Well remembered by all of the older citizens of Portland and prominently identified with the earlier political and commercial history of the city was Thomas J. Holmes. He was born in Diss, county of Norfolk, England, March 3, 1819, and was a son of William and Mary A. Holmes. His father was a mechanic, who, with the hope of improving his fortunes, migrated to the United States with his family in 1830, and settled in New York City. At this time, Thomas, a bright, robust lad of eleven years, began life’s battle for himself. He secured a position with a physician on Staten Island and for some time thereafter not only supported himself by his labors, but also acquired much valuable knowledge from his employer, who took a kindly interest in his welfare. Had he desired it he might have become a member of the medical profession, but the bent of his mind was toward practical affairs and at the end of a few years’ service, he began an apprentice-ship at the shoemaker’s trade. After acquiring his trade and arriving at the age of manhood he engaged in business in Jersey City, starting with no capital other than his mechanical knowledge, native shrewdness and good character. He married soon after and for some years prospered in business. Later on, having lost his wife and met with reverses in business he embarked for South America and for some time thereafter followed the seas. The discovery of gold in California caused him to turn his attention to this portion of the country. In company with a number of citizens from Jersey City, he started for the “land of gold” in a sailing vessel, arriving in San Francisco in December, 1849. A severe illness prevented his starting for the mines, and upon his recovery some months later, he came to Portland, arriving on the steamer commanded by Capt. Crosby, in the spring of 1850. Being without means he at once commenced working at his trade. Industrious and thrifty he prospered and within a brief period gained a large business, and at the same time acquired a most enviable reputation among his fellows for honesty and integrity of character. As his business grew he engaged in other enterprises, all of which he conducted with almost unvarying success. He acquired real estate, and such good judgment and business sagacity did he exercise in all of his enterprises that at the end of a few years he became for that day one of Portland’s wealthy men.
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He early began to take an alive interest in public affairs, being among the first to advocate the establishment of the free school system. He was also active in politics, and was frequently elected by his fellow townsmen to public stations, serving in the city council for several terms. Upon the resignation of Henry Failing as mayor, in 1866, he was selected by the council to serve the unexpired term. So satisfactory to the people was his administration of affairs that he was nominated by his party as its candidate for the following term. The election was hotly contested, but so great was Mr. Holmes’ personal popularity that he won the election, although his opponent was a man of high character and earnestly supported by his party.
The evening of the day of election, June 17, 1867, he addressed his fellow citizens in a speech marked by his accustomed vigor. The day following he was upon the streets attending to his business and receiving the congratulation of his large circle of friends. The next day, however, Wednesday, June 19, while apparently possessing usual health, he was stricken with apoplexy, resulting in death within a few hours. This event, occuring after a heated political contest in which he had borne the leading part and from which he had emerged as a victorious candidate, was particularly sad, and shocked the entire community. The spirit of partisanship was forgotten, and the personal integrity and worth of the man were recalled. The public press of the city gave expression only to words of praise in reviewing his career, while the city council in resolutions of respect to his memory, deplored his death “as a public calamity, involving the loss of an able, just and efficient magistrate, an enterprising and public spirited citizen, a generous friend, a charitable neighbor and an honest man.”
In politics Mr. Holmes was a democrat, but while a firm and consistent believer in the cardinal principles of his party, he was without a particle of partisan bigotry or intolerance. He was a friend of every public enterprise, a man of large liberality, using his prosperity for the growth and improvement of the, city. As a public official he was painstaking and conscientious, discharging every duty imposed upon him with strict integrity. Dying in the prime of life, at a period when by honest effort he had acquired wealth and a high place in the esteem of his fellows, he has left a record which those who have come after him can recall with honest pride.
By his first marriage he had six children, of whom four are now living, three daughters, all of whom are married, and one son, Byron Z. Holmes, who resides in Portland. His eldest son, Thomas J. Holmes, jr., died in Portland several years ago. Mr. Holmes remarried a short time before coming to Portland. His widow, however, survived him but a few years.