Michael M. O'Shaughnessy

Historical Essay

by Robert Cherny, excerpted from "CITY COMMERCIAL, CITY BEAUTIFUL, CITY PRACTICAL: The San Francisco Visions Of William C. Ralston, James D. Phelan, And Michael M. O'Shaughnessy," originally published in California History magazine, Fall 1994

The City's Engineer: Michael M. O'Shaughnessy

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The work of Michael M. O’Shaughnessy’s career as city engineer saw the significant expansion and funding of the city’s Municipal Railway, as well as the improvement of city infrastructure. In all of the projects under his leadership, O’Shaughnessy sought to create a reliable and efficient service while minimizing cost through effective design.

Michael M. O'Shaughnessy, appointed city engineer in 1912, pursued a narrow, technologically determined goal, that of creating a reliable infrastructure for urban growth. Born in Ireland in 1864, he graduated in engineering from the University of Dublin, then came to the United States and established himself as a highly successful hydraulic engineer. In 1912, Mayor James Rolph convinced him to accept a salary less than half that of his private practice to become city engineer. Upon O'Shaughnessy's death in 1934, the San Francisco Examiner noted that he "was never voluble. His eulogy is best expressed by his works."

In describing O'Shaughnessy as "never voluble," the Examiner understated the case. O'Shaughnessy issued dozens of reports during his years in city office, but nearly all are descriptions of engineering projects, intended to educate the city's officials and the city's people more generally regarding the work underway. He once complained that he had to run "an engineering school, where as fast as he could teach the Supervisors what it was all about, the public turned them out and sent him new pupils."31 Only rarely does O'Shaughnessy's own vision peek through the pages of technical description, tables, maps, and diagrams. O'Shaughnessy expressed his vision of the city in his accomplishments.

When O'Shaughnessy took office, the city was about to celebrate the opening of the first municipally owned streetcar line in any major city. The city had just received an extensive report from a nationally prominent streetcar system consultant that outlined the public transportation needs of the city, especially for the rapidly approaching Panama Pacific International Exposition PPIE and for the rapidly developing residential areas in the southern and western parts of the city. O'Shaughnessy set to work drafting plans for streetcar lines to serve the exposition, and the voters approved a bond issue in August 1913, with the funds available on January 1, 1914; construction began on January 2. On February 26, 1915, opening day of the exposition, one new line carried passengers from the working-class Potrero district to the PPIE in the Marina district via Van Ness Avenue. A second new line connected the downtown retail shopping district to the Marina via the Stockton Street tunnel; a third line -- acquired from private ownership -- ran from the Ferry Building via Columbus and Union streets; and other new lines ran along California, Chestnut, and Greenwich streets -- all designed and built in the twenty-nine months since O'Shaughnessy's appointment.

With the exposition served, O'Shaughnessy turned his attention to extending Municipal Railway lines into areas with no service, including the Mission District and the largely unpopulated sand dunes of the outer Sunset, Parkside, and Ingleside districts. Throughout the 1920s, he built new lines without additional bond issues, financing them from operating income and from assessments on the properties along the tracks. San Francisco's present streetcar system -- the J, K, L, M, and N lines -- was pushed to completion by O'Shaughnessy between 1915 and 1927, but a massive bond issue advocated by O'Shaughnessy for further expansion was defeated by city voters in 1927.32

In overseeing development of the Muni streetcar system, O'Shaughnessy kept his vision fixed on several key elements. The city itself, he believed, should develop and operate a single system, able to provide a uniform level of service at a reasonable price to all parts of the city. The city should use the system to encourage and manage growth "in well ordered and predetermined directions" by building new lines in advance of residential construction. Equally important to O'Shaughnessy's vision was cost-effectiveness derived from careful design rather than low wages. Efficiency and cost-effectiveness, in his vision, resulted directly from keeping the operation free from political influence. If necessary, he favored using tax revenues to establish a unified, citywide service at a reasonable price without reducing wages.33

As city engineer, O'Shaughnessy oversaw creation of most of the Municipal Railway, a high-pressure fire system, new sewers, boulevards and highways, tunnels, and more. But he was best known for Hetch Hetchy, the project that convinced him to leave a lucrative practice as a leading hydraulic engineer and to accept a reduced salary in order to design and build one of the most ambitious water systems in the nation. In December 1913, Congress approved damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, and surveys began as soon as weather permitted in 1914. Not until more than twenty years later did the first water from the reservoir reach San Francisco, sixteen days after O'Shaughnessy died of a heart attack. The project involved building not just a dam, but also a 68-mile-long railroad, several smaller dams, an aqueduct 156 miles long that included 85 miles of tunnels, some through solid granite, and hydroelectric generating plants and transmission lines. An initial bond issue of $45 million, approved by voters in 1910, was exhausted before the work was half-done, and O'Shaughnessy emerged as the major advocate of subsequent bond issues in 1924 and 1928.34 Because of his constant advocacy on behalf of bond issues, whether for water or streetcar work, some suggested that his initials, M.M., actually stood for "More Money." The total cost, from the first surveys to the point at which Hetch Hetchy water flowed from city faucets, was about $100 million, and O'Shaughnessy took great pride that, as he put it, "not a crooked finger had been able to chisel a dollar out of it."35

O'Shaughnessy embodies a technological vision of the City Practical, the San Francisco version of the efficient production engineer praised by Thorstein Veblen as the antithesis of the adventurous speculator. O'Shaughnessy's vision took the long view: fifteen years to complete the streetcar grid and more than twenty to complete the Hetch Hetchy project. Long-term planning and technological expertise and efficiency were intended not only to provide effective, low-priced service to the public but also to guide the development of the city itself by creating an adequate water supply for a city of more than a million people and by building transportation corridors into undeveloped districts as a means of encouraging new residential construction.

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