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William Flinn

Elsewhere in the world, the catchphrase "in like Flynn" is said to refer to the romantic prowess of the movie star Errol Flynn. But in the region surrounding Pittsburgh, PA, the source could more likely be from the career of politician and public works contractor William Flinn.

At a time when the Allegheny County Commisioners, Pittsburgh Mayors and other powerful politicians often rose through the ranks of the Public Works Departments, Flinn and his contracting firm were typically given the lion's share of the work. Mr. Flinn was notorious for an especially close working relationship with Christopher Lyman Magee, Pittsburgh's political boss between 1882 and 1899. A Highland Park neighbor of Flinn, and president of the Fort Pitt Traction streetcar company, Magee donated funding for the buildings and animals for the 1897 Pittsburgh Zoological Gardens. The location of the new zoo in Highland Park was hardly a coincidence in that it lay at the end of one of Mr. Magee's streetcar lines. The same process was part of Flinn's construction of the Mt. Washington Trolley Tunnel in 1904 -- which opened up residential development of the near South Hills hilltops owned by Flinn and his partners.

A bronze plaque honoring Senator Flinn is mounted in the main hall of the City-County Building on Grant St in Pittsburgh. The 1925 relief by Gleb Derujinsky honors "A Builder For And Among Men."

Mr. Flinn is interred in Homewood Cemetary among other Pittsburgh notables, including Edward Bigelow and the Pennsylvania Railroad's Robert Pitcairn.

In 1934, ten years after his death, PA Route 8 was named in Flinn's honor -- though the name is often mispelled "Flynn" on street signs. Only the portion of the road north of Pittsburgh continues to be marked with his name -- yet in 2001 the PA House designated the road within Allegheny County to be renamed in honor of former State Representative Rick Cessar. Flinn's name can still be found on the builder's plaques which remain on some of the structures built by his company.

At the point where Mr. Flinn's highway (there Old Washington Pike) crosses from Allegheny into Washington County a limestone pylon stands as a quiet reminder:

The plaque facing northbound travelers reads:

1851 - - - 1924

The plaque facing southbound travelers reads:

1851 - - - 1924

A selection of structures by Booth & Flinn during the lifetime of William Flinn:

view page - Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel, 1904
view page - Manchester Bridge (approaches), 1915
view page - Liberty Tunnel, 1924

A selection of structures by Booth & Flinn:

view page - Armstrong Tunnel, 1927
view page - McKees Rocks Bridge over the Ohio River (approaches), 1931
view page - Westinghouse Bridge, 1932

Fleming, George Thornton, 1855-1928. Vol. 5 History of Pittsburgh and environs, from prehistoric days to the beginning of the American revolution. By George Thornton Fleming. New York, Chicago, The American historical society, inc., 1922.

HON. WILLIAM FLINN, president and chairman of the firm of Booth & Flinn, Ltd., Contractors, has been for many years a prominent factor in the business world and in the political arena of Pennsylvania. As State Senator and member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Flinn has accomplished much for the welfare of the Commonwealth, and in local politics, as well as in business, his influence has always been exerted for the progress and improvement of his home city of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Flinn was born May 26, 1851, in Manchester, England, but his parents were both natives of Ireland. In the year of his birth the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Pittsburgh, where his father became a well-known citizen. The boy William attended the city schools until the age of nine years, but though his life in the classroom ended so early, he never abandoned the quest for knowledge, and few men have a wider range of general information. After leaving school the lad was variously employed in the brickyards, until he became oId enough to be apprenticed to the trade of brass finishing and gas and steam fitting. At the expiration of his time, with that aggressiveness which has ever characterized him, he became a contractor. From the beginning he was successful, and in 1877 formed a partnership with James J. Booth, under the name of Booth & Flinn, Ltd. The enterprise prospered, and the concern is to-day engaged in general contracting of all kinds, many of the largest undertakings ever successfully carried out in the history of constructive work about Pittsburgh, and in many other sections of the United States, being placed to its credit. Of the construction of the Mount Washington tunnel (which created a new residence district for Pittsburgh in which thousands of workers in the city have found homes but fifteen or twenty minutes from the business centre), it may be said, with exaggeration, that this masterpiece of construction was practically the means of creating new towns, and the strength of intellect and tenacity of purpose possessed by William Flinn were the agents chiefly instrumental in its execution.

In the conduct of his various enterprises Mr. Flinn has proved himself to be endowed with the power of handling large bodies of men and of coordinating their energies with skill and efficiency, at the same time avoiding the error into which a man of weaker brain and smaller heart would inevitably have fallen that of regarding his employees merely as parts of a great machine. On the contrary he recognizes their individuality, making it a rule that faithful and efficient service shall be promptly rewarded with promotion as opportunity offers, a fact which has had no small share in determining his phenominal success. His clear and far-seeing mind enables him to grasp every detail of a project, however great in magnitude, and this, combined with his marveIous facility in the dispatch of business, has made it possible for him to accept a number of responsible positions in different industrial and financial organizations. He is president and director of the Duquesne Lumber Company, and the Pittsburgh Silver Peak Gold Mining Company; vice-president and director of the Sharon Water Works Company; director of the Arkansas Fuel Oil Company, the Arkansas Natural Gas Company, the Gulf Oil Corporation, the Manufacturers' Light and Heat Company, and the Pittsburgh Coal Company.

As a citizen with exalted ideas of good government and civic virtue, Mr. Flinn stands in the front rank, and wherever substantial aid will further public progress, it is freely given. Ever ready to respond to any deserving call made upon him, no good work in the name of charity or religion seeks his cooperation in vain. He is president and trustee of the Elizabeth Steel Magee Hospital, a director and member of the exccutive committee of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital, a member of the advisory board of the Industrial Home for Crippled Children, and a director of the Pittsburgh Maternity Dispensary. He belongs to the Duquesne and Union clubs.

In early manhood Mr. Flinn became actively interested in politics, but has only once consented to hold office in the municipality of Pittsburgh, that instance having occurred in 1877, when he was elected to the Board of Fire Commissioners. For many years he has been a recognized power in the Republican party, being invariably consulted in regard to all questions of moment. His public spirit and rapidity of judgment have enabled him, in the midst of incessant business activity, to give to the affairs of the community effort and counsel of genuine value, and his penetrating thought has often added wisdom to public movements. For twenty years Mr. Flinn was chairman of the Republican City Executive Committee of Pittsburgh, and in this position his wide knowledge of municipal affairs, combined with his faithful and capable discharge of duty, has made his services particularly valuable. From 1884 until 19O1 he served as chairman of the Republican Committee of Allegheny county. In 1879 and 1881 he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. From 1890, the date of his first election to this body, through the two subsequent terms for which he received the tribute of reelection, he was a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate, the term of his service in this capacity ending with his resignation in 1902. While at Harrisburg Mr. Flinn was a most important factor in legislation, his ability as a versatile, logical and entertaining speaker giving him rare power. He was the author of the famous "good roads law," which has proved such a signal benefit to the State.

From 1884 until 1912 Mr. Flinn served as a delegate to every Republican National Convention. In the convention of 1912 he was a power in the support of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt's nomination, and followed him into the Independent or "Bull Moose" party. During the following campaign Mr. Flinn was one of the broadly influential men in the State of Pennsylvania in the prosecution of that hotly contested fight, and had the satisfaction of seeing the State carried for Colonel Roosevelt. The test of that time revealed to the State more clearly than any other public serviee what manner of man William Flinn really is, and gave to the nation a new comprehension of the dignity of public service. In an appreciation of his career published later under the title of "Bill Flinn -- Peaceful Revolutionist," Frank Hendrick says:

Senator Flinn has always been a good Republican, not merely a boss or a satellite, but a worker for the good of the community through good politics. He had voluntarlly abandoned political activity, and took it up under the spur of a sense of need for men to make the struggle the leaders of the Republican party had abandoned. Senator Flinn believed, when he resigned from the State Senate, March 7, 1902, that he had enjoyed his share of honors and had given his share in of time and effort. * * *

Early in 1912, he (Mr. Flinn) told Roosevelt that the delegates from Pennsylvania would be for Roosevelt if he would but say that he would be a candidate. * * * "But," said Flinn, "we want the word now." ''I'll run," said the Colonel, and Senator Flinn went right to work with a result that is well known. It is doubtful it any other man had more to do with Roosevelt's suceess than Flinn. But Flinn is not much of a hand to make any bones about work. He considered he was working for his community rather than for the Colonel, and for a cause rather than for a political party. * * *

Senator Flinn is a force in American politics decidedly to be reckoned with. * * * He is, moreover, not only a thinker, a scholar, and an inveterate mediator with things to be corrected, but he is many times a millionaire and not afraid to give out his money for a cause. And the cause this millionaire favors is the equalization of opportunities in the United States, even though such equalization he brought about by a shrinkage of big fortunes, including his own.

Apropos of the foregoing the above pamphlet quotes Mr. Flinn's own outspoken belief in his own words, that "wealth may be held by individuals above a certain amount only in trust." And this is not an empty theory with him, but a principle by which he governs his life, as is best known by those familiar with his broadly practical helpfulness in many strata of society. A genial man of optimistic spirit, the briefest conversation with Mr. Flinn reveals his ability and the versatility of his talents. Mentally and physically he is formed on a large scale. Six feet in height, and weighing two hundred pounds, he is in every sense a formidable antagonist and is a well-nigh invincible champion. He is a known quantity, with a genius for leadership, and it is said of him that "his headquarters are where he is," a sentence which aptly describes the man and his accessibility. It may be said, too, that he has won by original ideas, whether it be in business or politics. His self-reliance never fails him, and his accurate knowledge of men has enabled him to fill the various branches of his business with assistants who seldom fail to meet his expectations. His keen eyes, which send their searching glances through eyeglasses, hold a power which seems to pieree the very souls of those whom he addresses, yet are kindly in expression, and his manner, quick though it be, and decisive, is invariably courteous. Absolute honesty, unflagging interest in a multitude of different activities, a sense of humor, rare social tact and an unaffected liking for his fellow beings -- these are the traits which have made William Flinn what he is -- the of the most popular men in the city of Pittsburgh.

William Flinn is a man whose personality, in combination with his record as a business man and political leader, recalls the imposing figures of the old-time Pittsburghers -- those pioneers who laid the strong foundation on which has risen the fair fabric of the present prosperity and prestige of the Iron City. He is one of the men who do large things. Both industrially and politically he may be called one of the makers, not of Pitts burgh alone, but also of Western Pennsylvania. Summoned by the Keystone State to serve her in position of public trust, he has ably and faithfully fulfilled her behests, and there is little doubt that in the coming years, she will require him to assume still greater responsibilities.

Mr. Flinn married, in 1874, Nancy Galbraith, and they are the parents of the following children: George H., Ralph E., W. A., Alexander R., Mary S., and Edith G. A man of strong domestic tastes and affections, Mr. Flinn is devoted to his home and family. "Braemar," his beautiful residence in the East End, is a center of hospitaIity and the scene of many social functions. The whole family are extremely popular in Pittsburgh society.

Senator Flinn's fad is his country place, "Beechwood," a farm of 125 acres on the Kittanning road, where he leaves politics and business behind and finds time to indulge his love for growing things. Here he breeds Guernsey cattle, prize chickens, FIemish rabbits and pedigree dogs, and has flower and vegetable gardens among the finest in the country. Here, with Mrs. Flinn, his companion of nearly half a century of wedded Iife, among the old-fashioned flowers they love best, Mr. Flinn finds relaxation from the strenuous business and public activities that have filled fifty busy years.

Harper, Frank C. Vol.5 Pittsburgh of today, its resources and people, by Frank C. Harper. New York, The American Historical Society, Inc., 1931-1932.

WILLIAM FLINN -- In the passing of WilIiam Flinn, Pittsburgh and the State of Pennsylvania lost a most distinguished, public-spirited worker for the public welfare, and business circles lost a leader.

Born at Manchester, England, May 26, 1851, he died at St. Petersburg, Florida, February 19, 1924, aged seventy-two years, the majority of which had been given to honored activities in Pennsylvania. His parents, John Flinn and Mary (Hamilton) Flinn though Irish, had taken residence in Manchester, England, several years before the birth of William Flinn, and before he was a year old they came to the United States, 1851. They settled in Pittsburgh in that early period prior to the War Between the States; and have been continuously and notably represented here by generations succeeding them, each having played a valued role in development of the municipality.

After he had secured his academic instruction in the public schools of Pittsburgh, William Flinn at once set out on a career, the beginnings of which were modest, given mainly to the accumulation of experience, but destined to become large in comparison with the careers of men among whom he lived, politicaIly and in business direction. Politically, as a progressive citizen, he entered Republican councils at the age of twenty-six, becoming an active worker for the party's causes in the old Sixth Ward, and attaining office as member of the Board of Fire Commissioners, the only solely municipal poIitical post he ever heId. In 1881, such had become his reputation for pubIic work, that he was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature at Harrisburg. In 1890, on the strength of the record made in the Lower House, he was elected to the State Senate, and he remained incumbent there until his resignation from the Legislature in 1901.

An earnest, able champion of measures for the welfare of his State, William FIinn became known as the father of the Good Roads Act, which became law in 1895. He sponsored legisIation for the betterment of child labor conditions, for the reguIation of balIot boxes and primary election expenses. He urged the adoption of voting; machines, favored a fair and equitable civil service, and was a consistent worker for extension o parks and boulevards. Duririg the score of years spanning his record at Harrisburg, he advocated measures and reforms the benefits of which will continue for many years to come.

William Flinn's chief business interests were involved with contracting on a large scaIe, and were centered in the firm of Booth and Flinn, Ltd., formed in 1893 by himseIf in association with James J. Booth. The concern engaged in many vast building enterprises, bringing all of these to a successful conclusion. Most noteworthy, perhaps, of its long record of construction-service, was completion of the Liberty Tunnels and the Armstrong Tunnels of Allegheny County, and in the later years of the company's continuation, the Holland Vehicular Tunnel between New York City and New Jersey. Mr. Booth retired from the firm in 1898; George H. Flinn, son of the founder, succeeded him, and in 1924 two other sons, W. A. and A. Rex Flinn attained to membership. Ralph Emerson Flinn, another son, also spent a few years associated with the company. George H. Flinn died on March 29, 1929, and his brother, A. Rex Flinn took control.

His character and integrity assured William Flinn of the respect and warm esteem of those with whom he came in contact through his lengthy and useful career. He was most devoted to his family, and took great pleasure in the deveIopment of his farm on the Kittanning Road, beyond Sharpsburg, which he named Beechwood Farm. This was celebrated over a wide stretch of the State for its Guernsey cattle, German police dogs, and BeIgian hares, which William Flinn raised upon it. In later years especially he spent much time on his farm, and traveled each year to resorts and centers of climatic, political and social interest. He was a frequent visitor, during the winter months, at cities in Florida, St. Petersburg being his favorite community, where, as noted previously, his death occurred. He married Naney Galbraith in the year 1874.

The life and works of William Flinn could not fail to give inspiration to the lives of others, and many men today of prominence in Pittsburgh have cause to look back with appreciation to his counsel at a crucial time in their respective lives. A genial, friendly, outspoken man upon occasion, he attracted friendliness, and his friends were of increasing numbers through the years. These mourned his passing as a man and an associate, their united expressions combining in a beautiful tribute of the spirit, in memory of one whose works live on behind him.

Having come here as an infant, William Flinn always regarded Pittsburgh as his native place; and Pittsburgh will recall him as a distinguished son.

Source documents: cited above; Gay and Evert, "Discovering Pittsburgh's Sculpture"

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Last modified: 6-Sep-2002