For 50 years, Patrick Maher was involved in the public affairs of Santa Barbara. Appointed interim mayor in 1936 during a period of political tumult, Maher would go on to be elected for four additional terms and would guide the city through the difficult years of the Second World War.
Patrick Joseph Maher was born into a farming family in County Clare, Ireland, in 1887. His mother died when he was an infant, and his father moved the family to the U.S. when young Maher was 16. They settled in Connecticut and his father got a job with the water department in the town of New Britain. Patrick was apprenticed as a machinist, and he then landed a job as a mechanic with an auto firm. In 1912, he moved to Colorado and then came to Santa Barbara in 1915, where he took up residence in the YMCA.
In 1917, Maher enlisted in the army and served in France as a machinist with an airplane squadron. Upon his return, he went to work as a Dodge automobile salesperson. In 1924, he opened a gas station and was successful enough to open a second station in 1927.
That same year, Maher took his initial foray into public life, serving a two-year stint on the city’s Police and Fire Commission. He was president of the city’s Planning Commission in 1936, when the City Council asked him to complete the seven months of Mayor E. O. Hanson’s term. Hanson, one of the most controversial figures in the city’s political history, had been forced to resign after a reign that had brought chaos to almost every department in municipal government. To many, Maher’s arrival in the top office must have come as a welcome relief.
Maher immediately faced a crisis concerning the waterfront. The construction of the breakwater in the late 1920s had changed the littoral sand drift and beaches below the harbor were disappearing. In the mid 1930s, the Biltmore and Miramar hotels, among other beachfront property owners, sued the city over this erosion. The council and city attorney urged settlement, but the self-described “stubborn Irishman” vowed to fight, feeling that settlement could set a precedent that would lead to further lawsuits. The case reached the State Supreme Court where the city finally won out. It was also under Maher that dredging operations in the harbor began, an annual sight still familiar today.
A number of large public works projects were completed during his mayoralty, including the municipal tennis courts on the lower Eastside, Laguna Ballpark, where Santa Barbara’s minor league Dodger affiliate played for many years, Los Ba±os del Mar municipal pool, and the Naval Reserve Building at the breakwater. Maher urged the sale of this building to the Navy during World War II, and it was only recently returned to the city.
Maher also was a leader of the bond campaign to purchase the land for the municipal airport in 1941. During the war, the navy leased the site for a Marine aviation training base. He also was involved in bringing the army’s Hoff Hospital here, located where the municipal golf course is now, off of Las Positas Road. During the war, Santa Barbara served as rest and recreation center for the military; a number of hotels were used in this capacity, as was the Cabrillo Pavilion. Troops used Los Ba±os del Mar to train, wading through the deep water with full packs. As mayor, Maher was a key figure in Santa Barbara’s involvement with the military and the American war effort.
The close of Maher’s last term as mayor in 1945 did not mean the end of his public service. That did not come until 1977 when, at age 90, he stepped down from his position on the Santa Barbara County Landmarks Commission. Upon his death in 1985, Santa Barbara’s own “stubborn Irishman” was recognized as one of the city’s most valued public servants.
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Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara's history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.