Thomas Andrew O’Leary, fireman and early chief of the Houston Fire Department, was born in November 1860 in Great Britain. Records of the 1900 U. S. census indicate that his country of birth was England. Houston Fire Department records list the town of Newport in Monmouthshire, which is located in Wales. O’Leary was the son of Irish parents, listed on genealogy sites as possibly Cornelius O’Leary and Mary Ann (Arthur) O’Leary. Thomas O’Leary immigrated to Houston, Texas, in 1878. On March 4, 1889, he married music teacher Amelia (also spelled Emelie or Emelia) Meyer. They lived at 313 San Felipe, where they owned a modest home, now known as San Felipe Cottage, which can be seen at The Heritage Society in Sam Houston Park. Their daughter Irene was the only one of their three children born there to survive to adulthood.
At the time O’Leary immigrated, Amelia’s brother Joseph Meyer was chief of the volunteer fire department in Houston. O’Leary enlisted as a volunteer firefighter, and both he and Meyer were members of volunteer fire company Stonewall No. 3 operating from Fire House Number Three.
In addition to his work as a volunteer fireman, O’Leary worked in several other capacities. Starting in the late 1880s and through the 1890s, he worked in several positions in law enforcement—as a policeman, in special police, and as deputy city marshal. He also found other work and was a city health inspector in the early 1890s. The 1900 census listed him as a laborer. Houston city directories listed him as a night watchman for the Magnolia Brewery around 1900 to 1902.
The city had not assumed the function of fighting fires at the time when O’Leary joined Stonewall No. 3. In 1895 the city of Houston formed the Houston Fire Department, its first paid fire department, bringing Houston’s volunteer fire department to an end. The city absorbed seven volunteer fire stations, including O’Leary’s Station (Stonewall) No. 3. Stonewall No. 3 was first organized in 1867 and located on Travis Street (present site of the Rice Hotel). The station later moved to several different locations, including Houston Ave and Spring Street in 1903; the building was remodeled in 2003 and was still standing in the 2020s.
After Houston formed a fire department, O’Leary rose to become chief of the fire department as a paid city employee. He served as chief from 1905 to 1908 and in his first year reported 161 telephone alarms and 201 box alarms (freestanding alarms that citizens could trigger to alert the public and department about a fire).
O’Leary’s term as fire chief ended when he died in the line of duty, trying to put out a fire in a railroad boxcar that was loaded with fireworks. On November 22, 1908, a train car collided with the boxcar in the Houston Belt Terminal Railroad switching yard. The collision caused an explosion and fire. The fact that the explosion blew off the roof of the boxcar seemed to lessen the danger from the possibility of additional explosions. However, unknown to the firemen, the boxcar held more large shells for aerial fireworks. One or more of the shells exploded, severely injuring O’Leary, who took the brunt of the blast, and injuring five more firefighters. O’Leary was taken to Houston’s St. Joseph’s Hospital where he died a few weeks later on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1908.
Thomas Andrew O’Leary was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. His grave was never marked. In 1928 his wife was buried beside him, also in an unmarked grave. A headstone was added in 2003 by the Houston Fire Memorial Committee.
“Chief Thomas Andrew O’Leary,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/11085114/thomas-andrew-o_leary), accessed June 18, 2020. Houston Fire Department: HFD History (https://www.houstontx.gov/fire/about/history.html), accessed June 18, 2020. “An Irish Hero in Houston,” A Little Piece of History by The Heritage Society, Posted on February 29, 2016 (http://absolutelymemorial.com/2016/02/an-irish-hero-in-houston/), accessed February 19, 2017. “Thomas Andrew O’Leary,” Houstonfirememorial.org (http://www.houstonfirememorial.org/LOD/O'Leary_Thomas.htm), accessed June 18, 2020.
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
Upper Gulf Coast
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