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The Trailblazers

Stories from the Early Days of the Bureau

By
William B. "Pete" Peters

I started with the Bureau in 1919. one of the first projects I worked on was locating and constructing a road from Riverton, Wyoming, to Jackson Lake in the Grand Tetons just south of Yellowstone National Park. I was working as a transitman on a section across one of the passes, at an elevation of over 9,000 feet. It was a hot summer and I recall one incident that shows just how hot it was.

We were cross-sectioning on the side of a hill - on the open side of the hill where there was hardly any brush. I was using a hand level and it was so hot that the level bubble disappeared, and of course, I couldn't get any work done. We had to go downhill to where there was shade and bury the hand level in the dirt to cool it down. We finally got the bubble back and continued until it got so hot that the bubble broke. I had to find the party chief and tell him we needed a new hand level. We were given another one and hadn't been out long when that one broke too. The boss got us another level and we completed the day's work without breaking it.

The boss had an automobile he used to go to town in and could very easily have driven us every morning from camp up onto the hill where we were working, but he made us walk - uphill for at least three miles. One of the younger men couldn't stand such treatment and turned in his ticket.

We all stayed in tents and I had a separate tent with my wife and little child. I had boarded the sides of the tent up a bit and we even had a stove. It was one of those cone-shaped Sibley stoves, which was set down in the dirt floor and had a chimney, which poked through the roof of the tent. The boss didn't have any sanitary facilities set up for us since there was the whole outdoors. I fixed a privy for our use, so that worked out just fine. There was a little stream in front of the tent, which served as a water supply and it was just like ice water.

Once when I was working on the side of a mountain, the contractor's timekeeper came two miles up to tell me my wife and baby had gotten ill and my wife wanted me to come back to camp immediately. The timekeeper offered me his horse to ride down but I knew I could beat any horse in the world down a mountain, and I ran the whole distance. I was in good physical condition and I don't even remember being tired afterwards. They both had dysentery from impure water and we had to get to the nearest doctor who was in Lander, over 100 miles away. The same day, one of the chainmen who was a cigarette smoker got burned while pumping up one of those Coleman lanterns that burned gasoline. It exploded and threw gasoline all over him and burned his arms, face and neck pretty badly. The boys got a blanket and smothered the fire out.

I tried to telephone the doctor from camp but I couldn't get through because of one of the connections in the line. The contractor had told me that if I ever wanted to use his car, he would have a driver take me anywhere anytime. So, the contractor's man and I went to each farmhouse with a telephone on the line and tried to call the doctor until we finally got through. The doc came right out and took care of everybody but when we got the bill, he had lumped everything together for a "call - he figured since we all worked for the Government, it didn't matter. It did to me since he had spent most of his time on the burned man and I remember it took a while before we got the charges all straightened out.

Much later, I was in charge of a project on the Mount Hood Loop - a scenic highway to Oregon's highest mountain. To get milk for the children, we had to rent a goat, which we named Lilly White, and to keep her company, we had to take along Jimmy, a neutered goat. Lilly furnished us with good, fresh milk - much better and richer than cow's milk. Rent for the goat was $5.00 per month with the understanding that if we lost a goat, we would have to pay $90.00. Fortunately, we didn't lose either one.

In road construction, the contractor is always paid more for working on solid rock than he is for working through easier material. After a contract has been let, if more solid rock is found than originally specified on the contract, the contractor is allowed to charge the government a higher price. At the time I was in charge of a section of the Mt. Hood Loop, a stationman got 90¢ a yard for solid rock, the subcontractor got $1.10 a yard and the contractor $1.20; therefore, the more solid rock, the more profit for all involved.

Once, when I was on horseback going from the north side to the south side of Mt. Hood, I crossed a stream near where some Italian or Greek hard rock men were working. The head of the station gang came along beside me to talk and when we got in full view of his crew and they had all stopped working and were watching us, he laid an envelope on the pommel of the saddle. I said, "What the heck is this, Tony?" "Oh," he replied, "that's a present for your wife." "What do you mean?" I asked. "You get your wife a diamond ring." Well, I told him I wasn't going to accept anything at all to revise any cost estimates and threw the money onto the ground so that all the men could see it. That was a good move because if I had waited to give him back the money until we had gone around the next bend, he could have stuck it in his pocket and his crew would have thought I had kept it. I knew that these men were tough and if they thought they had been wronged they would cut someone's throat or knock somebody in the head with a sledge hammer or set off a charge of powder under you.

I was offered another bribe on the Glacier Park Highway in 1928. This time a workman followed me on the trail, out of sight of his crew and out of sight of the contractor's foreman, who was in cahoots with the stationmen. When we were alone, this Greek handed me a roll of money and told me it was a present. I told him that everyone on the job would be treated the same and that they would all get a square deal and that I would have nothing to do with the money. I told him we would go up to his camp and he would get the many who spoke the best English to explain that to the crew. He pleaded with me to let him take the money back to the crew along, he had tears in his eyes and insisted that his men trusted him explicitly. But I refused, and made him show the foreman and the crew that I hadn't accepted the "present."

We occasionally had altercations between some of the men, too. I had an assistant engineer named R. M. Smith working as a gravel checker and he didn't get along too well with Speed, one of the truck drivers. One morning Smith went out of his tent and somebody hit him in the temple with a rock and knocked him out. The rock had come from the direction of Speed's tent and I figured that only Speed would do a thing like that in fun. Poor Smith told me, after he came around, that he couldn't hear, so I sent him to Portland for prompt treatment, and told him not to spare the horses. I shut the whole work area down tight, and action readily okayed by the District Engineer, and got all the men around. None of them claimed to know anything about it and since I couldn't prove that Speed (usually a really good fellow) had done it, we never really did settle it. Smith did recover from the incident, after a stay in the hospital.

I was on the Trans-Mountain Project in Glacier Park from 1925 to 1928. In July 1925, Dr. Thomas MacDonald, the Commissioner of Highways, came out to see first-hand what the project was all about. He was a gentleman in every way and one of the first men at the top of the Bureau of Public Roads. Naturally, as soon as it was learned that he was coming from Washington, DC, we had elaborate instructions about how to entertain him, feed him, etc. We had all the fresh vegetable and good food brought in by pack string for his arrival, as well as such luxuries as chairs. One of the men and his wife agreed to serve as chefs and we were all ready. Then we got a telegram saying he would be a week late, and we were happy to eat all that good food ourselves before it spoiled. He finally did come the following week though, and stayed for four or five days.

One incident occurred during his stay that is worth mentioning. Dr. MacDonald, Dr. Hughes, and Mr. Purcell wanted me to take them on a horseback trip to the summit of a high mountain so that Dr. MacDonald could view the whole park and the project. We had to hike up the last half mile because it got too steep for the horses, and we carried lunch up with us. On the way back down, we had to cross a snow slide with a stream flawing under the slide. Purcell rode across on his horse, but I decided it was best to lead my horse across. Next came Dr. MacDonald on the finest, biggest horse; and he was a big, heavy man, too. He rode across halfway when the horse broke through the snow and fell over on his side with Dr. MacDonald below him. I yelled for him to kick loose and get away from the horse and he did, but slid down the side of the mountain until he came to rest in a pile of rocks. He had no broken bones but had been greatly frightened, as we all were.

We got him back on his horse and about three quarters of a mile further on, came to a 80 or 100 foot high water fall, right on the trail crossing. Upon seeing this, Dr. MacDonald proclaimed, "Well, I have always wanted to take a real cold shower!" I told him I wasn't in the habit of having ice water showers, but I would join him. This wasn't a real safe place to shower because the waterfall brought rocks down occasionally and one of those rocks on the head would have knocked you cuckoo. But we all decided to strip down to our shoes and by the time Hughes and I were undress, Dr. MacDonald was already in there, thoroughly enjoying it. We saw that his back had been badly scratched when he slid down the mountain and the cold water probably provided some relief. I just got a little wet and so did Dr. Hughes - I just could not stand it. After the shower, we returned to camp and Dr. Hughes said that this would make an awfully good news item to be sent in to the AP. Dr. MacDonald said, "Oh, no. Don't mention this incident to anyone. We don't want any publicity from it."

This narrative wouldn't be complete without a bear story - this one can be sung to the tune of "The Bear Went Over The Mountain." In the summer of 1926, on the West Side Tunnel or Loop project in Glacier Park, I had an engineer named Smith who was living in a board floor tent with his wife and two year old child. He had a young collie dog for protection against marauding bears, since there were so many of them in the park. One evening after work while the family was at supper, a snooping bear came onto the board porch where Smith's transit was set up. Upon hearing the bear, Smith and his dong dashed off at top speed to chase him away. The bear took off through the widespread legs of the tripod and carried the transit off on his back as he ran into the woods. We recovered the equipment but the transit was broken and we had to get a new one from Portland.

After relating these stories, I'd better end this narrative. I could tell many more but these were just a few things I happened to remember about my early days in the Bureau. I want to express my most sincere thanks and gratitude for knowing and working with Dr. Thomas MacDonald, a 100% man in every way. The same holds true for all the men and women with whom I worked with so much pleasure fro 1919 to 1954.

Waterfall, South of Haystack Butte, Glacier national Park
Waterfall, one-half mile south of Haystack Butte, Glacier National Park, October, 1925. A BPR survey party with pack string moving down from summit regions for winter season shut-down. This 90-foot waterfall was the site of the 32° shower taken by Dr. Thomas MacDonald, Dr. L. I. Hughes, Charles Purcell and W. G. Peters.

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