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The Trailblazers

On Location Surveys for the BPR

by
Wendell C. Struble

I began working for the Bureau in the summer of 1919 in Missoula, Montana. At that time the Missoula District Office was responsible for Federal road construction in the States of Montana and Idaho. That first summer I was on three location surveys: the Skalkaho in Montana; the Lolo Pass in Montana and Idaho; and the Coram-Spotted Bear in Montana. These three surveys totaled about 100 miles and all three were pack horse trips.

On these pack horse trips we'd get a ride by car or truck as far as the existing road went and then we'd be on foot. We would move camp about ever eight or ten miles. Of course when we would be through with a project, we would have to hike all the way back. When we completed the Corum-Spotted Bear, we had to hike back out 50 miles, which we did in two and a half days, carrying a full pack, transit and rifle.

We camped out in old army pyramid tents with one pole in the middle. Heating was by Sibley stove - a short of inverted tin funnel. To get a little more draft, you's dig out a little more dirt from under the fire. Those stoves would get awful damned hot once you had them full of wood. Once in a while we'd burn a tent down - leave a little too much fire and come back to camp to find you've got no place to sleep.

The food wasn't usually too good. None of it was fresh unless we shot a deer or elk or got some fish - which we did as often as we could. The packer only came to camp once or twice a month, and he brought some supplies and whatever mail came in.

On some of these surveys we would be out in the woods for as long as three months without ever getting to a town. We worked hard, ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. Sunday we would take it easy and wash underwear and mend socks, and go fishing. We did whatever we had to do to get the job done in time and I remember one job the boss said we would finish on a certain Saturday and we worked into the night to get it done. Then we had to pack up in the dark and move out in our old army truck with no headlights and drive half the night to the next job. That was what the old timers thought about meeting dead lines! I never want to make a trip like that again.

We had ten to twelve men on a survey crew. Whenever we would get a new man coming onto the crew, he'd be looked over awful damned close. If he didn't have a good pair of 18" leather boots, corked and hobnailed, he wouldn't last long. Also, a man reporting with an old type suitcase would learn his first lesson the hard way when camp was moved. The packer would place that fancy suitcase on top of the pack saddle, throw the diamond hitch over it and snub it down, and smash it all to hell. Some of his gear would never make the next camp. The next time that guy would go out on a location survey - if he lasted that long - he'd bring along a pack sack.

We never had too much trouble from animals or anything like that, although a rattlesnake once struck our head chainman on the wristwatch. Fortunately he was quicker than the snake and killed it before it had a second chance to strike. We always had to get shots for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever when we worked in the Bitterroot National Forest. But actually, the ticks never had a chance to bite us since we never sat down or stop working long enough for them to catch us.

In the early 20's a locator was rated by survey production - a mile a day was considered average. A survey consisted of field work only, with no mapping or office work included. You had to know certain factors about the highway before going out, such as the anticipated traffic. Then you would know how sharp to make the curves and how steep to make the grades. Of course on many of these old roads we were so restricted by money that we just did what we could, even if it was inadequate.

Back then there wasn't much to assist a locator on reconnaissance. The U.S. Forest Service provided forest maps, which sketched in roughly the drainage system and gave the names of creeks. The principal method of studying terrain was to walk over the ground. A good locator can condition himself to cover 20 miles a day.

I think one of the most outstanding things we did in the 20's and 30's was making the selection of some of the main mountain crossings. Most of these are still in use; we might have built a road 20 feet wide 50 years ago and it may be 150 feet wide now, but it's still in the same location. I think that is one of the finest tributes that can be given to the old locators - the fact that they did it the hard way on foot (no fancy helicopters or instruments) and learned to go a long way on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, let me tell you that! Year, we did all right.

Transitman Struble, Summer 1920, South Fork of the clearwater, Idaho.
Transitman Struble, Summer 1920, South Fork of the Clearwater, Idaho

Trout fishing on location survey Madison River, Montana-1925 Wendell Struble
Trout fishing on location survey Madison River, Montana - 1925 Wendell Struble

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Updated: 10/16/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000