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Mizushima Named Chief Harbor Engineer

The Port of San Francisco appointed of Nieret "Nita" Mizushima as the chief harbor engineer after 4 years of service at the Port. Mizushima, who joined the port as the Project Manager for the Downtown Ferry Terminal Project in 1998, has been the acting chief harbor engineer since Cliff Jarrard retired in December last year.

As the chief harbor engineer, Mizushima heads all port engineering and construction projects, with responsibility for engineering design, project and contract management, surveying and mapping, construction inspection, plan check and building code enforcement.

Chief Harbor Engineer of the Port of San Francisco

A Little Spicy History

In the late 1800’s, the Board of State Harbor Commissioners held a design competition for a new seawall to replace the wooden bulkheads along the new East Street, which is now the Embarcadero of San Francisco. The person who submitted the sketch that was deemed best was appointed the Chief Engineer and was told to build the seawall.

That would have been Mr. Lott D. Norton and he held that office in the Union Depot and Ferry House at the foot of Market Street. Ralph Barker replaced him in 1908 but, for convoluted political reasons (more on this later), he took the less grand sounding title of "Assistant State Engineer". The original seawall was merely rock fill, and it settled rapidly and unevenly. The State appropriated $100,000 to repair damages from the 1906 quake and fire, which was the only taxpayer funding the self-supporting Port has ever had with the exception of federal emergency aid in the wake of the 1989 earthquake.

Barker’s new seawall design was cast-in-place concrete, resting on wooden piles, and backfilled with rock. The piling prevented rapid settlement, and that seawall still exists under many of the Pier bulkhead buildings. The wooden pilings, which are below the mud line and are lacking oxygen to support wood boring animals or other decay, are still in nearly the same condition as when they were driven.

Mr. Barker was eventually replaced by A.V. Saph in 1911 and the job soon figured in a dramatic political fight against corruption. Consider this from the 1910 - 1912 Biennial Report of the Board of State Harbor Commissioners.

" The present Governor of the State of California, Hon. Hiram W. Johnson, took office in January, 1911. He was nominated under the operation of the new direct primary law and the cardinal plank of his campaign was his promise to destroy the illegitimate influences of the Southern Pacific Company in California politics.

Nowhere in the administrative branch of the state government was the malign influence of that dominating corporation more conspicuously illustrated than in the condition and management of the San Francisco harbor. For over forty years, with infrequent intervals, not long enough to effect much of a reform, the Southern Pacific practically owned and operated the waterfront, and used it as a piece of private business property for the advancement of its own political and business interests...

The evil effects of Southern Pacific control may be thus summarized:

»  A sustained policy of minimizing harbor improvement and development, through both legislative and administrative action.

»  The habitual appointment of harbor employees, especially of the higher grades, from political retainers, very frequently of delegates to State conventions, who secured their positions in the harbor employ in exchange for their convention votes...

Obviously the quickest method of removing Southern Pacific influence from harbor affairs was to discharge such employees, especially those at the heads of departments, as owed their positions, and therefore paid their allegiance, to the Southern Pacific "machine." ...The law limits the salary of the engineer, who under the law, is an assistant State Engineer, assigned exclusively to San Francisco harbor work, to $3,000 per year. This is ridiculously low... To plan and build good wharves... requires engineering ability of the highest technical education, training and experience, and is surely worthy of much greater compensation"

Thus the transition from the last Assistant State Engineer to the present job title of Chief Harbor Engineer. The professionalization of this key post happened just in time for the great growth of pier building that took place from 1912 through 1918, this to handle the boom in shipping through the new Panama Canal.

Many of those piers and sheds built by Port of San Francisco Chief Harbor Engineers are still in use. The Port was a state agency until 1969, when it became a City department. The Chief Harbor Engineers were all male until this year, when Nieret (Nita) Mizushima became the first Asian-American woman to hold the post anywhere in the United States.