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A STATE official whose long, industrious, persevering career in mechanical pursuits, and whose works in different parts of the country evince his superior powers as a master of his art is the Hon. James Shanahan, superintendent of public works of the state of New York. He belongs to a class of men whose talents and energy have advanced and enriched the interests of the empire state by the construction of works intimately connected with the railroads and canals, trade and commerce.
He is a native of Ireland, and was born on the 6th of February, 1829, having now reached a period in life in which high purposes, aims and achievements are usually unfolded in full power. His ancestors were useful and substantial citizens of their country and some of them held responsible positions. His father, having determined to seek his fortune in “the land of the free,” cast a last lingering look on the home of his childhood and then boldly sailed away with his family from the coasts of “old Erin” for American soil. His son James, the subject of this sketch, was then but eight years of age, and distinctly remembers the roar and tossings of old ocean during the voyage. On reaching this country the family first turned their faces westward, traveling into central New York and taking up their residence in the rich county of Onondaga. There for seven years the elder Mr. Shanahan, who was not only an enterprising but an industrious man, labored hard to earn a livelihood and to make suitable provision for his young family. And there James received a good common school education in the district school of his neighborhood. This course of elementary instruction he turned to practical account in later years.
Learning of the great inducements held out for emigrants to what was then regarded as the far west, Mr. Shanahan with his family set out, in 1844, in search of the rich and fertile prairie lands of Michigan, and after a slow and wearisome journey reached that state, settling on a farm in the vicinity of Ann Arbor. James was then fifteen years of age, and for the two following years he assisted his father in preparing the new land for raising crops. But the monotonous pioneer life of a farmer in the then solitudes of Michigan had not particular attractions for young Shanahan.
He longed for another kind of work, to which his natural taste was inclining, and that was in the line of masonry. His father saw this ruling passion in his boy, and wisely consented that he should serve an apprenticeship in the stone-cutter’s trade. He did so, and the step he then took he never afterward regretted. An apt student in what he so much delighted, he soon mastered his trade; and a few years later we find him an assistant to an elder brother, who was then a large contractor in the building of locks on the Erie and Oswego canal. Returning nearer the scenes of his more youthful days he became a studious and faithful assistant to his brother, under whose direction he may be said to have laid the foundation of his well-earned, high reputation as a master mechanic and engineer. With the knowledge and experience gained while with his brother he went to Lanesboro, Penn., where he was employed in the construction of the viaduct on the Erie railroad. On the completion of this work he felt himself qualified to undertake the duties and responsibilities of a contractor; and to carry out his plans on a larger scale he entered into partnership with his brother and two others. The new firm thus constituted was a strong one and soon engaged in various extensive works, among which was the building of a large portion of the masonry of the New York Central railroad between Syracuse and Rochester, and the masonry on the Oswego railroad.
In 1854 Mr. Shanahan, whose reputation as a skilled mechanic was now widely extended through the country, was employed in the construction of the “locks” in the Sault St. Marie canal. The following year he removed to Tribes Hill, Montgomery County, NY – now his permanent residence – while he ably assisted in the construction of the locks at Waterford.
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His judgment in matters outside his occupation, but closely connected with it, was fully consulted by different parties, and in 1859 he was commissioned by the Dorchester Freestone Company to examine its quarry property at Dorchester, Province of New Brunswick. After giving the subject a careful investigation, a new quarry was opened there at his suggestion. In 1860 he was placed in full charge of the property, with highly satisfactory results. A large quantity of the stone was shipped to New York City and sold at a handsome profit to the company, which, under his super-intendency, was not obliged to assess itself to supply funds for carrying on its operations. In 1861 Mr. Shanahan was compelled to remain at home, and during that year the Freestone Company ran behind some $6,000 in its assets. His services were again sought after by the company, and upon its earnest request he resumed direction of the quarries, which, under his judicious management, were again worked with success and profit. The practical suggestions which he made, and the excellent judgment which he showed, both in masonry, quarry and engineering matters, were placing the name of Mr. Shanahan still more prominently before the public as a man of genuine merit and eminent skill.
From 1864 to 1866, inclusively, he was engaged first in furnishing stone for the erection of the New York Central Railroad elevator at Albany, and also for the first railroad bridge, called the north bridge, and afterward in the construction of the dam at Cohoes, an immense structure fourteen hundred feet long. This great work, so valuable to the spindle city, was completed in the course of one season, and stands as a noble monument to the skill of its builder.
In 1868 Mr. Shanahan was appointed superintendent of section No. 3, of the Erie Canal – a position which he filled with honor and fidelity until his retirement from the office at the close of 1870. It may be stated in this connection, that Mr. Shanahan has always been a warm friend and advocate of our canals and no official has ever watched over their affairs with more faithfulness or higher devotion.
On relinquishing his office as superintendent of the Erie Canal Mr. Shanahan was inspired with a new ardor for his early, cherished, regular occupation, the duties of which he now hastened to resume. One of his first contracts was for furnishing the stone for the new Hudson River Bridge across the Hudson at the foot of Maiden lane, Albany, constructed by the Hudson River Bridge Company. Subsequently he built the masonry for the double tracks of the Hudson River railroad between Fort Plain and Little Falls, and furnished the stone for the section between Schenectady and Albany. The viaduct at Broadway, Albany, was successfully constructed by Mr. Shanahan in 1882.
Though not a politician by profession, Mr. Shanahan has been called to serve the state in a legislative capacity; always an active member of the Democratic Party he had little or no ambition for partisan honors or rewards for faithful service. But yielding to the requests of his friends he received, in 1868, the nomination for member of assembly from Montgomery County, and came within a few votes of being elected. The following year, however, he was re-nominated and elected by a majority of 600 over the republican nominee, thus changing the majority on the state ticket from 200 republican, as it was in 1868, to nearly 400 democratic. His election was a flattering compliment to his high character as a man and his accomplishments as a mechanic, and fully evinced his great popularity among his fellow-citizens, irrespective of party.
In the assembly Mr. Shanahan served on two important committees – those on canals and the subcommittee of the whole; while he was also placed on the committee on public printing. He was regarded as a solid, working member, possessed of a cool judgment and remarkable energy, with a steady adherence to his political principles, seeking to promote the welfare of his party and to meet with the general approval of his constituents.
For several years after the expiration of his legislative term Mr. Shanahan followed his regular business, until in 1878, when he was appointed assistant superintendent of public works of the state of New York. In January, 1883, he was appointed by Gov. Cleveland as head of the department – an appointment which people of both parties looked upon as one that could not have easily been improved. Now in his true element, perfectly at home in all the duties and obligations pertaining to his office – the right man in the right place – he still continues to administer the public affairs of his department in an acceptable manner. In many respects Mr. Shanahan is a remarkable man. From his long experience in works of construction he has gained a perfect, practical knowledge of engineering as applied to practical construction; and it is but just to say that he admirably fills his present important and responsible office. A man of great perseverance and energy as well as skill he successfully infuses his spirit into his subordinates with the happiest results. Always busy, and at the same time cool, deliberate, thoughtful, he carries on the daily duties of his office in a thorough, systematic manner.
Tall in person, with a plain, open countenance, simple in his manners and agreeable in his conversation, he exhibits strong mental characteristics, especially in his chosen profession, without the least affectation, pride or vanity.
In tracing his career from the time when, as a poor boy, he commenced his apprenticeship as a stonecutter at Syracuse, and noticing the numerous and important works which he has since accomplished one cannot but be favorably impressed with his indefatigable industry and unyielding perseverance, his constant, earnest effort to rise higher in the knowledge of his calling, and above all his uncommon skill which enabled him to successfully complete those works, causing his name to shine as a star of no small magnitude in the horizon of the mechanical world.
In October, 1854, Mr. Shanahan married Ellen, daughter of James and Ellen Maloy of Ann Arbor, Mich.