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The Trailblazers

Glacier Point Road Survey, 1931 Yosemite National Park

By
Arthur E. Grissom

The Glacier Point Road survey was my introduction to the Sierra Mountains, and to employment with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, a job that was destined to last for 35 years. I made application for this job by mail and by mail was instructed to report for duty to Mr. Karl Nissi at a U.S.B.P.R. camp on Bridal Veil Creek in Yosemite National park. I didn't know a thing about the Park not about the country I'd go through getting to it. I had never been over the Ridge Route (the mountain road between Los Angeles and Bakersfield) nor in San Joaquin Valley.

San Joaquin Valley was a marvelous sight to me even though the southern 25 miles of it, from the foot of the Ridge Route to Bakersfield, was uncultivated range land - no means of irrigating that portion was available in those days. How it has changed since those days! Irrigation has made it a fertile land of citrus groves, the finest cotton in the world, four to five cuttings of alfalfa per season, etc.

At Madera I turned east and headed through the foothills to Coarse Gold and Wawona, into Yosemite Park at the Alder Creek entrance. Since then Wawona had been taken into the Park so Alder Creek entrance is no more. From Wawona the road bears almost due north; at Chinquapin Ranger Station I again turned east on the Glacier Point Road and, after seven miles, finally came to the U.S.B.P.R. camp at Bridal Veil Creek.

From the time I entered the foothills a gentle rain had been falling and increased some as I neared camp, and continued until bedtime.

The camp, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, consisted of three rather old army pyramidal tents, two of which were living quarters, and one was a field office. The cooking-dining tent was about 20 x 30 feet, newer wall tent, as was the 16 x 20 feet cook's living quarters-storage tent. As night came on the temperature dropped well below freezing, the rain changed to snow and continued until morning.

In the morning our wet tents had frozen so stiff we had to bear the tent flap with a stick of stove wood to limber it up enough so we could get out. After breakfast Karl Nissi, chief of the survey, took me to Yosemite Valley to a Park Service official who was authorized to administer my "oath of office" - something that was required of all new federal employees in those days.

On the way down to the Valley, Karl stopped at Inspiration Point to let me get an eyeful of one of the most spectacular views in the country. Here I stood on the rim of a canyon about 2,500 feet deep at the bottom of which was Yosemite Valley, about one mile wide and four or five miles long. The vertical walls included such formations as El Capitan, a vertical face of solid granite 3,600 feet high and containing an area of approximately 160 acres; Yosemite Falls that drops 2,400 feet in three stages; Bridal Veil Falls, Vernal Falls, Cathedral Spires, 4,800 feet Half Dome, etc., etc. Rain clouds were breaking up into patches of fast moving fleecy white which alternately hid and revealed the gigantic points, walls, mountains, and waterfalls. Since it was still early in the season, being only June 16, melting snow from the high country made the waterfalls run with such volume that the roar could be heard for miles.

After soaking up this scene for several minutes we went on down to the Valley and got out official business over with. And then returned to camp for lunch and an indoctrination session.

The next morning I took over the duties of transitman and chief-of-party. Our job was the rerunning of the location survey which had been run the previous year. All of the original survey notes and plans were destroyed in a country hotel fire at Coarse Gold in November 1930.

The survey was the most accurate that I have ever been required to do. About every two miles we took an observation on Polaris to check our bearings; if we were in error more than two minutes, we went back and re-ran that section of line.

Running the centerline never involved dangerous locations, however, I can't say the same for some of the stadia topography work. One place where we had to map the canyon edge, Jack Thomas anchored the end of a ½ inch rope to a tree, put the rope around his thigh in a half-hitch, and snubbing the rope with one hand, carrying a level rod in the other hand, he walked out on the rounded edge of a granite "dropoff" where a slip could have caused him to call about 500 feet vertically and then tumble another 2,000 feet down a quarter-to-one talus slope. I wouldn't have done that for anything in the world; but it seemed to be all in the day's work for jack Thomas. A few days later, on this topog work, we came to Taft Point where even Jack didn't have the nerve to walk up to the edge. It was a flat solid granite area of an acre or more with the outer edge overhanging the canyon. We crawled the last 20 feet on hands and knees and, after looking over the edge, dropped an orange and watched it literally explode when it hit the floor of the Valley half a mile straight down. Since the time of our survey Park Service has put a railing along the edge of Taft Point.

Our survey ended at Glacier Point where a hotel and a lodge provided lodging for vacationers. Both of these structures, built before 1900, were destroyed by fire in the Spring of 1969.

I don't know why I didn't take a whole flock of snapshots on this project. Of course the only camera I owned was a No. 2 Kodak I purchased in 1917 and although it was still operable it wasn't as easy to use as the modern ones are now. Anyhow, it seems the only picture I have left of this survey is the one of the entire crew. Of those in the picture there are now only two that I still maintain contact with, namely, Karl Nissi who now lives in Berkeley, and Bob Orr in Sacramento. I saw in the local newspaper about the early part of 1969 that the levelman, Don Kister had died. The last I heard of our very excellent cook, John Eichler, he was a pastry cook at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

One fellow who isn't in the group photo was Mr. Smith - Smitty for short. On the 4th of July holiday everyone left camp except Smitty and me Smitty had nowhere to go and I hadn't yet drawn a pay and was too broke to go anywhere. We took my car and drove down toward Glacier Point - Smitty wanted to snap some pictures. On the way back we encountered a huge she bear with two small cubs parked in the center of the road mooching food. When we stopped the mama was going to come right in through the open window in Smitty's side and we had to leave hurriedly through the opposite door. Luckily, another car stopped and the folks started tossing out cookies which lured "mama" away from us. Right then I adopted Karl Nissi's philosophy, "A bear is a wild animal. When he is no longer afraid of me he is dangerous."

My only other bear incident on this project was when the chainman stirred up one and frightened him so badly he took off in blind panic and was heading straight at me. He didn't see me until I waved my hat and yelled, then he turned at a right angle, put on still more speed and disappeared into the timber.

The deer in the park have lost most of their fear of humans and are very interesting to watch. One big 3-point buck developed a taste for the cook's hot cakes and would stick his head into the open door of the cookhouse mooching. John would scoop one off the griddle, hold it out to the buck and he'd grab it even if it was blistering hot. On this project I learned that bucks, for a short period each year, congregate and graze in a group. All the rest of the year they live as individuals or in company of does and fawns.

Occasionally the Park Rangers find a small fawn that has lost his mama. They bring him in to the nearest Ranger Station and bottle feed him until he's big enough to fend for himself.

Oh yes! I forgot one bear incident involving John Eichler, our cook. John slept in the supply tent which was about 30 feet from the front of the cook-house-dining tent. He slipped out of bed and looked out just in time to see the bear raise up and open the cookhouse screen door and walk inside. John, in slippers and robe, rushed over and jumped into the cookhouse and gave out a blood curdling yell. The bear went charging out the rear screen door, which, being locked, he left a complete shambles.

Tioga Pass! This survey project consisted of the eastern 18 miles of new location that didn't depart very far from the existing road. It started at the eastern entrance to Yosemite right at the summit of Tioga Pass, elevation 9,945. (The sign at the summit says 9,940, but I ran levels on this; I know it's 9,945 feet!) I don't remember the exact point where our work ended - I'm sure it was somewhere east of Yosemite Creek.

We were combined with another survey crew under the supervision of Wallace Ward. Karl Nissi became Ward's assistant. The combined force contained 22 men. We had all of our Glacier Point survey men except our cook, John Eichler, who got ranked by Ward's cook, Homer Cox; also Howard Wakefield had returned to school and we were using Melvin Olsen as stakeman.

The terrain was not difficult and we made excellent progress on running preliminary line. Ward's transit party, in charge of Frank Tuohy, did miscellaneous topog work at first, but after I had run six miles of line, they started running line from the west end. When we met I had run 12 miles of line and they six miles.

Now, we had moved to Tioga in September and were camped in Tuolumne Meadows. In the middle of October the tents became to difficult to keep warm so Mr. Ward moved the whole outfit several miles west to White Wolf, a very comfortable resort run by the Myers family.

Even before we moved, the cold nights had brought on coyote serenades; two or three coyotes above camp and a couple below camp, all yammering and yowling sounded like there were 20 and like they were coming into camp. I saw coyotes out on line in daytime a few times and I think they were timber wolves - they were twice as bit as desert coyotes and their winter coat was solid dark gray. After we moved to White Wolf, we were serenaded every night.

At White Wolf resort the weather got gradually colder and, although clouds appeared occasionally, we had no snowfall. Mr. Ward listened to all weather reports on the radio and once when it clouded up he put the tire chains on his car. To some he might have appeared over cautious, but when one thought of the miles of very high elevations we had to go to get to "civilization," the prospect of having a sudden mountain blizzard was a bit frightening; you got out fast from sudden storms or you might not get out at all.

It seems, if memory is correct, that we finished the survey about November 20. All of the crewmen on temporary appointments were released; Mr. Ward went to the San Francisco Office; Karl and Pat Sargeant and I were ordered to start another survey from Keddie to Lake Almanor. About three or four days after we left, that overdue snow storm hit with much force - Tioga Pass was closed until July 1932.

When we left Tioga enroute to the Almanor Survey, Pat Sargeant drove the Government Graham ¾ ton truck which was our survey party wagon, and Karl and I each drove our own cars. We agreed to meet and put up for the night at the Golden Hotel in Reno. Karl and I arrived at the hotel and were waiting for Pay when the phone rang - it was Pat; he had run the truck into a telephone pole near Carson City and would be a couple of days late getting to the job.

So, the two of us had an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant and did some sightseeing in Reno that evening. Gambling hadn't been legalized very long, and the two or three places we visited were just plan, bare storerooms - certainly a far cry from the present day (1970) flittering multi-storied casinos! In those days the city (?) of Reno was hardly out of the small town class; and Carson City, the State Capitol, was an unincorporated village of about 1,000 population.

The next day we continued on our way to Keddie, stopping enroute at Quincy for a short visit with a B.P.R. construction engineer J. E. (Gene) Applegate and his officeman Bill Delaby. Then on to Keddie then north about two miles to Indian Falls which was to be our headquarters while on this survey.

Indian Falls consisted of just a lodge and the building where we were quartered. Our building was originally a barn. Then in the late 1920's when a railroad construction project was under way between Western Pacific Railroad at Keddie and Great Northern Railway at Beiber, the barn was remodeled into a bawdy house with separate rooms for each of the "professional ladies (?)," and a bar and gambling room in the front part of the building. This outfit relieved the railroad construction laborers of as much of their hard earned money as they could. Regular local, and an occasional Federal, raids for illegal selling of liquor were taken as part of the business expenses. But just before completion of the railroad construction, the owner got a tip that another Federal raid was imminent, and rather than pay a heavy fine, he closed the joint permanently.

A few months later along came B.P.R. and rented this abandoned brothel as quarters for their survey crew - namely us. It wouldn't have been so bad if the owner had kept the water system from freezing, but he just never got around the burying the pipes which froze up for the winter just about the time of our arrival. Also, we had to scrounge the whole area to get small wood-burning stoves to heat our rooms after the owner let the butane tank run dry. And we had to cut our own firewood - that is, we had to cut it to stove length from a stack of poles out in the yard.

We did have good meals at the lodge which was about 200 yards from our dorm. The name our building went by in its heyday was "Little Egypt." The local people always snickered when we told them we were quartered at Little Egypt - after a couple weeks that got a bit annoying.

About two or three days after Karl and I arrived at Indian Falls, Pat Sargeant came in with the repaired truck. He said the cause of his wreck was a broken steering knuckle, but to those of us who knew what a poor driver pat was, our opinion was that he just ran off the road and broke the steering knuckle when it met the telephone pole. A few weeks later he drive this same truck over the side and would have landed in the river if the truck hadn't hit a tree. No other car involved, no skid marks, no mechanical failure; Pat just daydreamed and straightened out a kink in the road. This was his third mishap of the season and Pat found it so difficult to explain that he paid for the repair from his own funds.

About the same time pat arrived, other men assigned to the survey arrived from San Francisco, and two local young men were hired. From San Francisco came officeman Ben Guisto, a capable, congenial graduate engineers; next was Osborn Anderson, levelman, a dark haired Swede, fine person and my good friend until his death in 1967; last, (and least) was rear chainman "Lefty" Kohler, a Palooka character who imagined himself a good boxer, almost drove us wacky with his incessant shadow boxing and his constant mooching of cigarettes - he was too "cheap" to buy his own. The two local lads were good men; our stakeman, a fellow named Day, and a rodman named Red.

Pat stayed with B.P.R. until 1941 when he transferred to the Corps of Engineers; that's the last I ever heard of him. Ben Guisto, Kohler, Day, and Red did not stay with B.P.R. and I never saw them after this job.

This was the only field job where Osborn Anderson (known to all his friends as Andy) and I worked together, however, we worked together n the an Francisco office for many years until Andy's retirement about 1964. As I said, Andy was a Swede; he was born in Tidenholm. His parents surely came to the United States when he was a babe, because he didn't have a trace if Swedish accent - I never learned whether he could speak Swedish. Just after the war about 1946 he took a two year tour of duty in the Philippines.

Just before his tour of duty in the Philippine Islands ended, he took his wife and daughter to Tokyo and put them on a plane for home, and made arrangements to fly back to the Philippines the next day. He went to the Imperial Hotel (the famous old place designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) to get a room for the night. As he entered the lobby, imagine his surprise when he came face-to-face with an elderly engineer from our San Francisco Office, Howard Woodson, who was on the last 1/3 of a trip around the world. Neither knew that the other was within 10,000 miles of the Imperial. They had an enjoyable evening together in Tokyo and had many chuckles over their surprise meeting after they returned to the San Francisco Office.

In the Spring of 1954 the B.P.R. Regional Office in Portland, Oregon, needed some extra engineers to help on an expanded Forest Access Road program, so the San Francisco Office sent Andy and me and several others up there for the summer. Andy, after a few weeks was called back to San Francisco when Mrs. Anderson had a fatal heart attack. About a year after his wife's death, Andy married Yvonne Schepper, one of our B.P.R. stenographers, and the two of them left almost immediately on his second two year tour of duty in the Philippines. Upon his return he supervised highway design and specifications until his retirement.

Before time to return to Indian Falls the office sent me word that because of lack of funds the Almanor survey was shutdown and I was laid off.

The layoff lasted until July 1932 when I was sent on the Hayfork Survey which will be covered in a separate narrative.

When starting a new survey Karl always contacted the local officials or leading citizens, discussed the project and got the local's opinion and advice as to how best to serve the community. Actually, their advice did not influence us very much, but being asked for it made the local people feel good, and it was excellent public relations practice.

So, when we first arrive at Indian Falls, Karl, Andy and I went to Greenville, the only town on the route and contacted the leading merchant Mr. Ayub. After a few pleasantries he took us to a back room of the main restaurant where we met other leading citizens. Of course, this back room was a "speakeasy" with complete bar and gambling tables. The local men kept wanting to buy us drinks, but we had to beg off after a few - these country folks would have pus us "under the table" if we'd tried to drink as much as they did! Anyhow, we made friends with the folks and got back to camp in fairly good condition.

The highway we laid out was eventually built, but I've never been over it. Maybe I'll make the trip one of these days.


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Updated: 10/16/2013
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