The Best Cabdriver in El Paso
|Advertisement from the El Paso Evening Tribune, Dec. 8, 1891
(Read Part Fourteen: The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston)
On December 11, 1891, Myar’s Opera House in El Paso presented The Millionaire, written by Leander Richardson. The play was a timely piece of anti-union, pro-capitalist propaganda that wasn't above stirring up ethnic rivalries. The protagonist, James O’Brien, was a contractor trying to finish the transcontinental railroad, despite the machinations of a sinister Italian labor agitator named Ferreti. The production had traveled across the country, led by star actor Daniel Sully in the lead role of O’Brien. In each city, a large band of “supers” were hired, to play the crowd of Irish and Italian laborers working to build the railroad.
As the San Francisco Wasp reported,
In El Paso, Tex., the "supers" were all Mexicans with one exception. His name was Brannigan — Mike Brannigan — and in the day-time he was a hack-driver.
In a crucial scene, the workers go on strike, and Ferreti and O’Brien face off across the tracks. Ferreti is backed by a band of Italian workers, while O’Brien tries to rally the Irish workers to his side:
The train is seen crossing a trestle in the distance, when O'Brien, disguised as a section-hand, impassionately importunes the striking sons of Erin in the following terms : “Remember, boys, O'Brien is an Irishman like yourselves.”
At this point in the performance, Mike Brannigan realized that he was standing on the wrong side, being counted as an Italian:
He forthwith started to cross the stage, but Ferreti told him sotto voce to remain where he was. "I'm d--d if I will," yelled Mike ; " I'm an Irishman, and I'll go over to the Irish whether you like it or not." It is needless to say Mike made a hit.
Mike didn’t just make a hit on the stage. He made a hit in El Paso.
|A hack waits on an El Paso street in the 1880s (detail of photo held by the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)
He and his wife had arrived in 1885, probably attracted by the frontier character of the growing city. El Paso—also known as “Sin City” and “the Six-Shooter Capital”—had more than a little of a rough and tumble atmosphere that must have reminded Mike of his days in Gold Rush San Francisco. With the arrival of the railroad, El Paso had also emerged as a colorful tourist destination, and a favored stop for travelers heading from one coast to the other. Mike set up shop with a livery stable and soon became one of the most well-known and popular characters in town.
Jerry Collins has retired from the hack business, having been bought out by that most popular driver, Mike Branagan. (El Paso Times, Sept 20, 1890)
As always, Mike made the papers frequently, but no longer for his old practices such as fighting, causing public disturbances, or overcharging customers. Instead, he was the subject of quaint anecdotes such as the following:
Col. Mike Brannigan has two strange looking birds in a cage. On being asked what kind of birds they are, he said they are Chinese birds from Japan. (El Paso Herald, Oct. 15, 1889)
With his hack business flourishing, Mike and his wife invested in real estate, and soon became comfortably well off, enough to travel frequently. They took almost yearly visits to Mary’s family on the east coast; Mike also made several visits to his old stomping grounds in California. In 1893 they went to the Chicago World’s Fair—this time not to work the fair, but simply to visit as tourists.
The Brannigans became El Paso society figures, with their comings and goings noted in the papers. Although Mike and Mary never had children of their own, Mary had a large Irish family back east, and many of her nieces and nephews came to Texas to stay with the Brannigans in their cozy brick cottage on Oregon street.
Mike became a beloved El Paso fixture, which must come as a shock to anyone familiar with what Mike used to be like. Adding to his popularity were the visits he started receiving from famous people. With Mike’s sordid past now comfortably receding from memory, old friends started making a point of dropping by and visiting Mike whenever they passed through Texas. And so, we can now see who some of the powerful people were who had protected Mike back in the day, and who now were willing to openly call Mike Brannigan a friend.
|George Hearst, founder of the Hearst dynasty.
George Hearst, founder of the powerful Hearst dynasty, may have known Mike from the Gold Rush days of the 1850s. Hearst made his true fortune in Virginia City, and he and Mike were active there at the same time. After Hearst’s death in 1891, his widow Phoebe Hearst sent Mike several presents and mementoes of his old friend, including a silver set of harness for his carriage, and a painted portrait of the late Senator.
|William Randolph Hearst (Wikipedia)
Following his father’s example, William Randolph Hearst also considered Mike Brannigan a friend. He owned ranches in Texas and Mexico, and employed one of Mike’s nephews as a captain for cattle drives.
|C.P. Huntington (Wikipedia)
Mike often bragged that he could ride any railroad in the country for free, on account of his friendships with powerful railroad millionaires. By this he was certainly referring to Collis P. Huntington, one of the “Big Four” founders of the Central Pacific. Huntington may have first known Mike from his Sacramento days. Despite his polite, businesslike demeanor, Huntington reputedly had a private preference for “outré” stories, and this may well have drawn him to Mike Brannigan. As a railroad magnate, Huntington traveled the country in his own private railcar, and in 1895 he made a special visit to El Paso to see his old friend, Mike Brannigan. There may have been a spat, though:
Mike Brannigan indignantly denied the report that he was fired out of C.P. Huntington’s private car by the colored porter. (El Paso Herald, November 25, 1895)
|John William Mackay (Online Nevada Encyclopedia)
Irish-born John William Mackay was one of the Bonanza Kings who made their fortunes in silver from Virginia City, during the same years in which Brannigan was there. Whenever he passed through Texas, Mackay would stop by to see his old friend, and “he and Mike always spent a social hour together talking about old times.”
|Drury Malone (JoinCalifornia)
Drury Malone owned a warehouse in Sacramento during Mike’s time there, and later went to Virginia City for the silver rush. Meeting no luck as a prospector, Malone had the fortune to marry into wealth, and became one of the most wealthy and powerful men in California, serving as Secretary of State in the 1870s. Once he had taken her wealth and risen to power, Malone divorced his unfortunate wife. He stopped by in 1893, and Mike showed him the sights of El Paso and Cuidad Juarez.
|Heavyweight Champion of the World James Corbett (Wikipedia)
“Gentleman Jim” Corbett was the son of Patrick Corbett, a San Francisco hackdriver and livery stable keeper who would have known Mike Brannigan from the 1860s. In 1894, while Corbett was World Heavyweight Champion, he toured Texas, but did not make it to El Paso. Corbett sent Mike Brannigan an apologetic telegram: “Impossible to play. Very sorry. Remember me to all my friends. J. Corbett.”
With such powerful allies as the Hearsts, Huntington, Mackay, Malone, and Corbett, Mike decided it was safe to show his face in San Francisco, once again.
Next time: Mike Brannigan, Triumphant