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The Trailblazers

Tioga Pass - Construction, 1933

By
Arthur E. Grissom

When I left the San Gabriel project, I was given a badly work pickup truck to deliver to the Equipment Depot at government Island in Alameda. The old pickup rattled and shook so badly I didn't dare drive it more than about 35 or 40 mph for fear it would come apart. So at dark I pulled into a campground at Manteca, slept in the truck and drove on into Government Island the next morning. I learned that again I was about to run the field part. The resident engineer was to be "Bike" McCain on this Tioga job. Since Bike was finishing some other project and would not be out to Tioga for a couple of weeks, I was told to get all the camp field office and survey gear together to go on out and get the work started.

My equipment and supply requisition was made after very careful stud y of a complete list borrowed from Monte Potter, the most experienced field man in this region of BPR. My requisition contained only the items and quantities that were actually needed. I never was one to pad the quantities with more than actually needed. The requisition was reviewed and sent over to Government Island by the personnel officer. All the items were packed in a nice new Oldsmobile screen side truck when I got to the Island, so all I had to do was throw in my personal duffel bag and take off.

When we got to the project and started setting up camp and field office, we found the personnel man had cut my requisition quantities in half. We had just half enough office supplies - no BPR stationery - no franked envelopes - half enough field engineering field books, etc. I just ignored the shortages until McCain arrived. He got the shortages corrected "muy pronto."

Now this was the same project that I ran the survey on in 1931. This construction contract extended from the east part (Yosemite Park) boundary westward through Tuolumne Meadows for a total length of about eight miles. The contractor's men and our BPR personnel were quartered in small cabins that had been transported from L.A. where they had been built as quarters for the 1932 Olympic games people. The camp was in the same location as those cold tents we lived in 1931.

I don't recall anything difficult or unusual about the engineering work; the only thing worth mentioning is an incident while we were staking the Tuolumne River Bridge. I had the bridge plans spread on the ground and was transferring dimensions all to one sheet as much as possible for convenience and the Park Superintendent, Col. Thompson, suddenly put in an appearance. I had never met him before but had heard that he was very pompous and self important. He took personal credit for anything worthwhile accomplished in the park no matter who did it. In our discussion of the bridge, he talked like he had planned the whole thing, and I found that he couldn't read the bridge plans at all. But in spite of this he was an excellent superintendent and was highly respected by all who knew him.

The economic depression was still on and for that reason this contract required that everything possible be done by hand labor to give more men work. The clearing was done entirely by hand labor by a very efficient crew in charge of a Negro foreman (in fact he was a mixture of Negro, Mexican and Chinese) who was the most skillful lumberjack I ever knew.

The contractor's superintendent was an elderly fellow who, in his early years, was a pugilist known as "Kid" Curran. You might say he lost a fight on this project to about 10,000 mosquitoes. The project was started early in the season, July, which is early for 8,500 feet to 10,000 feet altitude. The last of the winter's 20 feet depth of snow was just melting off and the ground was positively saturated with water. Even though it froze every night as soon as the sun warmed things up in the morning, great clouds of mosquitoes came forth and made life miserable for all us humans, that is they would have if we had not mosquito nets over our heads and faces. "Kid" Curran just couldn't be bothered with wearing a mosquito net. He had a better idea: let his whiskers grow; that would keep the mosquitoes from getting to his face. Maybe it was a good idea but it didn't work. In about 10 days he had to go to the city on business; he shaved off the whiskers and revealed a face that was the most terrible mass of mosquito welts I ever saw. He hardly looked human.

To give you an idea of how many mosquitoes there were I had to brush them off of both the eye pieces and the objective lens of the transit or level before I could see through the telescope.

The contractor's trucks and other equipment were not in good condition and at the low price he had to bid to get the contract, he couldn't afford regular shop repair, so each vehicle had a copious supply of bailing wire in the tool box with which to make repairs. One tractor, a rather large International, with a dozer started rolling up sod on a mountain meadow. As soon as the weight of the machine came to bear on the stripped ground, the tractor sank clear to the level of the operator's platform in the saturated muck. It would have been such a task to pull it out they just left it set for about 10 days until the mud dried up.

We (the BPR crew) were boarding with the contractor's gang. They had a big kitchen and dining room. Seems I recall that they were feeding a total of 116 men at a price that should have been sufficient to prove good plain food. But it wasn't good. At first it wasn't too bad except that we never had any fresh vegetables. This never changed throughout the whole job. I guess the man who bought supplies in town twice a week was too penurious to buy vegetables. After a shot time the cook became unhappy about something or other and walked off the job with no advance notice. The superintendent had to dash around and find someone to prepare the evening meal; got one of the mechanics who was better than the old cook. The new man they hired was a retired railway dining car cook, quite elderly but a wonderful cook. Food was really excellent for a short time. But then the flunkies raised a squawk because the cook would not help wash dishes. He figured that was flunky work, the old gentleman was fired and the head flunky became cook. Oy oy. Did we suffer from then on. This man was a lousy cook and being mostly of Mexican blood, he drowned everything in Mexican sauce. And the breakfast hot cakes (my favorite breakfast) were a blah mixture of flour, baking powder and water - no milk, eggs - with the consistency of shoe leather. After several weeks of this awful stuff my stomach started giving me trouble and has never fully recovered to this day.

So I wasn't a bit unhappy when Bike McCain decided he wanted his long-time personal friend Chet Clark to run the field party and transferred me back to the San Francisco office. You know, Chet Clark died shortly after completion of this Tioga project; I wonder if that awful food had anything to do with his demise.

Now a few words about some of the characters that the personnel department furnished me. (Bill) Williams was an experienced survey technician and a good worker, although rather moody and sour on the world.

Then there was our "know nothing" stake man - one of us had to tell him exactly what figures to write on each stale and I had to continually yell at him to get him to move faster than a crawl. He claimed that the high elevation sapped his energy so badly he could hardly move - but in the evenings he'd go out and play baseball with the contractor's men and run bases as fast as anyone. And even though I continually yelled at him and bawled him out trying to get some work out of him, frequently on off duty he'd follow me around like a pet dog - right at my heels. His temporary appointment expired after a few weeks - it sure was a relief when he left!!

The really jolly one of the outfit was our field office man, Frank Cimino, a young overweight Italian fellow. He was a likeable person and a very able engineer. He went fishing with "Bike" one Saturday up in the High Mountain country - Frank wasn't a fisherman, he just went along for the hike and to see the high country. While looking the country over Frank walked out on a snow field, not expecting the snow to be hard packed. His feet flew out from under him and he went scooting down a steep slope and dropped over the edge of a cliff. He thought he was a goner but fortunately he dropped only eight or none feet and landed on a blind ledge. After lying there for a while to get over the shock, he managed to jump a chasm six feet wide and 200 feet deep to another ledge that he could get off of. When he got back to camp three hours later, he was still as pale as a ghost from fright and shock.

I almost forgot to mention the CCC camp near the ranger station at the east entrance to the Park. The boys in this camp were from Brooklyn, New York, and for many of them it was the first time they've ever been outside of Brooklyn. The poor fellows didn't know what to do in their spare time - they'd just sit around and look lonesome while they might have been catching trout in the Tuolumne River, or hiking to Lyall Glacier about two hours away, or going on nature hikes, or taking pictures, etc., etc. But they didn't know how to do any of these things.

Well, I was transferred back to the San Francisco office and worked there until late summer when I was sent out to Fred's Place on U.S. 50 to set clearing stakes for Mr. Bradshaw, a BPR maintenance superintendent who had a day labor crew clearing a project.

The personnel man pulled a fast one on me when dispatching me out of Government Island. I was to take a dump truck out to Bradshaw, and it was having new brake linings installed when I got over to the island. The brake job didn't go just right and what with one delay after another it was evening before the truck was ready. But meanwhile Personnel kept calling up to see if I'd left, and finally told me, "Bradshaw's in a hurry for that truck. I think you'd better just drive it up there tonight." SO I had dinner at home, threw my duffel in the truck and took off about 7:00 p.m.

The truck had also had a motor overhaul so I could drive it only 35 m.p.h. Maybe that was just as well, for at the Hayward intersection I almost ran over a car when I hit the brake and the pedal plopped clear to the floor - no brakes; air had not been bled out of the hydraulic lines properly. I sure would have clobbered that car if I had been going any faster. I found I had brakes if I pumped the pedal frantically each time, so I kept on going and finally found a garage open in Tracy and got the lines bled out, and had no more trouble from then on.

Bradshaw was just coming out of the restaurant after eating breakfast when I drive up. He looked at me with the most astonished expression and said, "Good heavens! What did you do, drive all night?" I replied, "Sure I did; Charlie said you were in an awful hurry for this truck and for me to bring it on up here last night. He replied, "Hell, I'm in no hurry for it! What's the matter with that man! There wasn't a bit of need for you to drive all night."

This setting of clearing stakes took only a couple of weeks. Bradshaw gave me a good helper - a husky young man from the labor crew.

The ranchers in this area were moving their sheep and cattle down from the high country grazing land for the winter, which added to our work somewhat. After a herd had passed we'd have to go back over our line, reset the knocked over stakes, and replace red flagging tied around the top of the stakes - the few goats in the sheep flocks seem to like to eat the red cloth.

The only other thing I recall that's worthy of mention was a trip Bradshaw and I made to Placerville in the dump truck. On the return the dump body of the truck was loaded with about 20 fifty-pound cases of dynamite and my work coat pockets were loaded with packages of dynamite caps.

When the staking was finished I went back to the San Francisco office for the winter. And I had a nice surprise - that personnel man had been transferred to Washington, D.C.! !

Another little blurb about the helper I had on this project. This work was rather late in the fall and we wore heavy jackets most of the time to stay warm. The first time it got warm enough to go without jackets I noticed the helped had on a short sleeved shirt and that his bare arms were masses of small scars. I asked him if he'd been fighting a wildcat. He said no, a forest fire! It seems he and one other man were on a fire crew; they were working quite a distance from the main body of fire fights, when the wind changed suddenly driving the fire straight at them so that they had to run for their lives. He said that four times they fell exhausted and had to lie there and gasp for breath until the fire got too close, then they'd get up and run some more. They came to a large dense patch of manzanita and the fire was so close behind them they wouldn't work their way through the stuff carefully, they just had to charge through it at all possible speed. The stiff, spikey manzanita nearly tore the skin off them; he showed me he had scars all over his body except his face and neck. I'm glad I never got roped into fire fighting!


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