John Conness

United States Senator born in Abbey, Co Galway
Frances Holohan

Born in Abbey on 22nd September 1821, John Conness was the youngest of 14 children born to Walter and Mary Conness (nee Williams).

John Conness  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When a senator from California got into a dustup in Mattapan

By Adam Gaffin, Universal Hub
August 25, 2021

In January 1879, John Conness, a United States senator from California during the Civil War who had retired to the life of a gentleman farmer in, of all places, Mattapan, Massachusetts, agreed to appear before a City Hall committee investigating alleged improprieties by the city’s superintendent of streets, some of which involved the upgrading of River Street along Conness’s farm.

It happened 142 years ago, but the hearing bears all the hallmarks of what would still make a classic City Hall hearing today: Threats to call in the police if people don’t quiet down, allegations of misuse of city property, some good volleys of insults, a bit of sneering at an out-of-stater’s involvement in Boston affairs, and lots of discussion about New England’s notoriously rocky soil.

It’s not clear, at least from the records available online, why John Conness bought five acres of land midway between the villages of Mattapan and Lower Mills in 1869 after the California legislature replaced him (until 1914, state legislatures elected US senators) because he had no particular connections to Boston.

Conness was born in Ireland, emigrated to New York City with his parents and grew up to become a piano repair man before going to California in the Gold Rush of 1849 and making a small fortune – not by mining, but by opening a store that catered to miners. He later lost everything when his town burned down.

Undaunted, he rose through the political ranks and, in 1863, the California legislature sent him as a senator to Washington where he quickly became a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln on both the war effort and early attempts at conservation (a mountain in Yosemite National Park is named for him). In 1865, he served as one of Lincoln’s pallbearers.

In 1869, after he came out in favor of advances in Chinese immigration policy, he was replaced in the Senate and retired to his new farm in the rural southern end of what was then the town of Dorchester, but which became the rural southern end of Boston a few months later, when the capital city annexed its neighbor.

Conness worked his farm hard, slowly adding acreage and digging up so many rocks and stones that he was able to build numerous roads and paths across his property.

In 1878, two years after Boston widened River Street, the city began to “macadamize” the street, to turn what was essentially a long mud pit through the marshes along the Neponset River between Lower Mills and Mattapan into a more usable road by putting down several layers of crushed stone and then compacting it – the state of the art back then for building decent roads away from city centers.

But the city faced a major expense: Finding and transporting enough crushed stone to the remote area to fill in the road. At this point, Conness got directly involved, and by more than just petitioning the city to improve the street, according to his testimony before a joint committee of the Boston Board of Aldermen and the Common Council.

He tried to persuade some of his neighbors, who had fallow land producing only their annual bounties of rocks, to let the city scoop up their stones to build the road. But most refused unless the city paid them more than it had budgeted. Conness decided that even though he actually had his own use for the rocks that he was still digging up out of his land years after he first tried getting rid of them, he’d let city crews basically mine parts of his farm – even use gunpowder – to blast out stones from his land on the condition that they fill in the resulting holes.

The work began.

One problem for Conness was that the city’s superintendent of streets at the time, Charles Harris, had built up a formidable stable of enemies among both city workers, who accused him of playing favorites, trying to force them to vote for a particular mayoral candidate, and among members of the city’s Board of Aldermen and Common Council. And it turned out that some of Conness’s River Street neighbors took a great dislike to the California import living in their midst.

In January 1879, the two elected bodies opened a hearing on the allegations against Harris. When the discussion turned to the River Street macadam project, Conness was summoned as a witness and he appeared on Feb. 7. People in the gallery immediately began to hiss him so loudly that Alderman Charles Henry Bass Breck, who was chairing the hearing, tried to gavel them into silence and warned he would not hesitate to call the police to enforce order.

Conness denied being enriched by the work. He said that any increase in value of his estate from having the 19th-century equivalent of a paved road was more than offset by the damage to his land from all the holes that hadn’t been properly filled in, by the giant pile of marshland the city dumped in one of his fields, and by the money he had to spend on his own to keep some of the roadwork from washing away, such as the $400 he said he had spent to put down curbing along a new sidewalk the city had macadamized and the $250 he had paid out to repair a long wall city workers had damaged.

He explained the decision to pay for the curb himself this way: “It was a shame to put so much work on the street, to make it a street for a hundred years, and not to put in an additional curb on account of the cost. I thought the abutters ought to be required to do something to keep the sidewalk for those who travel on it.”

Conness later added that that was why he had pushed the city to improve River Street in the first place: “During the seven years I have lived there, it was perfectly pitiable to see the public travelling on the street. It simply injured the carriages. In frosty weather it turned the axles with the severe ruts. In muddy weather it run down.

“A large portion of the Catholic church live in Mattapan, and at all seasons of the year they came through that street, a mile and a third, or more. I have taken the women up particularly – yes, scores of times – in my sleighs and wagons, and deposited them at the church. They came on the walls and crept along and walked on the walls, the place was so impassable.

“And when I endeavored to have that street made, I did it not for myself, but for every mortal that passes over it. It was a scandal, as I stated to the Committee on Paving.”

Under questioning from Councilman Isaac Rosnosky, Boston’s first Jewish council member, he denied that the value of his property had been improved simply by having thousands of “loads” of stone removed from it, because, after all, this is New England, and the rocks never end.

  1. You got numerous rocks taken away?
  2. Oh, no, sir; we live among the rocks; the rocks are abounding.
  3. But most of the rocks, near where the house is situated, are nearly all gone?
  4. Oh, no sir; the rocks are my gems.
  5. I think you are a pretty solid rock, Mr. Conness.

And what about all the valuable loam and sod city workers had put on his land, the trees they moved for him?

“Vile, false” [statements by] “vicious people,” Conness said. The loam was, in fact, low-quality “coarse material” dug up along the street to make way for crushed stone. He had never had anybody but himself sod his land. And far from gaining new trees, he said he lost several to the excavations and had their remains turned into logs the city could use for the street project.

“I have a very large supply of tools, sometimes as many as six crowbars, one of them we call ‘the baby,’ weighing 45 pounds,” he said. “Six of my bars were in the employ of the city for weeks. I did not hesitate an instant. Ropes for pulling down the trees – trees out on the streets – not mine. Everything I had. The use of our premises; our walls near the barn. The men took water all the season. They were coming and going in wagons and carts. They used my premises in various ways.

“They used our apple-orchard and everything on the premises besides, and they were always treated well and kindly, although it was hard to treat some of them kindly. The most of them were decent men and well-behaved.

He allowed as how, yes, he cursed out the workers sometimes, but said his bark was worse than his bite, that, in fact, he helped the men out however he could. None of the men he oversaw passed out from the sun, he said.

Conness also got into an exchange with Lawrence Welby, who was not an elected official but one of the people who’d petitioned to have Harris removed as streets superintendent:

  1. I want to know why he takes such a lively interest in Boston, seeing he has lived most of his lifetime in California?
  2. I can make an impartial answer to that. I have always taken some interest in wherever I lived. I have never been a tramp, although I have lived in California.
  3. I would like to ask the gentlemen whether he insinuates that the questioner was a tramp?
  4. Oh, no, he doesn’t look like a tramp; besides, there is a law against tramps.
  5. They attempted to pass it, but they didn’t succeed.
  6. Perhaps it is well for you and I that they didn’t.

In the end, both the Board of Aldermen and the Common Council voted, narrowly, to keep Harris on as streets superintendent.

That was not the last time, however, that Conness butted heads with City Hall over the condition of River Street.
In 1886, he and his neighbors – with whom he seemed to have made up – pleaded with the Board of Aldermen to reconsider its approval of a measure they said would allow dangerous speeding on their stretch of the street “during the sleighing season” by individuals on horses. The street had more than 50 children and was largely used by plodding horse-drawn freight carriages, all at risk of daring people pushing their own horses to breakneck speeds. “Serious accidents have already occurred there,” Conness and his neighbors wrote.

The petition was introduced by Councilman Andreas Blume who, while acknowledging he had never been to River Street, said it was wrong to allow a heavily traveled street full of children be used as a race track by “fast men, and possibly fast women” – and not just “rich gentlemen from Dorchester,” but from Weymouth, Dedham, Milton and Hyde Park [then still an independent town].

“It means that a rabble of respectable and every other kind of people will go there from every part of Boston and the surrounding towns and trot their horses,” he predicted. He said he supposed if the supporters of a River Street with no speed limits were to live there, “they would sing a different tune.”

Mayor Hugh O’Brien vetoed the trotting proposal, Blume succeeded in keeping the board from overturning the veto, and Conness continued with his quiet farming ways, gradually building his estate up to 55 acres.

In 1906, when he was well into his 80s, Conness sold most of his estate for $65,000 to the city, which used the property to build a large tuberculosis sanatorium as the city struggled to deal with what was then its leading killer.

Conness then moved to Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. The last of Lincoln’s pallbearers died in 1909 and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

His main house remains on the site to this day, visible from the street at 249 River St. The Boston Consumptives Hospital, which added numerous large buildings, many of which also still stand, eventually gave way to today’s series of public-health facilities run by a variety of health organizations, including the Boston Public Health Commission, which owns the large campus.