality was unbounded. No weary traveler ever sought food or shelter there in vain. No guest ever visited the spacious country home but was refreshed in spirit and made the better for the sunshine of Mrs. Rooney’s presence.

When financial troubles came Mr. Rooney saw his wide possessions leave him to satisfy the demands of the mortgage-holders. But John Rooney and his wife were made of sterner stuff than those who surrender to the caprices of fortune. He was ever the same rugged, stalwart character, strong in his friendships, unshaken in his principles, while Mrs. Rooney remained his ever-devoted helpmate. Early in life John Rooney was a Douglas Democrat. In 1864 he supported Abraham Lincoln. After 1868 he was identified with the Democratic party. In local conventions he was a leader. "But the years crept on John Rooney and mellowed his life into a peacefulness that sought no more clashing with the world. The ambition which fired him on in the days of his splendid youth and manhood was gone, and John Rooney gave his life as bravely as he had lived it." When within a few months of seventy-seven years of age he died at the home of his son, James, where he had been temporarily sojourning. To the memory of descendants he left the priceless heritage of an honorable life, devoted to the welfare of loved ones and to the service of the commonwealth which he proudly called his home. 


Source:
History of Sacramento County, California
Biographical Sketches of The Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development from the Early Days to the Present
History By: William L. Willis
Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, California (1913)

Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011