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The Trailblazers

Utah District 12

By
William D. White

I, William D. White, retired from the Federal Highway Administration in October 1969. I began working for the Bureau of Public Roads in 1926. It doesn't seem like a long time ago to me, but I suppose 49 years plus, nearly on half century, would place it, in what would be classified as the early days. At the time I was first employed in 1926; the Office of the Bureau of Public Roads was located in the city of Ogden, Utah. It was designated as District 12 and had responsibility for the State of Utah and the State of Idaho as far north as the Salmon River. The district engineer in charge of the office, at that time. Was B. J. Finch. He has as one of his principle assistants a man in charge of the forest and park section, by the name of Paul R. Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, as his principle assistant, had K. D. Campbell. Some of the other personnel of the forest and park section at that time consisted of Ernest Lubeck, who was in charge of the drafting room, and was the chief draftsman. Men assigned to Location and Construction were J. F. English , James A. West, R. A. Brown, Jack Anderson, Preston Linford, and Ernest Gagan. My first assignment upon entering employment was to a location survey in the high Uintah mountains in the Ashley National Forest. If there is a difference in location techniques between 1926 and today, it would be principally in the equipment and the advanced use of aerial photography. The equipment that we had in 1926 as far as trucks and cars were concerned, were all surplus World War I vehicles. Our party car had previously been a White ambulance. It had been reconstructed, so as to provide a party vehicle that would carry approximately eight people. The smaller car, used by the locating engineer and chief of party had in World War I been a staff car. These were primarily Chevrolets. The transits, levels and other survey equipment were rather old, in fact, we used to joke and say that the transits must have been the ones that Mason and Dixon used in making their survey. Our field camp consisted of surplus World War I tents that were set up at a spot usually in the center of the location area near a spring or source of water, Our food was usually prepared by a camp cook. I have a photograph of the first camp that we had located on the Vernal-Maila survey at what is known as Bassett Spring. As you can see, these tents were set up on the ground. There was no flooring and no sidewalls.

In 1926, there were not too many miles of hard-surfaced roads. In fact, hard surface highways existed only very close to the main cities. The balance of even main highways like US 40 from Salt Lake to Denver, had miles and miles that didn't even have a gravel surface.

In our first location survey we left Ogden, our equipment depot, and using the White reconstructed trucks, and the old staff cars, we left for Vernal, Utah. That trip today can be made in three hours, but it took us 2-1/2 days. We were stuck in the mud across Strawberry Valley. The trucks and cars moved very slowly and the dust was terrible. When we reached Vernal we had to take the road from the city north, which had been constructed primarily by the Forest Service, to appoint approximately 15 miles north. At this point there was no road from there on; it was merely two ruts made by sheep wagons. It was about another eight miles before we set up camp.

The locating engineer had an advantage in those days, because there was no road ahead or through an area where location was being made. Consequently he had much more freedom of

imagination or choice. There was no construction to take advantage of and so the location was primarily the one that he had decided to be the best for the amount of money that the program had provided for spending through that area.

Our location line in those days was determined purely by ground surveys. The only advantage that you could get that would compare to those of aerial surveys was to climb the highest mountain or peak and look at the terrain that you had to traverse. Where there was no question as to location, we would run what we called an "L" line, and this had not only the tangents, but also the curves. In areas where there might be a question as to the location, we would run a traverse or "P" line, and the cross sections naturally were taken off farther that those on the "L" line. The surveys, as a general rule, progressed fairly rapidly although we had to so some clearing of the brush and underbrush in order to provide sight distances for the transit and also provide sight distances for the men to run a level. But contrary to a great many claims, we did not cut down great areas of trees and brush. In fact, on a traverse or "P" line we would go around some of the larger trees rather than cut them down, because in those days we didn't have chain saws; it had to be done by a single bit or a double bit ax. To inexperienced young fellows, to down a tree of 12 to 24 inches in diameter was half a day's job.

On the first survey that I was assigned to, we had a field draftsman and some design was conducted in the field. This was done primarily where a traverse or "P" line had been run. The alignment and the cross sections would be plotted and then a relocated line was set. IN order to complete the survey we could go back and the re-run through the traverse or "P" line area with an "L" line.

The following year, in 1927, I was assigned to my first construction project, and I believe that the tremendous differences between construction methods of that time, and those of today show up. Many of the forest and park projects in 1926-28 were no large enough dollar-wise to attract the larger contractors and their more powerful mechanical equipment. Many of the contractors that we had were small, in fact they had the title "Gypo." Their equipment consisted of that which had been used for many years with horses and scrapers called treadmills, or wheel scrapers, for the longer hauls. A Fresno was a metal scraper made to hold about ¼ yard. It had a cutting edge and a Johnson bar was used to raise the scraper, or tilt it, so that it dug into the previously plowed ground, and then the Johnson bar would be pulled down and it would move ahead on skids to the point where the material was to be dumped. As I said before, wheel scrapers were used, where there were longer hauls. This was nothing more than a Fresno, but it did have an axle and some wheels so that the team could pull it a longer distance. The ground was usually loosened by what was called a railroad plow. This is no different than a large plow that a farmer would use to plow a field except that it was much stronger and used four horses and two men, a skinner to drive the horses and a plow shaker who would do the loosening of the ground.

About the end of 1927 and in 1928, even these smaller contractors began to buy and use tractors, crawler type tractors, and they had the large tooth rippers to loosen the ground. Somewhere along the line, an individual had developed a scraper that could be pulled by a tractor unit and this was given the name of "tumble-bug." The reason for the "tumble-bug" name was the fact that the scraper instead of having a Johnson bar like the old fresno, had a ratchet or notched type lever, so that the operator could pull the lever into a notched type lever, so that the operator could pull the lever into a notch to make his scraper dig. Then by engaging another notch it could move ahead with its load of approximately ¼ to ½ yard of material for some distance, sliding on steel skids. When the operator reached the area where the material was to be dumped, he pulled the lever and the scraper would turn over, dumping its load. This revolving motion gave it the name of a "tumble-bug."

The gravel operations that we had in those days were about the same as they are today. They used a jaw-tooth crusher with a screening system very similar to the crusher units of today. Sometimes the contractor, in order to increase his production, would use a gyratory or a comb-type crusher as a primary unit. The hauling in 1926-27 sometimes was done in a dump wagon, which was pulled by a team of horses. Some of the more advanced contractors were beginning to come out with a dump truck which was a more efficient and speedier way of delivering the material from the crusher to the site on the road.

In the early 1920's and throughout the 1920's into 1931, the traveled ways on most of the forest routes in Utah and Idaho were either very primitive or non-existent. Only the class 1 forest highways were usually constructed to a completed surfacing including gravel.

We didn't have the sophisticated testing equipment, nor did the specifications require the tests, at that time, that are required now. The only equipment that the gravel spreader had was usually four sieves-one sieve of 1-3/4", the maximum size; two intermediate sizes; and a minus 200 mesh sieve. His equipment would also consist of two galvanized buckets and a milk scale that was used to weigh the quantity of aggregate retained on each of the sieve sizes. The specifications, at that time, did not require the material to be washed over a 200 mesh sieve, so the accuracy of the minus 200 material was not really consistent.

At that time, gravel was purchased on a volume basis, that is by the cubic yard. Only one individual would be required on a gravel operation-the man who checked the gravel at the point where it was placed on the roadway. He would have to have the actual volume of each one of the wagons for the truck that was delivering the gravel and would record either 2-1/2 or 3 yards or 3-1/2 yards of gravel, at the point of delivery. After the material had been spread to the distance the quantity would cover to the depth required, a contractor's man with a team of horses, and what was then known as a "tongue scraper" or a wooded scraper, would mix the aggregate from the windrow dump, back and forth using a figure 8 motion. Then he would spread this gravel roughly using the "tongue scraper." After a one shift placement of gravel, the contractor would then use a grader, which in 1926, would be windrowed and then laid out, as smooth as possible, with the equipment at hand.

One other item of construction that was different then than it is today or has been for a great many years, was the practice of getting many of the jobs on a classified basis. This required, during the location survey, that the engineer make a determination on his best opinion as to the existence of rock or common material. The project would then be advertised with an estimated amount of solid rock, loose rock and common material. As I recall, the specifications stated that any material that could be dug by the use of equipment and did not require blasting, would be classified as common material. In those days, it was a rather rough job to make a monthly estimate, because the engineer walking over the project would estimate the quantity of material moved, either rock or common, and payment would be made on the basis of his opinion. Quite often, the opinion of the contractor would differ from that of the engineer, so there was an argument at estimate time as to which opinion should prevail. In fact in those days, it was not common to have a number of claims after the contract had been completed based on the contention that the material was not classified properly at the time of estimate. It was a happy day when the specifications in the contract assembly stated that the job would be on an unclassified basis.

The years 1928-30 saw changes in Utah District 12. The construction work on one of the largest forest and park roads up to that time was started. This was the Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The engineer in charge of the construction was R. A. Brown, and he had as his assistants, on the project, G. A. Jones, F. Leroy Davis, William F. Heyman, and L. J. Frederickson. In 1930, there was a change in jurisdictional area and District 12 was extended to include that portion of Idaho north of the Salmon River. This meant that District 12 had the entire states of Utah and Idaho. There were several projects under construction at the time of the transfer and one of these located on the south fork of Clear Water River provided a different construction approach than any of us in District 12 were accustomed to.

The prime contractor had divided the project into four sections. Each section was under subcontract to a different nationality group. In other words, the first section was all Italian, the second Swedish, the third Finnish and the fourth German. Very few of the workmen in any of these groups spoke English so for the engineering work necessary for stakeout and to interpret the specification requirements we had to single out an individual who understood English and could interpret questions from the rest of the men that required an answer. These station gangs, as they were called, all worked by hand methods, using picks and shovels, single bits, drilling by hand and using mine cars and tracks for wheelbarrows to and embankments. Each station gang had it's own camp set up and cookhouse. It was a rather interesting experience. When working with a particular gang one day you might be asked to have lunch with them and it would be Italian type food. The next day you would be eating food that was more of the type served in Germany. It was rather interesting to monitor the construction undertaken by these groups.

Due to the slow progress made by hand methods, the engineering personnel found no difficulty keeping ahead with the construction staking, and so a location survey on the easterly end of the route was completed as the same time. This pushed the located portion to the eastern terminal at Elk City. This method of construction was to show up again in that same area in the period from 1933-35 during the depression years. The specifications and the contract required the contractor to perform the construction work by hand methods, insofar as it was possible. Use of power equipment of any kind was restricted to solid rock areas. Even in some of these, the contractor was required to drill by hand.

There is a picture, which I have included, taken of a project during the depression years showing the men excavating a rather large cut area using mine tracks and mine dump carts and in some instances for shorter hauls, the materials was taken by wheel barrow. The specifications at this time would not permit the contractor to use explosives for clearing operations. They allowed the use of explosives to loosen the stump, but not to blow it out. Nor could the contractor use power equipment to pull the stump out. The entire idea at that time was to put as many men to work as possible.

During this period of the depression years, Bureau of Public Roads personnel also found themselves involved in more construction engineering. It was necessary to check the contractor for compliance with the hiring requirements. In order to alleviate the unemployment situation in a county, it required that men working in the same county as the work was to be performed had first opportunity at any work available. Then the individuals living in adjacent counties were considered and third, the men living in the State. Only in the case of very skilled or semi-skilled employees was the contractor permitted to go outside of the State or bring any of his personnel other than administrative from one State to another.

There was another arrangement for construction undertaken under the supervision of the Bureau of Public Roads in the latter part of 1930 when the Bureau, in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Prisons started a prison work project on the Lochsa River. The Bureau of Prisons provided the camp dormitory, and provided subsistence for the men. The Bureau of Public Roads furnished the equipment and the materials necessary for construction, as well as the supervision while on the project. This construction work was primarily by pick and shovel, similar to that performed on the makework projects as a result of the depression. There was some power equipment on the job and operators of this equipment were employees of the Bureau of Public Roads. The Bureau of Public Roads construction superintendent in charge of the prison work project was a man by the name of Burt Hall. Mr Hall had many years of construction experience, and had been a maintenance supervisor performing the maintenance required under cooperative agreements with the States of 1, 2 or 3 years of maintenance depending on the type of surface to which the construction was completed. I don't recall exactly how many prisoners were assigned to this project. I do remember that the superintendent said that it would be necessary to have 300 men in order to have 100 working at all times. He claimed that there were 100 going someplace, 100 coming back from someplace and there were only 100 left to do any effective work. There was only one engineer with the Bureau's work superintendent so that whenever it was necessary to place construction stakes ahead of the work, or t put finishing stakes so that the project could be fine graded, our crew was pulled from a project located 50 miles away, and we would spend one day or possibly two days doing the staking that would be necessary to keep the work crew on this job busy for a month's time. While we were doing our engineering quite frequently, we would use one of two of the prisoners assigned to the job as stakemen in order to help us.

In 1932, I was part of a party on the Elk City highway. We were assigned not only to construction projects, but during our spare time, we were to make a location survey, and to stake out construction in an area extending into Elk City. This was an area approximately 14 miles in length, and there was no road along the Clear Water River. In order to reach the campsite picked out for camp we had to take an old trail that had existed for many years, used by the minders, and the Chinese mining people in this area. We went up the mountain, came back down to the river, and back up the mountain. Our campsite had been picked out at an old mining camp called Mora. There was a tar-paper type shack located on a flat that extended about 500 feet in length up and down the river and was on a bar that was perhaps 250 feet wide. Out domicile tents were to be provided with floor and side-walls. The lumber for this was to be floated down the river from a sawmill at Elk City, and the camp erected before we moved in.

I can recall this experience very much because we walked the seven miles over the mountain trails to the site through the rain, to arrive at the campsite, only to find that the lumber had never been delivered, that no campsite existed, and all we could do was unroll the tents that had been brought by pack mule, crawl under them and spend the night on the ground in order to stay away from the rain. The next day the lumber arrived in a raft down the river and it didn't take too long before we had the frames up and the tents on them. The tar-paper shack was renovated, and this was to serve as a domicile for the cook, her husband, and her daughter. This also was used as the cookhouse and dining room.

In order to preserve the perishable foods such as meat and vegetables, which had to be brought in by pack mule from the stage terminal at Elk City, we cleaned out an old mine tunnel that was dug into the hill and set up a box that had a covering on it. This provided a real cool area in which to keep our meats. One bad feature about it was that the cook would not go into the mine shaft in order to get the meat or vegetables that she needed fort the day. So before going out on the survey work, one of the men would have to go in and get whatever she wanted to prepare for dinner that night. This eliminated the element of surprise, as we knew what the cook had in mind for dinner that night before we left in the morning.

This survey camp was so isolated that it was impossible to even get radio reception in the area if we had had a radio. At night, in order to provide some relaxation and entertainment, the entire survey party and the cook, her daughter and my wife who had accompanied me to the camp, would sit around the campfire and either tell stories, relate experiences or have a songfest. I think that living in conditions like these gave many of the Bureau people the feeling that the entire personnel of our district was one big family.

I can't help but think of the difference between the construction specifications of the days between 1926 and the present time. The changes that have occurred are striking not only in the method of making a location survey, but in the specifications for the materials that we used in the construction of a project. Construction of most of the highways from 1926 to the 1940's was to finish the road to a gravel surface. The specification for gravel contained a requirement for a certain cementing ratio. This required quite often that there be some type of clay material included to serve as a binder for the gravel. Of course as we went further into the higher type surfaces requiring bituminous asphalt or concrete the requirement for plasticity changed and the presence of clay material or material with a high plasticity was a definite no-no.

As I recall the earlier days when I began working with the Bureau of Public Roads, and then through many years I remember with pleasure the fact that we were assigned to locations of the intermountain west where there were different types of individuals who populated the area in which the work was to be performed. In north Idaho there was a large community of strictly Finnish people. While we were located and working in this area, we entered into their type of pleasure; attending dances at the Sumi Hall, in which there were strictly schottisches and polkas. In another section there were people of Welsh descent and some were Swedish. In seeking local friendships, you would find yourself involved in the culture of these nationalities.

I remember with a great deal of pleasure, while working in the central portions of Idaho along the south fork of the Clear Water River in the old mining camps at Buffalo Hump and Elk City, meeting many old timer prospector-miners who at that time were men in their 80's and 90's and some close to 100. These men had been engaged in the gold rush of around 1875-80. They lived along the south fork of the Clear Water River in log cabins which they had built 40-50 years before. They subsisted by working a small quartz mine or a placed in which they were able to extract enough gold to buy them the necessities of life. So an individual working on the Forest and Park system, in those days, not only had the satisfaction of locating and building a road into some of the remote areas of the West, but to meet the characters and people who really built the West.

This is a period in which you first found that there really were people who didn't care whether a road was constructed or not. Many of these people who were living in the remote areas of the State felt that with the construction of a better type highway, there would soon be too many people around to satisfy their desire for isolation. In fact, Along the South Fork of the Clear Water River, there were many of these old mining prospectors who said they were going to move because there were just too many people in the area to suit them.

In about 1940, with the possibility of the United States entry into World War II, many of the engineering personnel of the Forest and Park section were assigned to work on the location and construction of the Alcan Highway. There were, however, some few engineers who remained in the District 12 office because there was a need for the construction of access roads for strategic materials. I was assigned on one of these projects in central Idaho that would provide an access from a sawmill to a source of timber. These assignments were different in that there was to be no location survey. There would be no design. The only need would be a contract for equipment, and an individual to establish a line and grade, and a contract superintendent from the Bureau of Public Roads maintenances forces to act as a construction superintendent. As it would not take too much time to establish a line and grade, the engineer assigned to this work could possibly handle two or three access construction projects of this type. This meant, in some instances, a considerable amount of traveling. In those days and after the United States entered the war a person had to be sure that he had the necessary gasoline ration cards, as well as his food rationing stamps. These had to be carried along because many of the cafes in which we had to eat insisted that he turn over them his "sugar stamp and coffee stamp" - provided that you were going to stay more than one or two days. This was a period in which all forest and park construction was suspended for the duration and the only work was on the Alcan Highway, or on access roads of this type.

The forest and park highway work of these early days was really the training ground for engineers who were later assigned to Federal-aid work as this became more and more important in the program of the Federal Highway Administration. As a person looks back upon those years, he had many fond memories of working with and being acquainted with individuals who through progressive steps moved to rather high positions in the Federal highway Administration. I recall individuals such as Karl S. Chamberlain, who became the Regional Administrator of Region 9, and W. Howard Baugh who also became a FHWA Regional Administrator. There were individuals such as W.T. Pryor who became world renowned for his work in aerial photography. There was Bill Reed, who later became the Division Engineer in Ohio. Robert Simpson, who became Division Engineer in the State of Iowa, and then Oregon. Grant Meyer, who was the Division Engineer in Utah and Montana. Clifford Salmen who became the division engineer for the State of Idaho and then moved to the San Francisco regional office. All the rest of those fellows that I spent many, many years working with and living with, after nearly 50 years, I still consider them to be very, very good friends.

I am certain, as I look back on the years I spent working for the Bureau of Public Roads and Federal Highway Administration, that if anyone were to ask me "if you had to do it all over again, would you?" I am positive that I would have to come back with that answer that so many people have given, "I sure would, I would do it all over again, just exactly the same way." I think that an individual is happy and stays young when he is doing the work that he really enjoys doing.

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Updated: 10/16/2013
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