What is now a parking lot behind “Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant” was the site of Tom O’Neil’s restaurant and saloon, a popular place that even John L. Sullivan frequented. Thomas J. O’Neil was born in Portland in 1850, a son of James and Susan Larkin O’Neil. He attended the Center Street (Staples) School and when he was fourteen, enlisted in the 14th Maine Regiment during the Civil War. After the war, Tom was a laborer and seaman, as was his brother Phillip, and resided at his mother’s place at Cobb’s Court, near the Center Street School. He married Mary A. Hayes and they had one child, a daughter Mary in 1880.
In 1881, Tom, a “big, burly” man, opened a grocery store at 84 Center Street. By 1885 he was operating a saloon at 71 Center, which he ran until the early 1890s. For a few years he was a railroad contractor and about 1895 he opened a saloon at 118 Center. At the time, he made his home at nearby 55 Free Street (the old home of Judge Charles W. Goddard). He was sometimes arrested for infractions of the numerous liquor laws of the state at the time.
“Honest Tom” O’Neil, as he was called by the boxers he often backed, was a “valued member” of the Bosworth Post, G. A. R., “one of the best posted men on sporting affairs in the State of Maine,” and counted John L. Sullivan and William Devere (actor, poet, songwriter, rancher), as friends, among many others. Devere wrote a song, “You’re just like yer mother Mandy,” which he dedicated “To T. J. O’Neil, Esq. of Portland, Maine.” The song was remade throughout the 20th Century.
When John L. Sullivan was in Maine on one of his popular vaudevillian tours in 1897, he got into trouble throughout the state, including Bangor and Lewiston. He was arrested in Biddeford on September 7, 1897 on a civil suit charge ($10,000) arising from an unpaid hack bill and the injuries he inflicted on the hackman, one George Curtis of Lewiston. The 276- pound ex-prizefighter sent word to his “close friend” Tom O’Neil of Portland, and to Dr. Huntoon of Buxton, who immediately furnished bonds for Sullivan’s appearance in Supreme Court, Alfred. Tom O’Neil met him at Union Station when the boxer came to Portland the next day. They went to Tom’s house and Sullivan later checked in at the Preble House (see Daily Eastern Argus, 9 Sept 1897). It can be little stretch of the imagination that O’Neil treated Sullivan at his saloon that night, as the boxer was still imbibing heavily at the time. Sullivan was said to have “received many a temperance lecture, brief but forcible from” O’Neil, who was himself a teetotaler. The saloonkeeper may not have believed in the Maine Law, or “its strict enforcement,” but he left booze alone.
Tom O’Neil retired from the hospitality business and again became a contractor, making his home at 111 Free Street. He died at his country home in Webster, near Lewiston, April 29, 1915. “Beautiful and impressive” funeral services were held at St. Dominic’s, where the rector, Fr. Martin Clary, spoke eloquently of Tom’s “great, big heart,” how this “remarkable man” helped out anyone in trouble, including little boys who did not have adequate shoes in winter. O’Neil was a “sincere and generous benefactor to the Sisters of Mercy in whose prayers and good works he will never be forgotten” (see The Maine Catholic Historical Magazine,” Waterville, Maine, Vol. 4, No. 5, May 1915, pp. 29-31). A large Celtic cross marks the grave of Tom and his first wife Mary in Calvary Cemetery, South Portland.
In the early 1900s, 118 Center Street was taken over by James A. Conwell, Jr., the son of an Irish saloonkeeper from Killybegs, County Donegal. He ran a saloon here for some time and in the mid-1910s, James A. Haley operated a restaurant at the address. In the early 1920s, a Chinese emigrant named Song Chong Jung sold teas here. By 1932, it was “Ardelle’s Café,” with John Marcus, proprietor. In the late 1930s, James Conwell, who owned 116-118 Center, returned to the restaurant business and operated “Conwell’s Café” at 118 Center and 2 Congress Park.
RELATED SITES: Center Street, Staples School