Michael O'Shaughnessy

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Michael O' Shaughnessy
Michael Maurice O' Shaughnessy, pioneering engineer.jpg
Michael O' Shaughnessy
Born(1864-05-28)May 28, 1864
DiedOctober 12, 1934(1934-10-12) (aged 70)
Spouse(s)Mary Spottiswood
Parent(s)Patrick O'Shaughnessy
Margaret O'Donnell

Michael Maurice O'Shaughnessy (May 28, 1864 – October 12, 1934) was an Irish civil engineer who became city engineer for the city of San Francisco during the first part of the twentieth century and developed the Hetch-Hetchy water system.


Michael O'Shaughnessy was born May 28, 1864 in Loughill[1] County Limerick, Ireland. His father Patrick O'Shaughnessy and mother Margaret O'Donnell were farmers. O'Shaughnessy attended school in Limerick and County Tipperary and studied at University College in Cork and University College, Galway, graduating from the Royal University of Ireland in 1884 in Engineering.[2]

Michael had a brother Edward who also immigrated to Minnesota, USA and changed his name, dropping "O" and marrying Lucy Ann (Foster), and a sister Eileen who immigrated to Australia and married Charles Edward Andrews.

On October 21, 1890 he married Mary Spottiswood and had five children.[3]


He emigrated to the U.S. in 1885, sailing from London then traveling to San Francisco overland by train, arriving on March 30, 1885. He first worked as an assistant engineer for the Sierra Valley and Mohawk Railroad. In 1886, he found employment with the Southern Pacific Railroad as a surveyor and worked on layout for the towns of Mill Valley and Sausalito, California. In 1889 he opened an engineering office in the city of San Francisco. He was appointed chief engineer for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 in Golden Gate Park in 1890. Later, in 1895, he was awarded a commission by the Mountain Copper Company to design a narrow-gauge railroad, and he began working for the Spring Valley Water Company, a private concern that controlled streams and springs on the San Francisco peninsula, later purchased by the city to become the San Francisco Water Department.

O'Shaughnessy oversaw construction of several major water supply projects in the Hawaiian Islands beginning in 1889. These included aqueducts at Olokele, Koʻolau, Keanaiemaui, and Kohala for sugar plantations.[3][4] Upon return to California in 1906 he worked on the Morena Dam project outside San Diego and the Merced River Dam for the Crocker Land and Development Company. He also designed and supervised the construction of a water supply system for the city of Port Costa.

San Francisco Mayor James Rolph chose him as chief engineer for the city in September, 1912, convincing him to accept a salary less than half that of his private practice. O'Shaughnessy was uncertain that he wanted the job because in the past, the city had not always paid him for work done. His wife, a native of San Francisco, convinced him to accept. O'Shaughnessy issued dozens of reports during his years in office, nearly all descriptions of engineering projects intended to educate city officials and the general populace. 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." In this position O'Shaughnessy supervised the construction of the Twin Peaks Reservoir, the Stockton Street Tunnel, the Twin Peaks Tunnel, the Municipal Railway System and service to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915) along with streets, a high-pressure fire system and new sewers. San Francisco's streetcar system, of which the J, K, L, M, and N lines survive today, was pushed to completion by O'Shaughnessy between 1915 and 1927, but city voters defeated the bond issue he backed in 1927.[5]

Hetch Hetchy[edit]

O'Shaughnessy's largest and most controversial project was the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and power project (Lake Eleanor Dam and O'Shaughnessy Dam). While San Francisco rebuilt after the earthquake and fire of 1906 its current water supply was inadequate to meet future growth. Hetch Hetchy began with a dam in the Yosemite and was linked to more than 150 miles (240 km) of tunnels, pumping stations and pipelines to San Francisco. The project involved building not just a dam, but also a 68-mile (109 km)-long railroad, several smaller dams, an aqueduct 156 miles (251 km) long that included 85 miles (137 km) of tunnels, some through solid granite, hydroelectric generating plants and transmission lines.

That the dam was planned for a valley in Yosemite National Park caused significant opposition. One of the most potent opponents was the Sierra Club and its founding President, John Muir. After two vetoes by Teddy Roosevelt, on December 19, 1913, Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act. Construction began in 1914. Water from the dam, named for O'Shaughnessy, crosses the foothills, the San Joaquin Valley, the coast ranges and San Francisco Bay through the Pulgas Water Temple and is stored in the Crystal Springs Reservoir.

O'Shaughnessy lost control of the project in 1932 when the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission was formed. Edward Cahill was appointed to head the new commission and O'Shaughnessy's deputy, Lloyd McAfee, was appointed manager and Chief Engineer for the Hetch Hetchy project. O'Shaughnessy died of a heart attack on October 12, 1934, sixteen days before Yosemite's water was delivered to San Francisco's reservoirs. O'Shaughnessy Boulevard in San Francisco is named for him.


  1. ^ http://www.limerickleader.ie/news/home/276524/from-loughill-to-san-francisco-with-flair-engineering-giant-michael-m-o-shaughnessy-remembered.html
  2. ^ "Cristalen". "Biographical Notes: Michael Maurice O'Shaughnessy". Wandering Lizard web site. Retrieved 2010-01-10.
  3. ^ a b Charles R. Boden (December 1934). "In memoriam: Michael Maurice O'Shaughnessy". California Historical Society Quarterly. California Historical Society. 13 (4): 415–416. JSTOR 25160549.
  4. ^ Wanda A. Adams (September 8, 2002). "Hike Through History at Pololū Valley". Honolulu Advertiser. Retrieved 2010-01-10.
  5. ^ Robert Cherny. "The City's Engineer: Michael M. O'Shaughnessy". FoundSF.org. Retrieved 2010-01-10.

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert W. Cherny (Fall 1994). "City Commercial, City Beautiful, City Practical: The San Francisco Visions of William C. Ralston, James D. Phelan, and Michael M. O'Shaughnessy". in California History magazine. 73 (4). California Historical Society. pp. 296–308.

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