(Third in series of stories supplementing the upcoming public television documentary)
Water and the Wilderness: Two Engineers who shaped San Francisco
In the 1830’s, before the discovery of gold in the Sierras, San Francisco was little more than a vast sand dune sparsely populated, with less than 800 traders, explorers and adventurers mostly from the Boston area and places beyond the Atlantic Ocean. San Francisco’s Presidio was nearly non-existent and there was a small village centered around what’s now Portsmouth Square.
Water from the few springs in the area and Lake Merced, the largest lake at the time were sufficient, until the gold rush. As the population grew water was scarce and many miners died from dysentery caused by the wells they dug. Eventually water became available from resourceful entrepreneurs who sold it by the barrel, but it was expensive. With the booming population and sand absorption of water from the minor creeks and springs, water had become more valuable than gold.
The land barons, led by “the Big Four” railroad tycoons who built the Central Pacific Railroad; Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker; had staked claim to vast parcels of San Francisco, San Mateo and the peninsula before and during the rush. They understood water was necessary if the land they held were to have value. They set about building their dynasties by building an infrastructure that included unlimited access to water, and amenities. One amenity was to create a park to rival central park in the wind-swept sand dunes on the “outlands”, the western end of the city. This would not only help mitigate the sand, but create a place of leisure and entertainment, that wealthy San Franciscans could enjoy.
They turned to an engineer who had completed typographical surveys of the area for the U.S. Army Engineers and was intimately familiar to the land of the land.
William Hammond Hall was a civil engineer who surveyed the California area and developed the topographical maps for the City during the 1860’s. It was during this time he met the Big Four who hired Hall to create a plan for Golden Gate Park. Hall, created a 1,013-acre park that reclaimed the sand dunes, planting 60,000 trees by 1875.
Hall understood the need for water to the Park, as well as the rest of the City. As a California State Engineer he turned the work of the park over to his assistant John McLaren and gave his full attention to working on a comprehensive water supply and flood control system for the Sacramento Valley. During this time, he was instrumental in designing projects to help San Francisco acquire adequate supplies of water from the western watershed of the Tuolumne River.
San Francisco Mayor James Phelan (1897-1902), was also one of the major landowners in San Francisco with holdings along the peninsula and San Clara Valley. During the time he was Mayor, Phelan learned of Hetch Hetchy and acquired the rights to the Tuolumne River for San Francisco by quietly staking claim on land around it.
The challenge was the land he coveted for the reservoir, sat inside the borders of the recently formed Yosemite National Park. The 1901 Right of Way Act, gave Secretary of the Interior Ethan Hitchcock power to grant San Francisco rights to the water for the benefit of the public. Phelan transferred his water rights to the City and County of San Francisco, who immediately applied for a permit to develop their water project, but Hitchcock had opposed the Right of Way act and denied the permit.
It would be many years before political maneuvering would allow San Francisco to move forward. The Raker Act, was passed by Congress and signed by President Wilson in 1913. In 1914, San Francisco began building O’Shaughnessy Dam and flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley, and Mayor James Rolph turned to engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy to get the job done.
Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, arrived in San Francisco nearly twenty years after Hall began his creation of Golden Gate Park. Like William Hammond Hall, O’Shaughnessy began his career as a surveyor. In 1885, O’Shaughnessy, worked as an assistant engineer for the Sierra Valley and Mohawk Railroad before working with the Southern Pacific Railroad as a surveyor.
Just as Hall laid out Golden Gate Park, O’Shaughnessy is credited with the plans for cities of Mill Valley and Sausalito, California. After opening his engineering office in San Francisco, he began working for the Spring Valley Water Company, the powerful monopoly that controlled water in San Francisco. The Raker Act, gave the City the ability to create Hetch Hetchy. Buying out Spring Valley, the City formed the San Francisco Water Department.
Mayor James Rolph chose O’Shaughnessy as chief engineer for the City because of his expertise in railroads and water. O’Shaughnessy’s accomplishments include construction of the Twin Peaks Reservoir, the Stockton Street Tunnel, and the Twin Peaks Tunnel, to name a few before starting his own firm to work on projects in Hawaii. He was reluctant to take the position feeling the wages offered by the City were inadequate. But his wife, a native San Franciscan pushed him to take the job. O’Shaughnessy said he took the position to keep the domestic peace, but sadly he died only weeks before his marvel of engineering opened in 1934.
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