The Golden Gate Bridge, the world’s most beautiful and iconic piece of engineering, was approved by Limerick man Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy.
Born in 1864 into a prosperous farming family in Loughill, West Limerick, he studied engineering first in Cork, then Galway before finally graduating from Royal University Dublin.
Like so many Irishmen before him and since then, he bought himself a passage to America and sailed west. Whilst many of his fellow countrymen opted to stay on the East Coast, O’Shaughnessy ploughed onwards until he reached the Pacific.
There he met and married the love of his life, native San Franciscan Mary Spottiswood, with whom he had five children.
With so many mouths to feed, O’Shaughnessy threw himself into his career and soon began to make a name for himself overseeing the expansion of railroads, mines and the construction of irrigation systems not just in California but in Hawaii too.
In 1912 he was asked to be City Engineer of San Francisco - a task that he asked to take a week to consider. The city, he believed, had conned him out of $10,000 but his wife Mary was insistent: despite a crippling earthquake six years previously San Francisco was widely tipped as a boom city with great potential.
Duty called and despite a cut in salary O’Shaughnessy accepted. The Mayor wrote to him delightedly:
Chief, you are in the saddle, you're it, you are in charge.
Go to it, it's up to you, you must look on the City as your best girl and treat her well.
Do what you think is best for her interests. Where reorganization is necessary, reorganize.
We look to you with all confidence.
His first great project was approved by Congress the following year when he was granted permission to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. As people continued to flock west, the population of San Francisco swelled and it was clear they’d need a much larger drinking supply.
In 1919 city officials formally asked that he consider the feasibility of a bridge that would tower over the Golden Gate Strait. Tentative sketches arrived on his desk in 1921 but O'Shaughnessy was far from gung ho about the project. It would be a full year and a half before the designs were made public and their reception was mixed: one newspaper called the proposal “ugly” and many members of the public agreed.
‘Was it even earthquake proof?’ Opponents queried.
The state legislature however approved the plan in 1925 with the passage of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act of California but it was another five years before they got round to funding the project.
January 5, 1933 men arrived for their first day at work on the project. It would be several long years before it was finished at which point O’Shaughnessy had passed away to his eternal rest.
He had died of a heart attack in 1934, mere days before water would begin to flow from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir reservoir into the taps of San Francisco homes and a full three years before the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to the public.