Elegy for O’Shaughnessy

Elegy for O’Shaughnessy

“M.M. O’Shaughnessy, Job Ended, Dies” San Francisco Call-Bulletin October 12, 1934

The Chief–

the engineer

that drowned

Hetch Hetchy

& so watered

this thirsty City

lighted street lamps

tunneled Stockton

& Twin Peaks

& Mile Rock

The Chief:

proponent of

necessary bonds

immune to

bureaucratic inertia


against a

hesitant electorate

& resistant to

corporate greed–

The Chief

endured as

grist between

upper and nether



author who

measured hills

mastered grades

manifested Muni’s

first-class service

on a five cent fare

along this

People’s Railway.

Note from the poet:

This original subject of this poem was to be the 44 O’Shaughnessy, a bus route which begins in Bayview and heads west through Glen Park, then north through Twin Peaks, Golden Gate Park and ends in the Richmond. However, this poem ended up as a tribute to its namesake, Michael O’Shaughnessy, with nothing whatsoever to do with the 44. I will revisit the bus route in another poem.

O’Shaughnessy, an Irish immigrant and civil engineer, was recruited by Mayor James Rolph to develop the necessary infrastructure for San Francisco as it grew out of the ashes of the great Earthquake and Fire. He left his lucrative private business to pursue a practical yet remarkable series of projects including the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the development of a high-quality transit infrastructure, owned by the public and operated by the municipal government, the first of its kind in the nation: the Muni we know and love.

He was known to the press and the public as The Chief, and was the very embodiment of the slogan “The City that Knows How.” Master of not only the technical requirements posed by civil engineering challenges, he also knew how to navigate the treacherous landscape of political and public opinion to push through ambitious and innovative projects.

Learn more about O’Shaughnessy here, and here, or in The People’s Railway by Anthony Perles, or read this excellent essay he published in the 1921 National Municipal Review, titled Muni Operation an Unqualified Success.