Cornelius F. Burns
City of Troy

This biography is from Troy and Rensselaer County, New York, Volume III, by Rutherford Hayner, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., New York and Chicago, 1925. It was submitted by Debby Masterson.

CORNELIUS F. BURNS—Not only one of the best known and most highly esteemed men of the city of Troy, Cornelius F. Burns also has the honor of having served as mayor of that city longer than any other who has been chosen to fill that responsible office. He served for eight years and during that time established a record for enthusiastic, able, and devoted service which has not been surpassed. It is said of him that no man ever did more for the city of Troy than he and those who make that statement point to the Ford plant as one of the most convincing evidences of the truth of their assertion. "It was Mr. Burns who worked early and late to get Mr. Ford to establish an auxiliary plant here," and after they have enumerated some of the many advantages which that plant offers to the community, they speak of other services rendered by Mr. Burns.

The Burns family of Troy was founded in the United States by John Burns, who was born in Ireland, and who soon after his arrival in this country settled at Troy, New York, where he engaged in business as an undertaker and where he also served as sexton of St. Peter's Church, the oldest Catholic church in Troy. His son John W., is of further mention.

John W. Burns, son of John Burns, was born in Troy, in 1840, and died there in 1883. He built up and expanded the business which his father had established, and became widely known as an undertaker and funeral director. A member of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, he was noted for the generosity with which he gave to charitable cases in connection with both his church and his city. He married Ellen Gorman, who was born in Ireland, but died in Troy, on February 26, 1907, and they were the parents of four sons and one daughter: John George, deceased; Cornelius F., of further mention; James H.; David A., deceased; and Nellie M.

Cornelius F. Burns, son of John W, and Ellen (Gorman) Burns, was born in Troy, New York, and after receiving a preparatory education in the public schools of Troy and in St. Peter's Parochial School, completed his preparation for an active career in La Salle Academy. His academic training was terminated when his father's death occurred and he became associated in the latter's undertaking establishment with his brothers, John, George, and James H., who assumed control of that well established business. During the more than four decades which have passed since that time the business has steadily grown and prospered and the J. W. Burns' Sons have established a reputation for tactful, courteous service, and honorable methods.

Apart from his business life the career of Cornelius F. Burns presents several phases of more than usual interest. At the age of twenty he became a member of the Trojan Hook and Ladder Company, No. 3, and as a volunteer fireman he served so enthusiastically that he was much in the public eye, also later was president of the company for ten years. During that period of. his life when entering manhood years and later, he led parades, was commander or marshal at cornerstone layings, dedications, and centennial celebrations. There is an interesting story told of Mr. Burns in connection with this feature of his career. When President McKinley visited Troy, in 1897, "Connie" Burns, as he was and is familiarly known, was marshal of the parade. When the procession reached City Hall the people literally choked the streets and although the police tried their best, the Presidential carriage could not pass through. But Marshal Burns took the "bit in his teeth" and riding his beautiful thoroughbred into the crowd, his aroused horse kicking and plunging but thoroughly under the control of his expert rider, he cleared the way for the President's carriage without injury to anyone. This met with much applause, in which the President joined. Mr. Burns also had charge of the parade of the State Firemen's Association held in the evening, which acted as an escort to the President to the railroad station. Shortly before the time for the departure of the President, Mr. Burns was summoned by Secretary of War Alger to see the chief executive of the Nation, who complimented Mr. Burns upon the splendid manner in which everything connected with the demonstration had been carried out, adding that he had never seen anything of the size and nature of the Troy affair so well and capably managed and that Mr. Burns was a young man of remarkable executive ability, referring to him as "The Little Napoleon," a title which still clings to him.

The mammoth charity fairs held in the old State Armory for the local hospitals were greatly helped by his cooperation, and often organizations enlisted his efforts in the direction of similar affairs, for he had the ability to inspire others and win success. He was chairman of the executive committee of the "Old Home Week" celebration in 1908, and of the Hudson-Fulton celebration, 1909. These two memorable events in the history of Troy and were wonderful exhibitions of civic pride; no city in the Hudson Valley equaling Troy's part in the latter celebration. The flag flown by the "Tara," flagship of the Upper Hudson Committee of the Hudson-Fulton celebration, was presented personally to Chairman Burns in recognition of his valuable services, and Troy was hailed as the city which had the best arrangements and demonstration, as well as the best decorations. He was also presented with shell of the last shot fired in closing the celebration.

In 1906 Mr. Burns was elected president of the Troy Chamber of Commerce, and in that office he redoubled his zeal and became a bundle of concentrated energy. Sparing no one, he began a fight for Troy's recognition as a commercial and industrial center and waged that fight with all his resources until he emerged victorious. This fight coupled with his later management of the two great celebrations referred to, again brought Mr. Burns prominently into the public eye and he was frequently mentioned for public office, but he consistently declined all offers until finally in 1911 he was compelled by the universal demand of the voters to accept the nomination of the Democratic party for mayor. Mr. Burns made an exceedingly attractive candidate, receiving surprising support from Republicans and Independents, even the Republican leaders seeming to feel that Troy needed such a "political dynamo" in the City Hall as the Democratic candidate. He predicted his own election early in the campaign with the greatest confidence, asserting it would be by "no mean margin," and was seemingly not at all surprised when he was declared elected by nearly two thousand majority against the beaten candidate. Once in office he continued as mayor—what for thirty years he had done as a citizen—fight for the betterment and development of Troy. He threw all his great energy into the work of building a bigger, better Troy. He was returned to office for a second, a third, and a fourth term, and was nominated for the fifth term but declined—a record for length of time in office not equaled by any of the thirty-seven mayors elected since 1816. During his third term Mayor Burns shared with John Purroy Mitchel, of New York City, the distinction of being the best mayors of the State. In 1916 he was elected president of the New York State Conference of Mayors and Other City Officials, his choice being the unanimous act of the conference, and the following year he was reelected.

In the middle of his third term the "Albany Knickerbocker Press" made reference to Mayor Burns' administration in the following words: "Mayor Burns of Troy has served his city for almost four years. If there is a better mayor in the State of New York, the 'Knickerbocker Press' is unable to name him. The people of Troy are extremely fortunate in having such a man as Cornelius F. Burns for Mayor."

Mayor Burns was in office from January i. 1912, to January i, 1920, eight years of true progress. But greater than the great strides in public improvements was the improvement in city finances and this may be said to be the greatest of all official service Mayor Burns rendered his city. For the first time in two decades the bonded indebtedness of the city was reduced and by the substantial sum of half a million dollars.

While the reduction of the city's bonded indebtedness was an accomplishment of itself, more remarkable, however, is the fact that in conjunction with this reduction he brought about a lower tax rate. This was a two-fold municipal stroke that has never been matched in the history of the city. How it was possible to effect such municipal economy was a matter of much wonderment because of the extraordinary adverse conditions then existing, the World War being in progress and the cost of labor and material at the highest peak. Furthermore, notwithstanding that five times wages of city employees were increased, the tax rate for any year of his eight years as chief executive was not higher than that of the year he first took office; another record that is yet to be equaled in the municipal government of Troy. The "pay-as-you-go system" was adopted and the administration liquidated $150,000 of interest-drawing debt that had been hanging over the city for years. In the public works department the mayor made it a personal matter to see that the people got value received for every dollar invested. Among improvements credited to the Burns administration these stand out prominently: the rehabilitation of the municipal water system and placing it on a selfsustaining basis; the erection of a fine modern system of ornamental street lights; a vast amount of paving on business and residence streets. Among the improvements begun by Mayor Burns since completed are: motorizing the fire department and establishing a paid department; installation of a new fire alarm and police signaling system; improvement of the river front and harbor; the city of Troy and the Federal government cooperating.

Under the act approved by Governor Dix and championed by Mayor Burns, by which thoroughfares within a municipality which are connecting links of a State highway receive State aid, the State paid a large share of the cost of improving the nine approaches to and in Troy. Also during his administration three toll bridges entering the city were made free. The most important of these was the Congress Street Bridge, spanning the Hudson between Troy and Watervliet, as was brought about in a unique manner. A bill was prepared as early as 1914 to make a State highway trunk line afterwards known as Route 42. This highway designedly took in the Congress Street Bridge, so that, obviously, in creating such a trunk line the State would necessarily take over the bridge. The real purpose of the bill was known only to Mr. Burns and the attorney who drew it up and its significance not generally realized until the time came to get through the Legislation in 1919. This was a fight that demanded the force and earnestness such as he alone possessed.

The bill was finally passed however, and was up to the governor. It was doubted that the governor would sign it and here again Mayor Burns was equal to the occasion and he organized a State-wide agitation in favor of the bill and a delegation and demonstration such as was never seen there before, stormed the Capitol for the hearing given by the governor. Governor Smith signed the bill and Mayor Burns was given the pen with which this important act of legislation was signed. Subsequently Senator John J. Mackrell fathered a bill appropriating the funds necessary for the purchase of the bridge by the State.

As Troy's war mayor, Mr. Burns met to the full the demands of that strenuous time. He supervised the farewell given to the volunteers from the old 2nd Regiment and cared for the soldiers' wants. When the drafted men went away he marched to the railroad station with each group and had a word for every man. He kept the city up to a high state of patriotic fervor, and with ease the various "drives" were carried forward, and no untoward incident marred Troy's part in the war. The many parades and demonstrations were brought to a successful close when it was all over by a cordial "welcome home" to the boys. As mayor of Troy he became chairman of the County Red Cross which did so much for the returned soldiers, wounded and needy, and after ceasing to be mayor he continued his interest in the work.

The great fight Mayor Burns made for the development of the People's Water Power of the State and the work he did in having Henry Ford obtain a lease of the water power at the Troy dam is now history. He worked as never man worked to have the bill passed through Congress, conquered finally every obstacle at Washington and Albany, and gave to Troy an improvement, the value of which cannot be computed. The Troy "Times" said editorially:

While it is true that many others in this city—individuals, corporations and organizations—have joined with him in giving their services in the campaign to secure the Ford license, it is the dynamic determination of Cornelius F. Burns that has turned the fight into a victory. Time after time Mr. Burns has journeyed on short notice to New York and Washington in behalf of this important project. Twice he has gone to Detroit. Those who have done likewise have done so usually in company with him or at his suggestion. It is reasonable to say that this license would not have been granted by the present commission and might have been delayed, if not defeated, without his energetic efforts. In our rejoicing that the end is now in sight we should not forget the splendid resourcefulness exhibited by the former Mayor in attacking every obstacle until the Ford factory was assured to Troy.

Some of the things that have been said in the Troy newspapers concerning Mr. Burns, follow:

Home Week goes down into history as the most notable and crowning success of all the city's festivals.

Concerning his services as Chairman of the Troy Executive Committee during a period of many months and the actual time of the Hudson-Fulton celebration, two weeks, including features at every important city along the Hudson river from New York to Troy, Mr. Burns received what constituted to his mind, the best possible award for all his efforts, namely, the official recognition of Troy as the city furnishing the best celebration of all.

The Troy "Standard" clearly voiced the enthusiastic appreciation of all that Mr. Burns accomplished:

If there is one man who deserves credit more than another, it is Corneluis F. Burns, on whom devolved the greatest responsibility for Troy's celebration. Patiently and unselfishly, and dominated solely by a sense of civic pride, he worked incessantly for weeks and months, looking carefully after every detail and meeting many obstacles which would have discouraged a less determined man—Troy owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Burns which she will not be slow in acknowledging.

General Stewart L. Woodford, president of the State Committee, at the close of the celebration paid high tribute to the energy and efficiency of Cornelius F. Burns, and the Troy "Times" said:

One man gave his time and effort and money for months, as he has done on more than one occasion before, with just as devoted a purpose as the explorer or the inventor, and that was "Con F, Burns."

As president of the Chamber of Commerce he served with unusual distinction and when he retired from this office he received, at the farewell function, an enthusiastic demonstration which was most fitting. The Troy "Press" said:

For three years he has given freely of time and money with an unlagging enthusiasm for Troy's progress which has placed him in the front rank of the public-spirited citizens of this municipality.

The first term of Mayor Burns presented the opportunity to demonstrate in a conspicuous way his remarkable capacity and his business ability to cope with emergencies when there came upon his city, as well as others at that time, the great flood, in March, 1913. Of his numerous activities as mayor, none received such high and universal praise as did his work during this calamity that fell so heavily upon many homes in his city. The press was both generous and just in its applause of his work during those trying days. A few comments may be quoted as an example of what all conceded:

The Troy "Times," March 29, 1913, said:

Mayor Burns measured up to the great emergency. He was everywhere, with his characteristic and indefatigable energy, and was all that a Mayor should be.

The Albany "Telegram," of April 6, 1913, said:

Mayor Cornelius F. Burns emerged from the distressful situation the hero of the event, and with the blessing of all the afflicted pouring on his head for the generous and indefatigable efforts he promptly organized for the relief of the distressed. The Mayor was not behindhand in the matter, for all Tuesday night he remained in his office, and assumed personal charge of the department of public safety and made every possible effort to prepare the people for the danger that awaited them. During the three days of the flood it is doubtful whether Mayor Burns obtained more than fourteen hours' sleep and in addition to this his own dwelling and business place was inundated in the cellar by the water, but with characteristic unselfishness, he devoted all his time and attention to the distress of others.

The Utica "Globe" of April 11, 1913, said:

The manner in which Mayor Cornelius F. Burns handled the perplexing situation which arose in Troy during the trying days of the flood has brought to him many deserved expressions of commendation. He handled every situation superbly. This statement is true and deserved, and no higher compliment can be given him. * * *

A typical American, courteous, kindly, of sterling qualities of character, Mr. Burns has a host of friends in both social and business life. He holds membership in Troy Lodge, No. 141, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks; Troy Council, Knights of Columbus; Trojan Hook and Ladder Company; Troy Club; Van Schaick Island and Wolfert's Post Country clubs; Laureate Boat Club. His business connections include membership in the boards of directors of the Manufacturers' National Bank, of Troy; The Arrow Grip Manufacturing Company. Glen Falls, New York; the Central New York Mortgage and Home Building Company, Inc., and the Central New York Title Guaranty Company, of Albany. He is also a director and an honorary president of the New York State Conference of Mayors and Other City Officials, a past president of the Troy Chamber of Commerce, and a director New York State Association. He is a splendid horseman and one of his chief pleasures is in owning, driving and riding fine horses, and is equally at home in sulky or saddle. At the time of the Park Club Driving Club Association's existence, one of the fine organizations of its kind in Northern New York, Mr. Burns was president of the association and very active in the promotion of its interests. He was one of the promoters and the first president of The Troy Riding Club, some of the finest horses in the country having been owned by members of that club. In fact, Mayor Burns is exceedingly partial to all out-of-doors sports and in the "olden times" he and his brother, James, were among the best amateur baseball players. After his retirement from the mayoralty office, Mr. Burns continued to be interested and active in civic affairs and in the promotion of projects for the public good. His activities and achievements as mayor brought him into the public eye, not only throughout his own State, but far beyond its borders, and his popularity, though a source of envy in some quarters, was such that he was tendered, but declined, nomination for United States Senator and for State comptroller, at a time when those nominations were apparently, as they proved to be, equal to election. Mr. Burns has also the rare honor of having received the endorsement of the Rensselaer Democracy as a candidate for governor in 1921, when the nomination for that high office hung in the balance between Governor Smith and William Randolph Hearst.

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