Charles Harney

Charles Leonard Harney
Born May 12, 1902, San Francisco
Died Dec 6, 1962, San Francisco, age 60

Charles Harney, variously described as “big and brusque”, “loud and imperious”, and “a public-be-damned man in the splenetic tradition of Commodore Vanderbilt”, was born to build things. The scion of a long-established contracting family in San Francisco, he built the company he inherited into something like a local empire and by the end of his life it was said that you couldn’t go anywhere in the city without driving a road his company had paved. His biggest project, the building of Candlestick Park, consumed the final years of his life, proving everything that had ever been said about him, good and bad. He was also an avid sportsman, acting as the athletic director of his beloved University of San Francisco for over a decade, and was a member of the original group of owners of the Oakland Raiders.

The Harneys had been building the streets of San Francisco since long before Charles’s birth. His grandfather, Daniel, emigrated from Ireland just around the end of the American Civil War, settling in Boston, before following the frontier west to the San Francisco Bay. There he started a successful business building roads and later brought his sons, Charles and Joseph into the firm.

The company continued to prosper after his death and by the time the younger Charles was born to Joseph and his wife, Maude, the Harney Brothers was a leading contractor firm in the city. When the elder Charles died in 1910, at the young age of 47, he left his share of the business to his nephew, just eight years old at the time. There was some squabbling within the family over the disposition of what was described as “considerable wealth” but eventually the will was executed as written.

At the age of 12, Charles began to work for the company as a water boy and by 18 he was beginning to take a larger role in the company. That same year he had a brush with death. Driving his car up a steep hill in town, the automobile stalled. When he got out to check the gasoline level, the car started traveling backward down the hill. Harney hopped in the vehicle and tried to stop it, but already moving at a good clip, it hit a street pole and flipped pinning him underneath. He emerged unscathed, but the car was a total loss.

That adventure over and having graduated from high school where he played basketball and football, he enrolled in St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit institution that later became the University of San Francisco. A devout Catholic, he gave generously of his time and money all his life to his beloved school and church. It’s uncertain whether he graduated, though. A writeup published by USF says he matriculated in 1923, but another story suggests he left in 1922 after his mother died.

What is known, though, is that he got engaged in 1922, to Pauline Carroll, and they married early the next year. 1923 was also the year he helmed one of his first big jobs with the company, finishing the paving of the famous Embarcadero roadway in the northeast part of town.

For the rest of the decade, he continued to run the company with his father and began to earn a reputation for having a good business head and for stubbornness. His entire career was littered with lawsuits and disputes with the city and its citizens as he tried to maximize profits and minimize expenses. When his father died in 1929, Charles was left in sole possession of what was now the Charles L. Harney Company.

The Great Depression seemed to have little effect on Harney or his company, though there seemed to be an uptick in foreclosures resulting from his suing citizens for their failure to pay assessments for street improvements. Otherwise, he spent the 1930s paving streets and highways and building a major sports field on the USF campus.

By 1940, he was no longer just a contractor. While he never stopped bidding on any job that came along, in 1941 he took a post on the USF Board of Athletic Control, eventually becoming its chair, acting as the de facto athletic director and he held the job into the 1950s. He was also a patron of the arts, particularly the San Francisco Opera, where he and his wife occupied their own box for many years.

Contracting was still his bread and butter, though, and in 1944 he became president of the Northern California chapter of the American General Contractors organization and ascending to the national chair of the group in 1947. During the decade he increased the scope of his projects, graduating from simple roadbuilding jobs to taking part in major undertakings such as the Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River near Fresno and the building of an airfield at Camp Parks in Alameda County. By 1951 he was being identified as “the millionaire San Francisco contractor.”

In 1953 he made one of his most consequential decisions when he bought 40 acres of land, much of it submerged, near Bayview Hill on Candlestick Point in the southeastern part of San Francisco. Rumors followed that the site would be the terminus for another cross-bay bridge, but Harney demurred, saying that would ruin his plans for the area, which initially included the construction of some 25 residential lots.

In 1956 he first made his pitch to the city to build a stadium on the site and by February 1957 the San Francisco planning commission was on board and putting a plan together. He spent the early part of the year promoting the stadium and starting work on Trinity Dam, northwest of Redding, but took time out to watch his beloved Dons participate in the NCAA basketball tournament in Kansas City. While there he suffered a mild heart attack and was forced to take a short convalescent break. Following the scare, he changed his diet, lost about 50 pounds, and was soon back at work.

The stadium plan got a huge boost when the New York Giants of the National League announced they would be moving to San Francisco for the start of the 1958 season. Funding was the key. The city had passed a measure several years earlier authorizing the sale of $5 million in bonds to build a “major league” facility. At the time, this was thought to be enough to cover the entire cost, but by 1958 the projected cost had doubled. Harney jumped in to say he would sell the land to the city and provide the funding for additional costs. According to his plan, he would be repaid using revenue generated by the stadium’s use over a 21-year period.

While this solved the problem, to many city leaders it appeared Harney was taking them to the cleaners, profiting off both the land and the stadium. Several years of wrangling followed, including an extensive grand jury investigation looking into whether there had been improper dealings between Harney and mayor George Christopher’s office. Eventually, the grand jury issued a set of conclusions that criticized the deal, but no indictments followed. By the time the deal was completed, in the summer of 1958, it was clear that the Giants, now playing in old Seals Stadium, wouldn’t take occupancy any earlier than September 1959, if then.

As was usual for a Harney construction job, the project was marked by controversy and contention. There were work stoppages due to labor conflicts and then there was an extended period of rancor between Harney and stadium architect John Bolles as deficiencies turned up and each party blamed the other. On a more personal level, Harney had high hopes that the stadium would be named after him, but when it became clear that would not be the case, he seemed to lose interest in the project and work slowed down even further.

In October 1959, Harney declared the stadium, now called Candlestick Park, to be complete and demanded final payment from the city. Bolles and Giants owner Horace Stoneham disagreed, pointing out problems such as a lack of waterproofing that needed to be addressed. Harney said such things were not in the contract and refused to perform the work they required. The dispute lasted long beyond the Giants debut in the new facility in April 1960.

In the meantime, Harney had turned his attention to other sporting pursuits, namely, the purchase of an American League Franchise for Oakland. He, along with seven others, pitched in to get a team that would become the Oakland Raiders. The only one of the group without East Bay ties, he didn’t appear to have much input in the actual running of the team, though he was the lone vote against the hiring of Eddie Erdelatz as head coach.

The only remaining interest Harney appeared to have in the stadium was to get the money he thought he was owed. In August 1960 he filed a lien against the stadium in the amount of $2.7 million dollars, arguing that the city should sell the park and pay him out of the proceeds. The case would drag on for several years.

Late that year, it was clear there was dissension in the Raiders ownership group and Harney was named among those who wanted to sell out. In January 1961, he sold his share of the Raiders to the three remaining owners and went back to focusing on his construction business. Things took a dire turn that May. An unidentified medical condition, possibly cancer, necessitated major abdominal surgery followed by a trip to the Mayo Clinic for further treatment. There may have been more heart troubles, too, as he was under doctor’s orders to avoid getting “worked up.” Making that more difficult was news that Stadium, Inc., the non-profit corporation responsible for operating Candlestick Park, countersued him for $2.5 million dollars in damages because of unfinished work they believed owed to them by Harney’s company.

Early in 1962, he was elected as a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, also known as the Hospitallers, in recognition of his contributions to Catholic medical care facilities in the region. He continued to pursue new construction work with the same frequency as he had in the past, but he seemed to be winning fewer contracts. Whether it was because of his health issues, a diminution of his drive and competitive spirit, or simply better competition, it’s hard to say, but it all became moot in September. On the 23rd, he was admitted to French Hospital for a condition that was eventually revealed to be a major heart attack. He was listed in critical condition early on, but soon was said to recovering and was expected to leave the hospital shortly. He never did. On December 6, at the age of 60, some six weeks after first entering the hospital he died from what was described as a “prolonged chronic illness,” which may have been cancer or may have just been chronic heart failure.

His death was noted in the newspapers with attention to his generosity, but also describing him as “a man of huge drive, of massive stubbornness, a businessman of uncanny acumen, and a sportsman of sometimes frightening competitiveness.” Half of his estate, gauged at more than $15 million, went to his wife, with the other half, minus some small sums to various family members, going to a charitable foundation. He and Pauline never had children. She died in 1991, at the age of 86. In 1963, the University of San Francisco named its science building after him and in 1964 his lawsuit with Stadium, Inc., was settled out of court with his estate receiving $1.2 million.

Though he led many projects over the course of his life, his legacy seemed to be tied solely to the one he essentially disowned. Touted as the most modern of stadiums when it was built, it was often pilloried for its location, subjecting it to bone-chilling cold and high winds that made every baseball game played within its confines a wild adventure. By the early 1990s, any charm its quirks might have given it was gone and local scribes regularly clamored for its demolition and replacement, often singling Harney out for abuse. When the Giants to a new facility in 2000, its days were numbered. The 49ers, who had played there since 1971, moved out in 2013 and the stadium was torn down in 2014.

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