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The Trailblazers

The Early Days of BPR

By
Rene Wright

I was one of the lucky ones to come into the Bureau of Public Roads in its early stages. The Bureau had begun as the Office of Public Roads and Public Engineering in the Department of Agriculture and its principle activity was helping farmers build windmills, design drainage, etc. In about 1919 an Act of Congress was passed expanding the Bureau, primarily to help fill the employment rolls and create jobs for soldiers returning form World War I.

Our instructions, when I came to work for the Portland Office as the senior Bridge Engineer in 1919, were to design and prepare road projects and activities on no more than a 5 year basis, since that was the period for which the appropriation was available. It looked as if we were to plan for 5 years and then go out of existence. After several years, however, the demand for roads indicated that we would be around for quite a while.

The road situation had come to the front because we were graduating from the horse and wagon to the automobile. Up to that time, the only roads in existence to the Northwest were ones established by pioneers and these had been sporadically maintained. As soon as you got off these main roads, there was nothing but ruts. Consequently, when we began, we were known as the "Bureau of Parallel Ruts." Horse drawn buggies, with their high clearance, could travel all right on rutted roads, but not so with automobiles.

Settlements had sprung up next to the better roads and buildings, cabins, blacksmith shops, etc., were right up on the roads. A few communities had grown up for a specific cause such as mining, and spur roads had developed to these from the main roads. The Northwest was undergoing a period of considerable population influx, with people attracted by cheap land, timber, homesteading, etc., and many people were settling off to one side of the traveled roads because others had already settled next to the main roads. This created a demand for move spur roads to these off-the-road communities, and outside help was needed since the new settlers wee bust building cabins, etc.

There was also a general movement through commercial and government channels to build more roads. In this area, timber had been cut and floated down rivers, but by 1920 most of the easily acquired trees had been cut. Since the timber companies had to go deeper into the forest, they wanted roads to get them there. At the same time, wheat farmers in the Midwest and all of agriculture in general needed back country roads. Since the States and counties were in bad financial shape, the public turned to the Forest Service and BPR for help.

Our first roads were very primitive to get the most out of a dollar, since funding was inadequate. These roads, too, were inadequate - 8 feet wide with 6 feet of travel roadway and one foot shoulders. We soon realized how inadequate they were during the Northwest winter rainfalls. When we returned to one forest road project in the spring, all we had was an 8 foot ditch. We widened the roads and put in drainage, which we could have done at first but omitted in order to keep costs down. We also ran parallel ditches but sometimes had to cross other roads. At this time, the only material for culverts was made of a brittle clay and this would break if it was close to the road surface. Consequently, we put logs down at road level in poor drainage areas, so that water could run across the road in between the logs. This, of course, was very hard on vehicles.

On spur road projects, we would often find only two ruts instead of a road - and frequently got stuck. Forest Service personnel would lay poles in the ruts and later began transversing them making "corduroy" roads that were treacherous to travel on. In the winter, rain would often float the poles away and you could easily get stuck in a gap. Planks wee later used to provide a hard surface, but the driving surface was only one plank wide, not leaving much room for steering. I've spent an entire day going only 8 or 10 miles because I'd get stuck.

We always carried an axe, a saw, a pick, a shovel and several gunny sacks. The axe and saw were used to remove fallen trees on the road; the pick and shovel were to clear rock and dirt slides off the roadway. The rough burlap gunny sacks could be laid down to pull yourself out of sand, snow, or loose dirt. I also carried a bedroll, in case I got stuck in the ruts overnight. I remember I once got stuck four times going from Portland to Chehalis (about 100 miles) and having to find farmers with a team of horses to get pulled out.

Our roads were designed and constructed in stages. First the location was planned, then contracts were let for construction. Rights-of-way were usually not obtained until immediately before construction. The roads were surfaced as traffic demanded, sometimes not until a year or more after the road was built. After the traffic volume was established, we often found we had to come back and reconstruct or expand the roads.

Many of our early locations and designs were inadequate due to poor preliminary planning. Often contracts were let showing that no solid rock would have to be moved by the contractor, but when the construction work was begun and the surface scratched, rock was found. Our inspectors would have to make on-the-spot decisions as to whether such areas should be by-passed or a temporary set-up implemented to keep costs down to the original estimates.

Most of our roads were built through virgin land where we couldn't tell how nature would react the next year. Often, snow and earth slides and under drainage would cause severe problems after the roads were built, because we had tampered with the previously balanced environment. Nowadays, all these things are foreseen through highly sophisticated investigation techniques and equipment.

When the poll tax was in effect, the counties performed most of the construction work with local help. As soon as the States became involved, the State legislators decided on road locations and appropriated funds. Usually, the legislators legally designated the routes between towns or cities where their friends such as County Commissioners and County judges would most likely benefit. The net result was that many road monies were spent near areas where these County officials owned property. Many roads were put in poor locations and couldn't be revised later on at reasonable cost.

Location of the roads seemed somewhat haphazard because of the costs involved in moving earth. At this time earth-moving equipment was limited and usually the work was done by a 2 or 4 horse scraper. Since this was slow and costly, roads were often zigzagged just to avoid moving dirt. Locations usually followed the path of lease resistance which was often a foot trail or path. I remember one road we built over a path that had been established when a cow first brought her calf from the grazing area to the barn.

The cost per linear foot of building bridges was greater than any other part of the road. Therefore, when a gulch, stream, etc., had to be crossed, the narrowest place was always chosen for the bridge. The road would often detour to that spot so we could build a bridge at a right angle. This means that there would often be a sharp curve at each end of the bridge, sometimes as sharp as 25°. Some were so sharp that larger vehicles would have to back up to make the turns.

Bridges were built of the cheapest material possible - forest logs for sills, posts, stringers and planks. Logs had to be limited in length because there was no heavy equipment with which to handle them; they had to be light enough that horses or oxen could haul them out of the woods.

Concrete was extremely variable in strength and durability because there was no general or uniform standard for local areas. Since sand, cement and gravel have to be mixed in the right proportion to attain the desired strength, we had inspectors around to supervise the mixing and pouring of concrete. There was a continual fight with the contractors to keep the quality up - cement was only $1.00 to $1.50 a sack (1 cu. Ft.), but in those days, that was worth saving.

After a while, the Bureau of Standards set up minimum strength standards, but utilization and handling was left to local people. The Madison, Wisconsin Forest Products Laboratory tested and made recommendations for strength and durability of all wood products by size and species. The Bureau began to set standards for location, construction, maintenance, and for bridges. It was found necessary to promote standard specifications for these purposes. A Bridge Committee was set up and I was appointed to the Committee with C. B. McCullough who was then the State Highway Bridge Engineer for Oregon. I took the timber end and he took the concrete end and we submitted our recommendations to the Committee, which was made up primarily of Eastern engineers. Our specs were later adopted by the Bureau of Standards.

One of the most interesting bridges I saw was in Randle, Washington, built in the late 20's by loggers. These loggers were great improvisers and had to get over the Cowlitz River which was about 8-10 feet deep at high water. They had cut down trees 4-1/2 to 5 feet thick at the butt and 12" to 15" at the tip and 250 feet long. With block and tackle and donkey engines, they had dragged the logs to the river where they had dug holes 8 or 9 feet deep. They built up a log crib 8 feet high and 40 feet in front of the holes. The logs were then positioned with the butts in the hole and resting on the crib. They filled over the holes with large rocks, sand and gravel to weigh them down and put in 15 feet of fill to hold them in place and serve as an approach. The tips of the logs from each side of the river overlapped and were laid transversely about 3 feet apart on the big logs. Planks were laid on top of this for a surface. The total cost was about $1,200. One of the local farmers who wanted to use the bridge too donated 3 cows to the logging camp as part of the cost.

Animals were an occasional nuisance around camps, especially the big, black bears in Rainier National Park. One big fellow would come around the cook tent every day for scraps or whatever else he could find to eat - he knew exactly what time dinner was served. We tried to scare him off with boiling water, sharp sticks, pepper and everything else, but to no avail. The Park Service finally trapped him in a big corrugated pipe trap and hauled him off to the other end of the park. In three days, however, he was back.

Cougars would follow you around to see what you were doing. They would follow you directly in your trail, criss - crossing to stay out of sight. The didn't pose a problem unless you wounded one. Most of the so-called "wild" animals weren't aggressive - they didn't seem to consider us enemies.

Bulls ran loose in many areas where we built roads near farms. Several times I had one buck my fenders and radiators. Cows and calves would stay in the road and when you tooted your horn or nudged them, the bull would get mad and come back to argue with the car. I had several fenders dented and radiators poked out by angry bulls.

Landowners were another occasional problem, although most were extremely cooperative. A few would object if you went through the middle of a field. Survey parties were sometimes challenged with shotguns and a local sheriff would have to be called out to control the owner.

The Pacific Northwest presented a total variety of environmental conditions with which highway and structural engineers had to cope. I have already mentioned the heavy winter rainfall, and other conditions including glaciers, desert, forest, and beaches. We also have a heavy wind from the Southwest about every 15-20 years, with 70 to 120 mph gusts. These winds are horizontal rather than tornado-like, and are capable of knocking down a ½ to 2 mile wide section of virgin timber. On three occasions in 55 years, these blowdowns came through Oregon and Washington and ruined some of our roads. I've walked 15 to 20 feet above the ground on tree trunks after one of these blowdowns.

Mount Rainier National Park presented us with some pretty unique conditions in which to design and build bridges. The original road went up to the snout of the Nisqually Glacier on the south side of Mt. Rainier to cross Nisqually Creek. The creek was usually only about 5 feet wide, but when it would rain or the glacier was melting, a heavy runoff occurred widening the creek to 30 feet. Originally, a 75 foot long timber truss bridge was built, but after 8 or 10 years, with the glacier receding about 80 feet per year, the heavy run-off washed out the bridge. We went in and built a concrete tee-beam of 75 feet span with a solid granite foundation. About four years later this bridge washed out as described below.

Nisqually Glacier, like all glaciers, fills a gulch several hundred feet deep, with steep sides. These sides are covered with moraine material overlaying perma ice. During warm, summer weather this partially melts and causes the moraine material to slide into the gulch, creating a series of dams. As these dams become saturated by the creek, this material composed largely of gravel and boulders slowly moved down the 5% slope of the gulch. This moving material filled the area under the bridge, literally lifting the structure off its bearings and moved it 1500 feet downstream by ball bearing action.

The location of this bridge site was fixed by continuing 5% highway grades on either side, so that it was deemed suitable to construct a slightly longer and higher bridge consisting of a concrete arch span on solid rock foundations. Several years after construction, a somewhat smaller mass moved down the gulch and over-topped this bridge which was about 6 feet higher than the former bridge, damaging the handrail only. These were the kind of unforeseen and unusual things you ran into in BPR in the Pacific Northwest. Incidentally, we have redesigned the roads to lead up to a higher bridge and now have a steel girder bridge about 150 feet high at a different location.

In the early days of BPR the small problems looked big. For example, when we first began building bridges we had little equipment and had to innovate. We'd dig holes in the river with pick and shovel until the water was waist deep. If we had to go deeper, we'd build a crib and pump out the water. To drive piles we'd use horses and oxen to pull the hammer up and then trip it. We once jacked up a truck and used a rope coiled around the rear wheel to pull the hammer up.

Most of our equipment had come from the Army surplus; we had some one-ton trucks with a front seat wide enough for six people - two machine gunners, two sharpshooters, and ammo man and a driver. Our cars were Dodge and Ford chassis originally designed for ambulance service but fitted with lightweight touring car bodies. The springs were powerful in order to be able to handle the heavy steel ambulance bodies with which the chassis were supposed to have been fitted. None of us could stand these vehicles because the springs would toss the light touring bodies up and down and you'd get a backache for a week!

I thoroughly enjoyed every one of my years with BPR. The hardships were anticipated and didn't seem so bad. You felt relieved when you went through some of these things just to know you could do it. The job provided constant challenges as the program was upgraded and expanded. It was difficult to keep up with the program and technological changes, but I never got bored. My only regret is that I had to retire at 69 instead of 70!

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