U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Highway History

<< Previous Contents Next >>

The Trailblazers

Direct Construction Memories

Karl S. Chamberlain

The following pages cover a few of the memories of Karl S. Chamberlain. They cover principally the Direct Construction operations of the Bureau of Public Roads in the early stages of the program. My own association with the Bureau started early in 1923, in what was formerly old District No. 12 with headquarters at Ogden, Utah. The district covered the States of Utah, and Idaho with some areas in Wyoming and Arizona. The office was in a rented portion of a business building.

I was attending school at Logan, Utah, at Utah State Agricultural College, finishing my course in June 1923. I was interviewed at Logan for employment by Mr. M. D. Williams who was later District Engineer in Alaska. He offered me a job to begin when I left school. The salary was $80.00 per month with board and lodging paid when away from headquarters. I reported to the Ogden Office in early June and was assigned to a construction project at Red Canyon, an approach road to Bryce Canyon National Park.

The field party was made up of a Resident Engineer and one other instrumentman who were regular employees. The balance of the crew were temporary employees, most of whom were students. According to my recollection, expenses were paid to a limit of $1.20 per day. The automotive equipment consisted of World War I surplus equipment. The Resident Engineer rated a car and another was provided for the crew. Both were Model T Fords of the crank up variety for starting. They used high pressure tires and it was an uncommon day's travel if there was not at least one flat tire - repaired and patched on the spot.

The quarters and field offices on the project consisted of tents without the benefit of floors or other unnecessary luxuries. The furnishings in the sleeping tents were rough lumber bunks without mattresses. Fresh cut pine boughs served as a substitute. A water bucket on a rough lumber stand and a wash basin completed the furnishings. Meals were taken at the contractor's mess at a cost of $1.00 per day. Food was plentiful, but the mess tent was unscreened. A large horse tent was located in the vicinity as nearly all motive power for the construction was horse drawn.

Living conditions were rather primitive. A Saturday night bath could be taken in a round tub with only warm water heated on a small wood stove. On a Saturday night a trip to town could provide a good bath at the barber shop for 25 cents. A cafe meal could also be bought for the very low price of 35 cents plus.

The Red Canyon project was 7 plus miles in length and provided a graded width of about 20 feet according to my recollection. It was surfaced where surfacing was required with selected material from dry streambeds spread only thick enough to keep out the mud.

Excavation was moved by horse drawn fresnos and slip scrapers. Rock excavation was hand drilled with "single jack" or "Double jack" hammers. An air compressor and jack hammer were used on the final stages of construction. The project included two small tunnels one of about 50 feet in length and the other about 20 feet long. These were mainly of scenic value and drew considerable attention from the public. Early in the program Districts 12 obtained a limited amount of equipment for materials investigation and tests. It was possible then to make detailed soils investigations.

The early field organization in the western States operated under the general supervision of a "Western Regional Office" at San Francisco. This office was headed by a Dr. L. I. Howes with J. S. Bright as First Assistant. About all communications with Washington were sent through the Western Regional Office. There were occasional field inspections from the Region and their inspectors were treated with about the same awe as visiting royalty.

District offices were headed by a District Engineer and had branches for Federal-aid, Forest and Park roads, Bridges and Accounting. The Federal-aid and Forest Highway branches operated with considerable independence and not without pride and some jealousy. Each of the two branches maintained their won field inspectors, clerical personnel, etc. This independent operation continued until the mid 1940's.

District 12 also operated a small Equipment Depot. The Depot performed repairs and servicing for automotive equipment, and stocked equipment and supplies for field project operations. This operation was housed in a new building built for that purpose.

After construction was completed on a Forest Highway project, it was maintained by the BPR for a period of two years, with forces employed by the district. This required the purchase of some heavy equipment and the employment of operators for such equipment. The forces and equipment were used for day labor or force account construction on operations where contract construction was not considered desirable. Several small surfacing projects were completed by these day labor forces, not always with great success. The equipment and forces were too limited for highly successful operation.

In the late 1920's District No. 12 at Ogden, Utah, was charged with the responsibility for design and construction in Zion National Park of a road through the Park as apart of the Zion Mt. Carmel Highway. This was to be part of a network of roads connecting Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument. This park project was though virgin territory where no road existed. The location left the floor of this valley of Zion Canyon and climbed a plateau of some 2,000 feet higher.

High vertical sandstone cliffs between the floor of the valley and the higher plateau necessitated tunnel construction. Ground surveys were made to each end of the proposed tunnel and the face of the ledges was outlined by survey methods. The line through the ledge was then computed. The tunnel was slightly over 1 mile in length and is probably the longest tunnel constructed by the Bureau of Public Roads.

Construction of the tunnel was started at each end. When "holed through" the junction was less than 6 inches off line. Another tunnel of over 500 feet length was necessary on the plateau section of the project. Many problems were encountered in this construction. The sandstone ledge had a number of seams and cracks. These resulted in Bad ground" for the construction. According to my recollection only one man was killed on this construction and the number injured was low for this type of construction.

The tunnel design was about 24 feet wide wall to wall. Surfacing on the tunnel floor was of cement concrete about 20 feet in width. The width and vertical clearance would be substandard for modern day traffic (1975) but were acceptable at the time of construction. The cost of the project made it one of the most expensive single contracts let by BPR to that time. The financing was by the Park Service.

The Park Service made periodic inspections and required strict adherence to preservation of scenic values. Natural stone guard rails were used and large stones were selected for color harmony. Small bridges required for stream channels were of stone masonry with very careful selection as to color and finish. There were many disagreements between contractor personnel and the engineers in detailed control of scenic and architectural features on stone masonry work. The Park Service control of these features was very severe. It did result in a very pleasing appearance. The structure contractor claimed a loss - probably a correct claim.

The tunnel provided for openings or galleries in the cliff face for views of the surrounding area. Although substandard for present day traffic the tunnel and the scenic approaches still elicited much interest and comment from travelers.

Engineering for this project was under a Resident Engineer, R. A. Brown, two engineer assistants (E. l. Davis and W/ F. Heyman), several instrument men and subprofessional assistants. All BPR personnel made their own arrangements for quarters and subsistence. Most used tents.

My own responsibility on the project was from surfacing and materials control. Most of the Forest Highways and some Park roads until the 1930's had gravel surfaces and, in some cases, only graded earth surfaces. The result was a very serious dust problem and uncomfortable roughness caused by rhythmic corrugations. This was common on most of the rural roads in the west where traffic volumes would not justify construction of high type surfacing at high costs per mile. It should be remembered that money available for construction was very limited.

In the mid and late 1920's, the state of California developed a new method of surfacing low volume rural roads. This method was generally termed "Low Cost Bituminous Surfacing." It consisted of a mixture of gravel and asphaltic materials mixed either by plant or "road-mix" type surfacing. The asphaltic material used was either road oil or asphalt cut-back with fluid oils. A BPR Engineer, Walter N. Frickstad, with a California Engineer by the name of McKesson were involved in the development of the new type of surfacing. They published a pamphlet on the methods of construction and control.

In the late 1920's, I was assigned to go to California to make a study of the new type of low cost surfacing with a view towards its use on Forest Highway and Parks projects in District No. 12. This assignment was for a period of about 10 days, during which I visited a number of California projects to observe and discuss the new method. After this period I returned to the district a "QUALIFIED EXPERT" on the new method of surfacing. As would be expected, I found on putting the new found knowledge to work there was much which had to be learned by long and hard experience.

The first place to try out this new method in District No. 12 was to surface the road approaching the Zion Park tunnels. A unit price contract was let with prices for mixed material per ton, asphaltic material by the gallon and prices for incidental items. The plant set up by the contractor consisted of a cement mixer of the batch type. The capacity was less than 1 cubic yard per batch. Crushed gravel was produced by a small crushing plant at a local pit. The gravel was weighed by hand methods in a batch box and then dumped into the mixer for about 1-1/2 minutes and then dumped into trucks and transported to the roadway. It was dumped into a windrow and spread by motor patrol grader.

As I recall the design required a width of 18 feet and a thickness of 2 inches. The mix was controlled by the text of the Frickstad-McKesson pamphlet and by the experiences I had picked up in the brief trip to California. Production was less than 150 tons per day.

The contractor's plant was of poor design and inadequate for this type of construction. The contractor and his crew were totally inexperienced in this type of construction. The engineering crew had limited knowledge and experience and the whole operation could be considered a pioneering effort. The result was a dustless surface of sorts but with some glaring defects. The operation contributed its share of education in the school of "hard Knocks."

It was my good fortune in later years to cover this surface with a plant mixed asphaltic surface produced in a well designed mechanical plant with an engineering crew and a contractor's organization both knowledgeable and experienced in this type of construction.

In the 1930's, a project was initiated to use Federal prisoners on Federal Highway work under the direction of District No. 12. The route chosen was on the Idaho Forest Highway system and extended from Kooskia, Idaho, to the Idaho-Montana stateline enroute to Missoula, Montana. The project was in an area with no existing road and followed the Lochsa River in a canyon.

The road design provided for a graded earth road about 22 feet in total width. As the excavation material was largely rock, little surfacing was needed. Such surfacing as required was selected material from local areas of stream beds. The area is forested and clearing operations were required.

Prisoners were assembled from the various Federal prisons and a camp was established. It included barracks, mess halls, sanitary facilities, and offices. Operation of the camp and all facilities were administered by the Department of Justice which also provided for security guards. The BPR provided all engineering, construction supervision, construction equipment and operators of all heavy equipment. Funds for the BPR operations were from the Idaho Forest Highway allocations. The BPR engineering crew made the survey and design as the work progressed. The construction was heavy and the progress was slow, allowing ample time for such work.

In the early 1940s, after the beginning of World War II, the Federal prisoners were returned to prisons and were replaced by Japanese Internees. Operations were not greatly different except that the Japanese were less experienced and less adept at construction operations. At the end of the war the prisoner operation was discontinued.

An interesting feature of this operation was that even with no common labor costs the unit construction cost was nearly comparable with contractor bid prices for similar work.

For most of the duration of the operation the BPR Resident Engineer was E. L. Jordon. Later Carl Fleming was in charge for the BPR as Resident Engineer. He was drowned in the Lochsa River as a result of an automobile accident while on duty.

This whole operation proceeded without serious trouble. Relations with the Department of Justice were good. There was little or no trouble with security. The isolated area and the absence of appreciable local population contributed to this condition.

The greatest benefit from this project can be to the Federal prisoners who had an opportunity work in the open with only minor security guarding. Also, for some the opportunity to learn a construction skill. Considerable credit is due the BPR personnel for conducting the operation with very little trouble or friction.

In the early 1950's the forests in Montana became infested with a destructive beetle which was destroying much valuable timber. To a lesser extent the infestation occurred on the forests in North Idaho. The areas where these infestations occurred were of rugged terrain and were generally inaccessible by road. The U.S. Forest Service decided to save the valuable timber, some very scarce white pine, by harvesting the affected trees.

Legislation was introduced in Congress and was passed setting-up an emergency fund of about eight million dollars to build timber roads into the areas to be harvested. There were no surveys and, in most cases, no preliminary engineering had been had been performed. The local Forest Service Regional Office in Missoula, Montana , decided they were not staffed to handle the work, which was to be essentially completed in about one year plus. They requested the Divisions Office of the BPR at Missoula, Montana, to accomplish the assignment. The BPR office was not staffed for a program several times the size of their normal program in one year or a little more. This in addition to carrying out their usual construction and engineering operations. Assistance was requested from other BPR offices and the Divisions staff was expanded to the extent that additional personnel could be employed. Several new Junior Engineers were assigned from other BPR training programs.

The projects were all le to contract and surprisingly, received good interest and competition so far as possible. The locations were walked by one of our experienced engineers and a line was flagged for each project. There was insufficient time to run surveys so the plans consisted of a title sheet made from a Forest Service map, with a typical section and a table of quantities,. Excavation quantities were estimated by occasional slope shots. Culvert sizes were estimated at each drainage way. Small timber bridges were used at stream channels. No surfacing was provided except for such selected material as was encountered on the construction. Design width varied according to the estimated timber to be harvested, most from about 14 to 24 feet.

On this operation, 27 contractors were let and completed in slightly over a year. The Divisions field organization was expanded to about 200 men with about 135 field cars and necessary engineering equipment. Each experienced Resident Engineer we assigned to more than one project. On many projects the top man under the resident would be a GS-4 to GD-7.

It is a tribute to the competence of the field personnel that the projects were all completed to accomplish the purpose of the program and within 10 percent of estimated costs. Officials of the local Forest Service Regional Office were very well satisfied with the results.

Six of the Division Offices field personnel received awards of $250.00 each as follows:

L. E. Dodson - In charge of field crew
Agnes Pelon - Secretary and personnel paperwork
Adrian Lewis - Regional Engineer
Marvin Martin - Regional Engineer
Slim Gordon - Regional Engineer
P. B. Bleakman - Regional Engineer

Field crew ready to depart for season on Direct construction work. 1923 or 1924. Note two pieces of automotive equipment Preston Lenford, Chief of Party, on left
Field crew ready to depart for season on Direct construction work. 1923 or 1924

Note two pieces of automotive equipment Preston Lenford, Chief of Party, on left

Previous | Contents | Next

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