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The Trailblazers

Forty Years with the Bureau of Public Roads

By
Roy E. Tarbet

My first contact with the Bureau of Public Roads came early in the spring of 1929, the year I graduated from the University of Washington. Mr. T. Warren Allen, then head of the Division of Management, Washington Office, was making a trip through the western States making offers of employment to approximately two of the graduating engineers in several western school. I was one to whom he made an offer. He also made an offer to Ray Rogers, who eventually became Division Engineer in Olympia. Ray accepted the offer right away. I was uncertain that I wanted to go into highway work, and for that reason did not accept it when Mr. Allen was at the University.

After graduating from the University, I went to work for the Boeing Airplace Company doing airplane structural design. I had worked for Boeing the previous summer and was somewhat familiar with their work. In about April of 1930, I heard again from Mr. Allen who made another offer to go to work for the Bureau. I accepted this time. This work, as mentioned before, was in the Division of Management. The Division of Management, I believe, was the first effort of the Bureau pf Public Roads to conduct any sort of training for junior engineers, who would hopefully graduate to some of the better jobs later on. At that time the work in the Division of Management consisted almost exclusively of making time/cost studies on grading and surfacing operations. Up until that time, I understand that this type of work was not done on bridges.

I went to work on March 1, 1930, after a short stay in the Portland Office, was send to Gold Beach, Oregon, where the Bureau was to undertake the first time/cost study on a bridge - the Rogue River Bridge at Gold Beach. I liked the idea of going to work on the bridge because I was not particularly interested in the highway phase of engineering. I was taken to Gold Beach by S.F. Walkers who explained to me the things that I would be doing, and that I would be working, at least for a while, with some more experienced person. In my case, I was left alone with about two days of instructions from Mr. Rogers, given a number of forms, and as I remember, four stopwatches. Fortunately, the job was just underway so there were very few matters on which to really conduct any initial studies. So, I got a good fresh start at things. One of the people I met in Gold Beach was the Assistant Resident Engineer for the State of Oregon. I didn't learn until many years after my trip to Gold Beach that one of the things that irritated Ivan was that I would walk into the office with dirt on my feet. Ivan was very tidy and kept the office very clean.

As some people will remember, in March of 1930, the depression was really bad. I didn't realize how bad until I went down there where I had full access to contractors' files, and was astounded by the number of applications for work that came in. I remember on case in which a fellow was in prison, and wrote quite a letter pleading with the contractor, stating that if he could get a job, he could get a release from prison. I don't believe he ever got the job. Well, as the depression got worse, the Division of Management decided to curtail some of these cost/time studies, and abandoned the work that I was doing at Gold Beach. I had been there two and one half months.

I was next to San Francisco where I understood that I was to work in the Bridge Department. Here again, I liked the idea of going to work with bridges. When I showed up at the San Francisco Office, Mr. Whittle, The Bridge Engineer, was not in, and no one there seemed to be too certain what I was to do. The Personnel Manager put me to work with a person whose name I don't recall, in the Federal-aid department. My job seemed to consist of no more than taking some numbers and other data off the PS&E documents on Federal-aid projects, and putting them on cards and on various forms in the office. I worked at that for two or three days and started asking myself if I wanted to spend much of my life doing what I considered very minor clerical work. After some meditation in the office, I called my wife at her motel. She had been looking for a place to live. I asked her if she had found a place yet and she said that she had not. So, I told her not to look anymore, because if I was doing the same work at the end of the week that I had been doing so far, I was going to leave. And I meant it. Fortunately, on Friday of that week, Mr. Whittle, the Bridge Engineer, came into the office, and transferred me into his department.

I was immediately delighted with the work. About 50% of the work in my office consisted of structural checking of Federal-aid plans and the balance of my time was spent on miscellaneous plans and jobs on forest park projects. I enjoyed doing the structural work on the Federal-aid plans, although I did not consider this work too productive, particularly in the cases of California and Arizona both of which had competent Bridge departments and submitted check plans. It was difficult to find anything of any consequence wrong with these plans. After a year in San Francisco, I was sent to Yosemite National Park, where we had one bridge to be constructed inside the park, and one just outside the park. Although there were some rough spots in this assignment, both my wise and I enjoyed it very much. One of the experience that we had, which I won't seen forget, occurred shortly after we started to live in a 16' x 20' tent. On the evening of the first rain, we discovered that we had running water all over the test. I had to find some way to cover the tent. I immediately went over to the office, where I found the resident engineer working as usual, which he did practically seven nights a week. He told me that they had one tent that had a floor sewed in. It would be quite heavy but it was the only thing they had that would go over my tent. That presented quite a problem. I was new in camp, and really didn't know any of the boys. But David F. Miles, who later became one of our very good friends, volunteered to help me. This turned out to be quite a nightmare. We had to climb up on the frame of the tent, which was built of thick timber, and hoist that heavy tent up there and spread it over my tent. It took us a full two hours of hard work in the pouring rain. However, we finally did get it up. And I left it up all the rest of the time that we were there. My tent, with the extra tent on top, proved to be a good resting place for mice. Each night you could hear mice scampering around under the canvas.

One night I heard some sort of a disturbance under our tent fold door and I told me wife, "That's pack rats, I know." I didn't have a gun, so I went over to talk to Herb Booth, Resident Engineer, and told him that I had pack rats and needed a rifle. He laughed and said, "What you have is skunks." He was right. So, he came over with his rifle and we found the skunk under the tent. They're fairly tame, and unless you corner them, won't bother you. He was trying to draw a bead on this skunk, and I was afraid if he missed the results would be quite disastrous. In spite of my pleading, he shot and the skink keeled over dead. I took out one of the floor boards under the tent and was able to fish out the skunk. However, it probably was a mistake to do anything about the skink at all, because after this one, we found that we had visitors almost every night; in fact they would come and scamper around the tent. Although they nearly scared the life out of us for a while, we eventually became used to it, and discovered the best thing to do is forget them. They didn't do any damage. I just left them alone.

By early fall, the work was finished in the Yosemite and I was expected to return back to the San Francisco Office, However, about two days before our intended departure, I received orders to report to what was known as the Idylwild-Desert Job, one end of which was located about ten miles out of Palm Springs. This, of course, was an excellent location for winter work. We lived in Cathedral City, which was about six miles out of Palm Springs. One evening, during a period of heavy rain, we decided to take off for Palm Springs to buy some magazines. We were going along at quite a nominal speed, when I came to a hump in the road. I had seen this hump before, in the middle of the otherwise flat desert, and had wondered what was its purpose. I found out this evening, much to my surprise, that it was a dike! I drove over it, and as I went down the other side, low and behold, it looked like we had run into the Mississippi River. The water flowing out of Palm Canyon, which was the drainage area above was probably 500 feet wide, and of course I didn't know how deep. I was immediately into the water, and it was a horrifying situation. I couldn't tell if the car was drifting, or what was happening. I knew I wasn't very far from land behind me, so I opened the door, told my wife to grab the baby and climb on my back and I would take off for land. Then I discovered that the water was actually only about eight or nine inches deep over the pavement. Although there were many big waves ahead, I could see that the flat spot on the water ahead was where the water came over the pavement. So I raced the motor to see if it was running, which it was; I had to race it to hear it over the roar of the water. We, therefore, decided to go on through. However, it almost turned out to be a mistake because when we came back from Palm Springs, probably an hour later, the stream had risen and I could actually feel the back end of my car drifting a bit However, we did make it, but it was, for a few seconds, quite a horrifying feeling. In spite of this one bad incident, however, our stay in the desert proved to be quite an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, we were sent back to the San Francisco Office just about a week or two before the desert hit its full bloom.

After another stint of eight months in the San Francisco Office, I was again sent to a field job to work on a project on the San Gabriel Canyon. San Gabriel Canyon is not too far out of Los Angeles and heads down into the town of Azuza, where we had our office. Most of my time on this project was spent working on a bridge across the lower end of the canyon, and it was one of the major structures on the project. The San Gabriel River drains a considerable area and during the relatively short wet season, is quite a raging torrent. However, during the remainder of the year, the lower reach of the river is completely dry. We had two footings down approximately 30 feet below the stream bed and even the bottom of these footings were dry. This seemed at the time like an ultra conservative depth to place footings. But, as it turned out, we were wrong. Several years after the structure was built, one of these raging torrents came up. The bridge washed out.

After finishing my assignment on the San Gabriel project, I was next sent to work on a road that connected the Sequoia and Grant National Park. Grant National Park was enlarged and renamed Kings Canyon National Park in 1940. This is in a relatively high country, where the construction season is quite short. The contractor was anxious to get this job finished during the season and we worked long hours. At this time, due to the depression, they were only allowed to work a man thirty hours a week. The result of this was two five hour shifts a day, six days a week, the first shift working from 7:00 in the morning until noon and the next shift working from noon to 5:00. I had to be out in the field on this work seven days a week, and to do my office work at night. One of the amusing things that occurred on this project happened when we were excavating for a rather large culvert. Large boulders were pulled out of the creek with a team of mules and a chain around the rocks. Anybody that's not familiar with the language that mule skinners use is probably just as well off. One day, when the mile skinner

was taking out these rocks, using the standard mule language, which they understood, a couple of lady hikers appeared up on the bank. I held my breath for fear of what they would say or think when they heard the mule skinner. He looked onto the rocks and turned around to start the mules up, and he saw the ladies. It was to his credit to say that he was enough of a gentleman not to use the standard mule language. But the poor fellow had quite a time saying anything to these mules, except to get them to move. I don't remember just how he handled the situation - what language he used - but it was not typical mule skinner language. It was a most amusing incident.

On this job my wife, daughter and I were living in a tent which was placed in a grove of tall trees. One day during a wind, the top of one of these trees came off. My wife and daughter were in the tent, and although the tree knocked out the back half of the tent and put quite a dent in my car, it did not hurt any of the family.

My next assignment was on a project in Northern California known as the Desert City Peanut Road, located in Trinity County. This, of course, is in the heart of the old gold rush country, back in the 1800's. Many of the hillsides there still contain the bridges, pipes, and other equipment used in the hydraulic mining common to the area. I think every native in the area still had several gold mining claims but they were pretty much all on relief because the gold supply had been taken out. However, on Sundays, and sometimes on days when we weren't working, one of our principle past times was to dam up small streams and run the diggings through a sluice to collect the golf. There are colors of gold to be found almost everywhere but there are very few places left where the real thing is obtainable in any sizeable quantities. There was at least one hydraulic outfit working in the area and I don't I know how productive the operation was. As an indication of the luck I had, in a period of several months of weekend mining, I estimated my total gold take at approximately three dollars. It wasn't productive, but it was a lot of fun. Anyhow, and I can see how people get the gold fever.

After finishing this job, I went back into the San Francisco Office for a relatively short time, and then was able to arrange a transfer to the Portland, Oregon, office in the spring or summer of 1934. I didn't especially like California, and San Francisco in particular, so I was very glad to be transferred farther north, nearer to Seattle, which I considered home at that time. I worked in and out of the office on field jobs, but was sometimes in the office for several months. I finally settled down into the bridge department in a more of less full time office assignment. Although I did enjoy the field work, it's a bit rough on the family because in those days you didn't live in fancy trailers, you lived in tents or cabins in rather primitive places.

In 1939 I was offered a promotion to take an assignment in our Missoula Office. I was to be in soils and surfacing, which was new to me, but I accepted and had to go back to Washington for several weeks for soils training work. I hated to leave Portland, but it was a jump in grade, something that was most difficult to obtain in those days. In fact, I had been in the P-9 junior engineer grade at that time for nine years and three months, which is not a record. I don't think it reflects particularly on my capabilities; it was just the mood of things at that time. You didn't get a jump in grade without doing something special, and for me I had to move to Montana and take another job. So we moved to Missoula and I did soil survey work there for quite a while, but eventually there was not too much of it to do, and I did not particularly like to sit around in the Montana Office. In addition, what there was to do was not particularly interesting. After giving the job much consideration I decided that I wouldn't stay in Missoula. At that time they did not want to transfer me back to the Portland Office so I started looking for other jobs. After some considerable looking around, I finally got an offer to go with the Corps of Army Engineers in their Seattle Office. I contacted the Portland Office and told them if they didn't need me I could like to transfer to the U.S. Army Engineers. I received a reply that I would be transferred back to Portland which suited me fine because I did not particularly want to leave the employ of the Bureau. In the late fall of 1940, I was sent back to the Washington, D.C., Office on a temporary assignment to work on the design of bridges for the Pentagon network. I stayed there until the way broke out in 1941, at which time I was sent back to Portland with the intention that I would go to the Whitehorse Office in the Yukon to work on the Alaska Highway.

When I got back to Portland I was handed a plan of the camp being set up at Whitehorse, and told to make a thorough check and proceed with getting out a list of all equipment needed to furnish the living quarters, office, cook shack, and the entire set up - quite a formidable task, especially where one was not expert at this type of work. This project sort of grew and grew, until eventually my full time was spent just on this very phase of the work. In fact, some of the boys were leaving for Alaska and I was to go along as Assistant Bridge Engineer in Whitehorse. I had had my teeth fixed, checked my glasses, and almost bought my Alaska clothes, but put that off. Finally, one day, a fellow I was to have worked with, Mr. McKinn, who was to be the Bridge Engineer, talked to out boss, Mr. Lynch, and said "Has it been settled, is Tarbet going to Alaska with me or not?" The reply was that it had been settled, Tarbet is not going. Well, that in a way pleased me, and again in a way it didn't, because I had kind of looked forward to the experience of working in Alaska. I did, however, continue to work on the Alaska Highway on this end for almost the duration of the work.

About August 1947, I received a rather urgent offer to go to the Philippines to do rehabilitation work. I was to go for one year if I didn't take the family, and as a standard offer, two years if I took the family. My daughter was just about to start college so I opted to take the job for one year and go it alone. This position offered a jump in grade from a P-4 to a P-5, and a jump was not too easy to obtain in those days. It was a most attractive offer so I took it. Although I got homesick and rather lonesome in the Philippines during that yea, I found the work rather satisfying and in fact I don't believe I have ever worked any harder than I did on that project.

The original intention of operation in the Manila office was to work as a Federal-aid office, whereby the Philippine Bureau of Public Works would submit all the plans, specifications and estimates and they would be processed as a Federal-aid project through our office. However, the Philippine Bureau of Public Works did not come close to having the capacity for turning out the number of plans necessary to ever get the work done, and, as a result, the entire project was changed so that we had essentially a Federal-aid and a direct-Federal or forest highway - type office. What you might call the forest highway office has the duties of getting out and making the surveys, specifications and estimates. These were turned over to the Philippine Bureau pf Public Works ad processed in the normal manner. Of course I worked in the forest highway end of it, where we got out PS&E's (Plans, Specifications and Estimates). We worked in a 50' x 200' hut and although the size of our crews varied, while I was there was had several Americans working in our department and about fifty Philippinos. Our program called for putting out ten sets of PS&E per month - quite a monumental amount of work, particularly in view of the fact that we only had a small handful of Philippino engineers who ere capable of doing design work. After settling down in this new and strange atmosphere, I eventually worked into the position of the right hand man for our chief engineer, and my job consisted of making the final review of plans on which changes had been made right up to the preparation of specifications and estimates. It also consisted occasionally of going out into the field to review work or make recommendations and solving other standard field problems.

Although I did get around the island somewhat, and visited several other islands, I would have liked to have been able to get around just a little more. A rather interesting thing happened on a trip we took on the island of Mindanao. We were going out to look at a job that was well out in the country from the compound and we had to pack through a jungle type country. I had always thought I would like to see monkeys in their natural habitat, and so I asked the Philippinos who were with us if there were any monkeys in this country, to which they replied, "Oh, yes, there are." I said, "Will we see any?" and they said, "Probably tonight at dusk we will see them." I also made the remark that I always kind of thought I would like to have a monkey. Clark Williams, a District Engineer from Sabu who was along on this same trip, made the remark that he didn't want a monkey but would rather have a parrot. Just a few minutes after we made these remarks, the Philippinos started talking in their native Tagalog and Clark Williams who was a little more wise to the ways of these people than I was told me, :I don't understand a word these people are saying, but I know they are preparing to get you a monkey." So, I immediately cut in and said, "Now listen, I am going back to the States in one week and I couldn't possibly take a monkey with me. So if you are thinking about getting me one, just forget it." That terminated the conversation and we went along to look at our job.

That night, one the way back, our driver stopped the car where there was a dim light back in the brush, and one of the Philippinos got out and went back in there and came out a few minutes later and presented me with a monkey! This presented a real problem and I told them I just couldn't possibly take it and I presume this was somewhat of an insult to these people so Clark Williams came to the rescue and agreed to keep the monkey. We took the little fellow and he stayed in the hotel with us that night. He was quite a friendly little beast. The next morning the Philippino District Engineer came to pick us up and take us t the airport, and when Clark, the money and I went out to the car, lo and behold, there on the steering wheel was the parrot. That presented further problems, since in order to get these things on the plane, we had to go into a native market and buy baskets with lids on them and stuff the monkey in one basket and the parrot in another - sort of a touchy situation. We did get them back to Clark's place in Sabu. Several days later I got back to the Manila Office. I got the word that if I ever showed up in Sabu, Clark Williams' wife would kill me - - the monkey was really tearing her house apart.

I had some first hand experience in observing some of the various forms of graft and theft in the Philippines and the orient that we read about in the papers. Outside Manila were several large depots where vast quantities of American construction equipment was kept behind barbed wire and under 24-hour guard. We were told that when anyone bought any of this equipment, as Philippinos were allowed to do, they would always find some vital part missing. For instance, if you bought a tractor, you would probably find a fuel pump or a magneto or something like that missing. You had two choices: you either had to send back to the States with the attendent delay, or you could always find the missing part available locally - from the local Chinese of course, at a high price. In one of these yards, among other things, there were a number of 30" steel beams, which we were informed were in good condition. I went out one day to see if we could use them in our bridge work, and it looked as if we could. We came back to the office with this information, and discussed the problem, that as soon as it was found out that we could use the beams, they would certainly disappear. Of course, we could always buy them back from the Chinese. In order to avoid this situation, which was discussed with Mr. Turner, it was resolved that he would take this up with no less than the President of the Philippines. He warned him that when we wanted those beams, they had better be there. As far as I know, they were there.

Although there were several rough spots in my work in the Philippines, all in all, it was an experience which I enjoyed immensely, and I was very glad to have had the opportunity to work there. In September, 1948, I returned to the Portland Office. Several months before there had been quite a disastrous flood in north central Washington, which had done extensive damage to State highways and to many of the Forest Service roads. I was given the job at what was then known as a supervising engineer to be in charge of all the work in this flood-damaged area. Not long thereafter, this work was extended to cover the forest and park work in most of both Washington and Oregon. At that time the Regional Bridge Engineer was in charge of both Federal-aid and forest park works. Therefore, I worked under the regional Bridge Engineer, Mr. Ray McMinn. I continued working under Mr. McMinn for several years until sometime in the 1950's when a reorganization took place whereby the forest and park was entirely separated from the Federal-aid work. Then I was given the job as Bridge Engineer in the Forest and Park Department and I continued in this capacity until I retired in October 1969, after 39 years and 8 months of service.

The question commonly asked of anyone at the termination of his career is if you had the whole thing to do over again, would you have done the same thing? In answer to that I would have to say that it would depend ever so much on the prevailing economic conditions at the beginning of the career. I had worked for Boeing Aircraft Co., one summer before I graduated from the University of Washington and worked there again after I graduated for an additional eight months. At that time I was beginning to learn the ropes pretty well, and liked the company and living in Seattle very much. However, my object in leaving there was to follow the advice of one of my professors at the University of Washington who urged his graduates to get a variety of experience during the first few years of their careers. It was his recommendation that a person should not work more than six months or a year for any one concern, at which time, the person would know the job pretty well and be able to size up the concern. It was my intention when I began working with the Bureau that I would leave after a year or so, but the economic conditions were really getting bad and anybody who quit a god job was really in a position to have his head examined. I did make several efforts to obtain other work in the Seattle area but was highly unsuccessful as was everyone else in those days. For that reason, I did not even attempt to find any other work for several years thereafter. It was actually sometime around '37 or '38 when there were any jobs at all that were beginning to open up, and they were quite uncertain as to the future. The next time I began to look for other work, as I mentioned previously, was when I transferred to the Montana Office and was dissatisfied with the work. I would like to say, however, that my decision to make the Bureau my career is one for which I have never been sorry. I found the work interesting, and in may cases, quite challenging. In addition, to me, it was what I would call productive work. I had the opportunity of working with a very fine bunch of people over my entire career. Summing it all up, I would say that I am quite happy that I chose to work for the Bureau of Public Roads for practically my entire career.

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Updated: 10/16/2013
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