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

Personal Experiences in the Early Days of the Bureau of Public Roads

J. F. Cameron

Well remembered are some of the early days in Old District One of the Bureau of Public Roads, as we approach the Bicentennial of the beginning of our great Nation, I recall from accounts of the early years of George Washington that he began as a surveyor. He was supposed to have come from one of the wealthier families that settled in America, and surveying, though it required some education and skill, was not one of the more dignified professions for young aristocrats at the time. But maybe he as bored, or there might have been a depression going on and he needed a job. In addition, there was a pressing need for someone who could determine the true boundaries of the various properties owned by the early landowners. George helped to solve those problems before he was called to fulfill greater responsibilities.

The only way in which I resemble George Washington is that in the early days of the Bureau, I too was a surveyor. I had left school in 1916 and had no job. I polished floors and mowed lawns, and periodically pestered the personnel offices of the railroads and the few highway engineering agencies in operation at the time.

I got my chance when an unsuspecting chainman on a Great Northern Railroad snowshed construction project resolutely held a 300 foot steel tape across his chest while a compatriot at the other end, attached to a range pole, over some brush and contacted a 66,000 volt transmission wire. I got his job with a warning to be careful. Later I was promoted as an inspector, where in the course of my duties, I fell 15 feet from a timber landing stage to the rocks below and spent a week in the local hospital. It was a fair introduction to some of the hazards of engineering.

I worked on the snowshed job for a year and refused a permanent job on maintenance where I would have spent most of my waking hours on a railroad speeder. That did not appeal to a surveyor. I went back to the university and told that Dean that I was out of a job. He called me three days later and said, "How is your surveying? A County Engineer wants you as a Deputy Roadmaster."

I hadn't really intended to write my obituary, but the foregoing, and following, are pertinent to my later association with the Bureau of Public Roads. I went back to surveying for Clatsop County, Oregon, while a war was brewing and I shortly decided that I should enlist. But my boss said, "Wait - don't enlist yet. They will be needing highway engineers." In November 1917, I joined the 23rd U.S. Army Regiment, and for the next eighteen months, in France, we fought mud, the Bosche, and sometimes boredom. I came home in 1919, got married and went to work for a bridge contractor who was building a highway bridge across the Snake River, near Pasco, Washington. In 1921 he went broke but I stayed until the job was finished. Then I was back where I started from and still wanted to be a surveyor.

In 1921 there was a general economic depression. I had almost reached the bottom of the barrel, when my old boss, A. C. Rose, who was then working for the Bureau, called me to say that there was an opening. For the next six months I was a timekeeper on a day labor construction job in Blewett Pass near Leavenworth, Washington. The Bureau was beginning a highway program across forest lands to eliminate missing links in State and County Highway systems. Some of these links are now part of the Interstate System. All of them have been incorporated into State Highway Systems as part of the Primary or Secondary State Highway Systems.

Blewett Pass, in 1921, resembled the aftermath of the '49 era in California, after the gold had more or less vanished, leaving the fast buck operators still on the scene. The glamour and the profits were gone. All that remained were the promoters of depleted gold mines, sluicing money from the pockets of those deluded souls who still believe there was gold in the hills.

In the town of Old Blewett, our engineering crew was housed in the old school house across the road from a six stamp mill owned by the occasionally operating Blewett Mining Co. The amount of gold it produced was miniscule, but the stock certificates were proliferous, and glittered. The noise of the six stamp mill would drive a modern environmentalist right up the wall. At times it was almost more than we hardened surveyors could bear. The mill was operated whenever the brokers and owners would stage a periodic demonstration for the suckers they could corral. P. T. Barnum once said there was one born every minute. In the Company store still operating, I used to buy wool socks and 5¢ Hershey bars, when needed, but I did not need any mining stock.

Anyway, the Bureau built a quite modern road over old Blewett pass, which with some revision has served to the present day. My boss was a prince, named Bob Merrick. He was an older engineer, who had given it up, and in Idaho, tried his hand at chicken farming. The chickens all died, and he went back to engineering. He was a whiz at math - knew all the surveying short cuts that kept the job moving. I was greatly indebted to him for all that he so patiently taught me.

The hills around Old Blewett were inhabited by odd characters who lived in the past. They resided in old shacks adjacent to tunnels penetrating their claims so zealously guarded. They did a little work each year, enough to hold their titles, and I suspect to retain some semblance of sanity. Like carrying coals to Newcastle, we used to hide on Sundays up into the hills; and I can remember one old miner, who local people claimed was sitting on a mountain of copper. He told us that at one time the Guggenheims had offered him $21,000 for his claim, but he refused the offer. It was a good thing, because he was much happier sitting on his mountain than he would have been with the $21,000. But he was interesting to a bunch of young engineers who never expected to accumulate anything resembling $21,000.

John Skans, a very personable blond Norwegian surveyor, who later worked for the city of Portland, until he retired, was transit man on the project, and Lee Barbee, who later became Urban Design Engineer for the State Highway Department of Oregon was rodman. In later years I had some close association with both of them. At that time we were just plain surveyors.

As evidence of the former mining activity in the Blewett area, we found numerous arastras, over covered with brush, adjacent to the stream beds. An arastra is a hollowed out large boulder, from five to seven feet in diameter, which looks like a Mexican sombrero and its name indicated Mexican origin. In its circular trough gold ore was pulverized by the action of a rounds boulder dragged around the trough by a horse, mule or burro.

We completed the job late in the Fall, and I was returned to the Portland Office to take the job of A. C. Clark, who later served in Montana as Division Engineer, from where he was transferred to the Washington Office as head of Engineering Operations. He had been working on soil surveys with A. C. Rose, who with Claude McKesson started the first soil surveys in the field offices of the Bureau of Public Roads. Rose was later transferred to the Washington Office to help in the development of this technique, which later became more sophisticated in its application and extent, and of course now, is a very important operation in all highway departments of the county. It was really fascinating work. We used soil survey maps of the Department of Agriculture to identify soils. We made soil tests for the States, and for the Federal-Aid Section of the Bureau. With simple equipment and methods we could identify unfavorable subgrade soils and recommend corrective measures in the construction of subbases. We would take soils in their native state, and seal them in airtight metal containers. In the lab their moisture content and lineal contraction or shrinkage was measured. In many cases we found extreme shrinkage from a wet condition and recommended subgrade treatment, which over the years has proven to be very effective. An extreme example was found on the Cove Orchard Road between Yamhill and Dilley in Oregon, wee the lineal shrinkage of the heavy clay soil was found to be over 25%. We recommended a six inch layer of sand over the clay subgrade, on which was laid a six inch concrete pavement. This treatment was made, and today - 54 years later, this pavement shows very few cracks or distortions.

In 1923 Bob Merrick asked me to be a transitman on a 23 mile Forest Highway project between Neskowin and Schooner Creek, the southern terminus being south of present day Taft in Lincoln County, Oregon. While I was attending the wedding of my sister, Jasper Womack, who later became State Highway Engineer for California, filled in for me. The first day on the job, Merrick said to him, "Ok, lets get going." Womack said, "What do you want me to do Mr. Merrick?" "I want you to take the transit and get going." Womack told me later in confidence, "My God, I'd never really run a transit before." But later he became a star locater with the Bureau, and finally went to California where he served for many years as Planning Engineer and finally was appointed to the top job as State Highway Engineer. You might say that, starting with George Washington surveying was an opening to opportunity.

In 1923 the area between Neskowin and Taft was a forest wilderness, inhabited by a few white settlers, some half-breeds and those members of the Siletz Indian Tribe who had remained when their reservation was reduced to the present one centered around Siletz, Oregon. There was no road between Neskowin and Otis (now called Otis Junction). There was only a sandy wagon road between what is now Lincoln City and Taft. The standards of our design are considered primitive, when measured against present day standards for main roads. Fifty-six degree curves were common. We revamped an old Oregon State Location L Line, whose traces had long since vanished in the forest. Since its 5% grade had not been compensated for the 56 degree curves, we had to do some relocation. We ended at the summit with an unheard of 12 foot cut, which put quite a strain on the road building equipment of that day. The timber was thick, the weather moist, and the surveying arduous on account of the dense forest and heavy underbrush. Progress was slow until we devised a set of tables of deflection angle and a long chord from our tables and without computation, establish the station on the curve. We made similar tables for vertical curves to eliminate much computation and mental fatigue.

These were days with little relaxation. The evenings were invariably spent on line adjustment and quality balancing. On Saturdays, from noon on the entire countryside, including our engineers, traveled to Rose Lodge, several miles east of Otis, over the puncheon road, for the weekend dance at the Grange Hall in Rose Lodge. It lasted to early Sunday morning. There was a Finnish society at Rose Lodge, and the girls were very blond and attractive. A local Bureau employee, Jack Von, used to squire a striking looking girl from Taft. On Saturdays she would come by our camp, escorted by Jack, riding on a spirited horse. They would be joined by our men wearing their working boots and best clothes with their town shoes strung from their necks.

The country was heavily grazed by sheep around Devils Lake and the present area of Lincoln City. Deer abounded in the hills and forests and the local Indian boys and their dogs spent much time in pursuit of these forest inhabitants. The local bear population enjoyed spring lamb, much to the disgust of the sheep owners. Along with the Indian boys and their dogs, our two surveying crews were enlisted to track down one particularly hungry bear who was making serious inroads in a band of sheep that grazed around Devils Lake. Early on a Sunday morning, hunters and dogs set out to locate Mr. Bear and the hounds soon discovered him near the east shore of the lake. He promptly swam to safety on the west shore. Hunters and dogs circled the north end of the lake to find that the Bear had killed another sheep. Alarmed by the barking dogs he swam to the east shore. All day during this hot Sabbath, bear hunters, dogs and the sheep killer played cat and mouse back and forth, around and across the lake. As the shades of evening were falling, an exhausted surveyor hunter, sitting on a log on an abandoned logging trail heard a snuffling commotion in the brush below him. Mr. Bear was tired of swimming and running, and must have decided to retire to the dense forest. As he emerged form the brush and paused for a moment to catch his breath in the logging road, our hunter was ready, and Mr. Bear was a sitting duck. We enjoyed the lamb chops, and the roast at a victory dinner the next Sunday.

Relocation, topography and slope staking between Neskowin and Otis Junction went on all winter. The rain never stopped. We used paraffin coated paper note books constantly. Without them it would have been impossible to take notes. We experimented with all the wet weather gear so convincingly advertised in the Monkey Ward and Sears catalogues, but to little avail. Tin pants and jackets became the standbys and even they would eventually get saturated. We happened, one soggy day, upon a huge fallen log spanning a depression in which we could stand upright. We got a fire going, removed all of our clothes, hung them on sticks to steam, and we hoped dry; when suddenly an unobserved large pitch pocket caught fire. In a minute the entire log was wreathed in flames. We grabbed our clothing, and our lunches, and fled into the dripping brush, just like primitive man.

I was the transit man on a crew that lived at the Steve Bauer's on the Neskowin side of Cascade Head Hogback. Our bedroom was the sweet scented haymow of the Bauer's barn. Bauer was a Swiss cheesemaker and with his wife and beautiful daughter Freda, lived at the head of Slab Creek, as Neskowin Creek was then called. The headwaters of Neskowin Creek furnished abundant water the year round. Steve was a very ingenious man and had built a six by six foot penstock 32 feet high on a knoll above the barn. In the bottom was a valve in a pipe leading to a small pelton wheel, in turn connected to an electric generator which Steve had picked up at some second hand store in Portland. He had wired his house, his barn and his farmyard and on the second floor of the house had constructed a wheel over which ran a cable to a smaller wheel on the shaft of the valve in the penstock. Turning on all lights in the house, yard and barn, or power for the manure carrier in the barn, was as simple as turning the large wheel. Our soaked crew would come in from a wet day in the woods, to the warmth and light of Steve's farmhouse, and to the wonderful meals cooked by Mrs. Bauer. By the time we had dried our clothes and were fed it was 8 o'clock, and Steve would say, "Good night boys," and start up stairs to turn the wheel. By the time we had reached the barn, all lights would be out, as we retired with the sweet odor of the hay and it softness to lull us to sleep.

Between Otis and Valley Junction on the highway between Willamina and Hebo, there was a narrow wagon road surfaced over many low sections with cedar puncheon. From Otis eastward it followed the north bank of the Salmon River to Rose Lodge, where it crossed the river, and then recrossed it as it proceeded on to Valley Junction. From Otis to a point some seven miles from Valley Junction it had been constructed as a toll road by two brothers who maintained the cedar puncheon and otherwise kept the road passable in winter. A four horse teem mail stage operated over this route daily, except Sunday, going west one day and returning eastward the following day. The present Salmon River Highway constructed by the BPR and now carrying hundreds of cars and trucks daily follows the approximate route of the old toll road.

In 1921 it was an arduous trip, to "the outside" as we called it, for man, beast or car over the rough puncheon. We had been camped in a field near Otis Junction only a short time, when a messenger arrived late one afternoon by horseback, from Taft with a telegram to Bob Merrick advising him of the serious illness of his mother in Portland. Shortly before that, a war surplus Model T Ford had been brought to the job by way of Taft. Merrick decided to drive out to the Hebo Willamina Road at old Valley Junction. A rodman and I accompanied him with little realization of what we were attempting. It was dark when we set out and the first few miles were uneventful. Then we hit the puncheon. A few hundred feet of this travail was sufficient to render the primitive headlight entirely useless; due to the severe jolting they simply became nonfunctional. Our progress was reduced to a walk, as one man with a flashlight proceeded ahead to point out chuckholes or other defects which might completely eliminate progress. We had over twenty miles to go. We arrived at old Valley Junction at midnight, and were astonished to see a car arriving from the west, and pull up to a darkened garage, where the driver pounded on the door, and further surprised to see the door opened and the proprietor emerge and proceed to fill the gas tank. There was no energy crisis then, although we had a personal one. A few minutes conversation established the fact that the car driver from the west was headed for Portland, and he would take Merrick with him. We learned later that he was driven to the door of his mother's house, and that she died after her son arrived.

The rodman and I were left in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town and lodging were at Willamina, some five miles distant. Traffic density was practically zero. The moon furnished some illumination as we crept over the gravel surface, which felt like the Grande Boulevard after the puncheon. At 1:00 a.m., we pounded on the door of a building labeled "Boarding House," and were finally admitted by a sleepy landlady. At 7:00 the next morning we sat down to a bountiful logger's breakfast with sever members of that clan. Our pockets were empty of money. We had not foreseen the contingency as our plans had been to return immediately to the coast. We couldn't face the puncheon again that night. We had a good story, however, and our landlady was a trusting soul, and probably accustomed to deadbeats. We hung around the local bank, looking like a couple of bank robbers, until the bank opened at 10:00 a.m. Much to our surprise the bank manager let us sign a counter check for $5.00 and we were able to square accounts with our landlady, before retracing the rough journey back to the job.

The winter was half over when I returned to Portland Headquarters. There I worked in the Bridge Department with Ray McMinn and Henry Luce on drafting specifications and checking bridge designs. Forest Highway bridge design was performed for all the states in our District. Rene Wright was the Bridge Engineer in charge of the Department. Among other bridges, we designed a suspension bridge over the Rogue River at Agness in Curry County. It was a one lane bridge for the use of the Forest Service personnel. It was built by the Bureau by day labor. Guy Matoon was the superintendent in charge. All the cable for the bridge as sell as all the cement, tools, etc., were transported up the Rogue by the mail boats which later became so popular with the tourists. In one of the super floods that occur at exceedingly rare intervals in the Rogue watershed our suspension bridge simply vanished. A second one - now standing - was constructed and now carries traffic, which is served by a Forest Service road from Gold Beach to Agness.

With the opening of the construction season in May 1924, I was sent back to Blewett Pass as a resident Bridge Engineer on the construction of a T Beam concrete bridge over Peshastin Creek. We also had an adjacent surfacing contract several miles north of the old Blewett mining camp. The stamp mill was no longer operating. The promoters ran out of both gold and stock purchaser prospects. The bridge crew and the engineering crew, consisting of Al Nelson the rock checker, and me, lived and boarded at Charley Allen's farmhouse. It was a small dairy farm run by Charles and Mrs. Allen, a fabulous cook. We lived high on the hog, with rich cream, strawberries and fresh vegetables from the farm garden. In gratitude we would help Charley turn the cream separator at night. He was a wonderful man and had had a hard life making ends meet. My wife and small son came out to spend a few months with me and she was introduced to her first experience of dining with an assorted crew of workmen at a long table laden with quantities of plain but delicious food. She soon became accustomed to having an overalled concrete worker reach in front of her to spear a stack of hot cakes, always accompanied however, by a polite "Pardon the reach."

She also had her first experience with rattlesnake and bull snakes, the latter being the deadly enemy of the former. The country was full of them and they daily made a journey from the rocks above our road down to the creek for water. We killed hundreds of them for the safest rattlesnake is a dead one. Three of our crew eating their lunch one day under the shade of a fir tree were surprised to find a rattlesnake descending out of the tree. Doing some cross sectioning, another day, one of our men reached up over a ledge to hear the buzz of a rattlesnake just before it struck at him. He was wearing a vest and the ratters fangs caught in it as the surveyor beat a hasty retreat taking the snake with him. He discarded the vest with all speed.

The bridge was completed and the surfacing contract nearly finished when one Friday afternoon I received a wire from Portland to report there Saturday, and prepare to take off on Sunday morning for Alaska. It required some scrambling to accomplish this but by Saturday noon I was back in Portland, and Sunday morning, with J. A. Elliott, head of the Forest Highway Construction Department, and Guy Mattoon, Construction Superintendent, we embarked by train for Seattle, where we boarded the "Princess Louise," a Canadian Pacific boat, for Ketchikan. Our objective was a day labor surfacing job from Ketchikan to Ward's Cove, which had gone sour as a contract job. The contractor had started his men north from Seattle, to resume work started the year before, and conveniently missed boarding the ship himself. The bonding company had to take over and asked the Bureau to finish the job.

In the good old day, periodic raises in pay schedules were nonexistent, and raises were infrequent. Congress at this time had granted a slight increase in salaries, which was disappointing to most employees. The Engineer and the Construction Superintendent on the Ward's Cove job were what you might now call activists, in that they wired the Portland Office that they were dissatisfied with the meager increase, and unless a more satisfactory return were provided hinted that they would quit. The return wire from Portland said, "You are relieved. Replacements on the first boat."

For transportation around Alaska in 1924, a boat has been built in Seattle for the Bureau called the "Highway". It was a sturdy little boat, like the local fishing boats, with sleeping accommodations for several people, a small galley and a head. Airplanes at that time had not come into as general use as they are now over all of Alaska, and transportation was almost entirely by boat or dog sled, or on foot. The Alaska Steamship Co., and the Canadian Pacific Railway Co., had some really luxurious steamers serving Southeastern Alaska. In our first days in Ketchikan we lodged on the "Highway" and enjoyed the wonderful seafood to be found in the restaurants of Ketchikan. Delicious broiled halibut steaks fresh off the ice with potatoes, toast and coffee were 35¢. But those days were not to last long. We moved to Wards Cove where we found quarters in an abandoned fish cannery, where the tide lapped at our front door, and the steady rain beat on our windows. The grub, as it was then called, was strictly utilitarian. Our only transportation for an occasional trip to town was a Model T Ford chassis on which, for the driver's seat, was an orange crate. There were no headlights, so all trips were made in daylight.

It was the end of August and the rainy season was resuming; it had stopped briefly on August 1. From the first of September until December 20th it never stopped raining. But the blasting, crushing, and surfacing went on. On December 5th, I was shipped to the Bureau Office in Juneau to complete the records, compile costs due the United States, and write a final report. Ensconced in the old Baranoff Hotel in Juneau, since reconstructed to a plush hostelry, then burned and later reconstructed, I set to with cartons of notes and records. Working hours were from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., the object being to finish and catch the Alaska Steamship Company's "Alaska" on December 20th for home, my family and Christmas. I boarded the "Alaska" with a sigh of great relief. I did not have the makings of a sourdough and had had my fill of wet Alaska.

In 1924 the Bureau was well engaged in filling forest highway gaps in the main roads of eastern Oregon. In 1923 a location survey had been accomplished by E. R. Green, who later became a division engineer for the California Department of Highways at Eureka, California. Construction was started in 1924 on a section of the The Dalles-California Highway (US 97) between Crescent, Oregon and Sand Creek near the east entrance to Crater Lake National Park (Oregon).

In the spring of 1925 I was assigned as a resident engineer to the construction of a section some 50 miles south of Bend extending from the vicinity of Crescent to Sand Creek. The snow was hardly off the ground when I arrived at Beaver Marsh with an engineering crew consisting of Bill Graham, transitman; Al Bradford, rodman; and levelman, Edgar Thompson a young 18 year old college freshman and a couple of other chainmen. A rock checker, Al Painter, had already arrived and established a camp. With minor variations the present U.S. 97 in this area follows closely the P line (preliminary location line) established by E. R. (Bill) Green in 1923. The project to which I was assigned was already under contract to John Hampshire, a pioneer road builder of that time, for grading and surfacing. Max Kuney was the Superintendent. He later headed a large construction company under his name and built many of our modern roads in the Northwest and in Alaska. The contract for a 24 foot subgrade was $4.00 per station of 100 feet. The work was performed mostly by slip scrapers and two wheeled scrapers.

The entire country was covered to an undetermined depth with pumice, which had been blown out of Mount Mazama when that mountain exploded some 4,000 years ago to form the cauldron now called Crater Lake. As early as 1925 the pumice deposits were being mined and exported eastward. The Southern Pacific RR in 1923 and 1924 had projected and constructed a new route to California from Western Oregon. The old route from Eugene, via Roseburg, Grants Pass, and Ashland, over the Siskiyous had become very expensive to maintain and operate in winter months and a relocation had been made up the valley of the Willamette River via Oakridge and Odell Lake to the Plateau of Central Oregon, thence south on an easy location to Klamath Falls, Oregon and on to Weed, California, where it joined the old route near Mt. Shasta. The location descended from the summit of the Cascade range to the Central Oregon plateau at a place called Corral Springs, which later became known as the present day Chemult on U. S. 97. During the Bureau's construction between Crescent and Sand Creek the Great Northern RR which had been extended from the Columbia River southward to Bend some decades earlier, was extended further south from Bend to a junction with the Southern Pacific near Chemult.

We set up a camp at Beaver Marsh on a little stream that headed in Fish Lake. John Zumbrun and his wife had a log hotel where we were served meals. It was the sole habitation at that time between Crescent and Fort Klamath, an old army fort leading to the south entrance to Crater Lake National Park. We were almost due east of Diamond Lake and Mt. Thielson. Beaver Marsh now has an airstrip, a modern motel and store, a service station and a few residences. In 1925 it was a stage station between Bend and Klamath Falls, the stage being a 1923 Winton five passenger car with side curtains, that carried the mail and an occasional passenger. The road was a winding trail through the jack pines. The soil was pumice and made an excellent roadbed when undisturbed. Coyotes abounded and on a clear cold moonlit night, wolves in the marsh several miles away could be heard, in their long drawn out baying at the moon.

Our crew made several trips to Diamond Lake for fishing, one through deep snow. On November 4,1925, four of us climbed Mt. Thielson, a 10,500 foot basaltic peak. The day was clear and cold and we climbed the last 100 feet at 3:00 p.m., hand over hand and signed a book in a can lodged in a crevice. At 3:10 p.m., a cloud appeared from out of the blue, and in minutes we were engulfed in a blinding snowstorm. We descended with all speed down the talus slopes to our car parked in the pine, cold, wet, and ready for one of Mrs. Zumbrun's famous meals. In September we were subjected to many violent thunder and lightning storms. Drinking water was a problem because the small streams in the area were polluted by the many bands of sheep which passed through to and from grazing areas in the foothills. We solved the problem by securing two 10-gallon milk cans and utilizing a spring in the mountains 10 miles to the east. The water was ice cold and unpolluted, which we determined by sending samples to the State Board of Health in Salem. The trek for water was a diversion in an otherwise unexciting existence. Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogues solved many problems, such as clothes, shoes, etc. Ordering shoes was a simple matter for all members of the family. One placed his foot, or feet, on a sheet of paper and traced the outline. It was supposed to determine the proper fit. If, on receipt of any merchandise, there was some variation, a philosophical approach was necessary. We once ordered a four burner kerosene stove from Montgomery Ward Co., and a considerable period elapsed with no reply. We turned to the Sears Catalogue and ordered a similar stove. They both arrived within twenty four hours of each other via the Great Northern RR. Montgomery Ward got a stove back.

Our tents were heated by army type Sibley stoves; the fuel was pine knots and pine branches, which we gathered each weekend for recreation and survival. They were full of pitch and burned like fury and we were grateful to Mother Nature for such an abundant supply. To cut trees no environmental impact statement was necessary.

I arrived home in Portland on December 10th, the job having been accepted on December 8th. The weather had degenerated, with the night temperature dropping to 10 above zero. We abandoned the country to the coyotes and the wolves.

I returned to the bridge department and worked on the drafting of plans for three bridges we had been commissioned to design and construct for another of the Bureau's Regional Offices, located in San Francisco. These projects were in northern California; two were concrete arch deck type bridges over Smith River and the other a concrete Tee Beam bridge over Dwight Creek on the Redwood Highway SW of Grants Pass, Oregon.

In early 1926 I was assigned to the construction of these bridges as Resident Engineer of the almost completed project, taking over from Bill Green who was quitting the Bureau and following our old District Engineer, C. H. Purcell who had been invited to take over the job of State Highway Engineer of the California State Highway Commission. Bill had various jobs with the California Highway Department and finally ended up as Division Engineer for the coastal region of Northern California with headquarters at Eureka. He ended a very successful career there upon his retirement. He was a colorful character and a very forceful man who stood about five foot six, a factor which did not deter him in facing any situation. I had arrived on the job about noon coming in on the stage from Portland via Waldo, an old placer mining town southwest of Grants Pass, and found work on the footings of the Patrick's Creek Bridge underway. The site was about 300 feet distant from the engineers camp and a hazardous situation had developed due to the close proximity to necessary blasting in the river bed. Bill and I were having a leisurely discussion regarding the few remaining problems when an explosion of some magnitude occurred followed by the impact of a rather large boulder on the road in front of the office, which was next door to Bill's living quarters where his wife and two small daughters we still in residence. I had been with Bill in the army in France and was well acquainted, as I thought, with his proficiency in direct action accompanied by adequate expletives. He was out of the office with a determined rapid stride which boded ill for whoever had fired the charge. I followed, not to help Bill, because he needed no help, but just to see what happened, and to become acquainted with possible future difficulties. When I arrived at the site Bill was standing on the edge of a footing excavation, in which two workmen were cowering. Bill was inviting one or both to come out referring to their canine ancestry, and saying he could take care of either or both and reminding them that this was not the first time and that he had given them adequate warning. He finally ran out of breath and as we strolled back to the office, I said to him, "Bill, you're slipping. You were much better at Camp Meade when our officers put us out in pup tents and sent us to the rifle range in 10 below weather and we all came back with pneumonia." He replied, "Jim, you know you mellow with the years, but if those --- --- --------- set off another overpowered charge before I leave, there will be a funeral in Patrick's Creek, and you can officiate."

In addition to the three bridges and periodic inspection of the Dwight Creek Bridge, I had supervision of an almost completed slide contract, and a surfacing contract on the north side of the Siskiyou summit on the Redwood Highway.

Although these projects were geographically in the area of the San Francisco District of the Bureau, they were assigned to the Portland District due to our proximity.

The early road between Grants Pass, and Crescent City, California, had gone over the summit of Oregon Mountain. Prior to the construction of the Smith River Road, between O'Brien and Gasquet, travel was entirely by horse stage between Grants Pass and Crescent City. An interesting account of early travel in this area is to be found in the March 1975, quarterly issue of the Oregon Historical Society. Grants Pass and Crescent City were about 100 miles apart over the old Oregon Mountain Road. The stage fare was $10.00 with meals enroute at Patrick's Creek Stage Station costing 25¢. The four horse Concord thorough-brace type stage left Grants Pass daily at 7:00 a.m. The road was rough the loads heavy, and necessary repairs to equipment were constant. The stage changed horses seven times a trip, using 22 horses on the one way trip, and the same number returning. It is said that the drivers were old timers and good horsemen, who chewed tobacco and drank whiskey. They smelled of horses and horse barns. This was around 1915 when automobiles of various kinds replaced horse stages. Eight years later construction by the Bureau of Public Roads was begun to replace the Oregon Mountain Route. The trip took 22 hours with stops for meals at Wilderville for an early dinner and supper at the Patrick's Creek Tavern, a stage station at 10:30 p.m. This station was four miles up Patrick's creek from its junction with Smith River. When the Smith River route was planned and construction started, the hotelkeeper on the old Oregon Mountain route, where it crossed Patrick's Creek, built a new modern log hotel near the mouth of the creek on the new highway. He was a Frenchman named Raymond with a large family of boys and girls, all of whom worked as a unit in running the hotel. He was a good host and the meals were great. A rodman on our engineering crew married one of the girls. It was not uncommon in those days for romance to flower along with engineering and many of our men found wives among the local populace. The hotel was opened to the public in 1926, but prior to that year the engineering crew lived like pioneers. There was rather extensive surveying in Smith River Canyon before contracts could be let. The only access was from the existing stage road over Oregon Mountain, down Patrick's Creek to Smith River. Engineering headquarters was established at the junction of the two streams, which provided an almost perfect campsite. But it was a long way from the corner grocery, and the families of the crew needed milk and other supplies. The milk problem was solved by purchase of a cow and milk production was established on a pro rata basis, which meant that someone in each family soon acquired the art of milking. When I arrived in 1926 the cow had disappeared, because the new road was now passable from Gasquet in California to Obrien in Oregon, and an auto stage made daily trips. My family, wife and two children, inherited a very satisfactory arrangement, which had started with the beginning of the stage runs on the new grade. A one-gallon jug of milk was dropped off at Patrick's Creek each morning at 10:00 a.m., and an empty can picked up. The delivered cost was 10-cents a gallon. Milk was delivered on the basis of no can - no milk. We were not concerned with inflation. The price remained stable.

The mountains surrounding the Smith River Canyon, were like Blewett Pass in Washington, the scene of an old mining era, except the valuable metal here was chrome. During the First World War many of the old mines were reopened and at the end of the war, when the demand for chrome lessened and production became uneconomical, a number of the old mining operators remained to do assessment work on their claims, or in some cases because outside so-called civilization had no attraction. It was and still is beautiful country. The hunting and fishing, in the Smith River especially, were superb. Ernie Stidham, Head Chainman, was delegated to go fishing one day when the larder was low. He caught 92 trout and many of these ran from one to four pounds. On several occasions John Dobnecker the Bridge foreman, would knock in the early hours at the door of our tent house to present us with a couple of four pound Rainbow trout.

We were opening virgin territory to travel and recreation, but we were disturbing the lives of many old timers in the area. One old mountain man - a colorful character - often seen around the new Patrick's Creek tavern called himself George Washington. He claimed to be a descendent of our first President and was always accompanied by his little black dog. He was a Civil War veteran and had settled on nearby Washington Flat, as he called it, in 1891. He carried a heavy cane with which he claimed he had killed a cougar one night on the trail. There were undoubtedly cougars in the country for several were killed in the vicinity during 1926 and one was caught by a member of the bridge construction crew in a trap set along the river for otters, which were prolific. The cougar escaped from the small trap and caused a near shut down of the bridge construction as several of the crew joined in tracking the wounded animal. He was finally brought to bay a short distance away by some hunting dogs which were brought in from down river. George Washington, that is the Smith River George, was known for his habit of sleeping with his half cocked rifle beside him in bed, and his neighbors were very leery about approaching his cabin at night. He claimed to have shot sever hundred deer and many bear and other game. He used bear oil and grease for many purposes - oil for his gun and hair and in cooking. At the time, the state of California Prison System had work camps for prisoners about to be paroled or released and below us several miles, on the river was such a camp. It had about 150 convicts, some who possessed various skills, but most of whom were unskilled day laborers. When their time was up they were given clothes, a few dollars and then turned loose. The people of Crescent City were somewhat perturbed because there was a tendency for the parolees to remain in the area with or without employment, sometimes with unpleasant results.

One Friday morning the local bank was held up by two robbers, who has obtained $2,000.00 and were observed escaping in a Model T Ford car. On Monday morning the operator of a State Highway maintenance patrol grader, scraping the shoulder of the highway overlooking the ocean south of Crescent City, observed tracks of a vehicle which apparently had gone over the roadway edge. On further examination a car could be observed lodged on some rocks below - a few feet more and it would have been completely submerged in deep water. It was identified as the get-away car. Examination at the scene disclosed tracks of two men leaving the highway and following an old trail back towards a dairy farm near Crescent City. In fact the tracks led right to a barn were two men were found sleeping. They were identified as two parolees recently discharged from the work camp. They had secured jobs as milkers at the dairy farm. The $2,000.00 was found in the barn.

In our camp at Patrick's Creek, in the rear of the Inn, was a space where cars belonging to the engineers and the bridge crew were parked. In this idyllic peaceful setting no one bothered to remove ignition keys from their car. It was common practice to borrow a neighbor's car for short errands, on a short run up the river to a fishing hole, etc., if your own car was temporarily out of gas, or out of commission. I was startled one morning at 5:00 a.m. to hear someone grinding away on my car, parked in a nearby shed. To start my motor required a special skill relating to the car's peculiarities. I went to the door of our tent house and shouted advice on how to start the motor. But, whoever it was gave up - very quickly to my surprise - so I went back to bed. At breakfast I received the new that one of the cars was missing, and keys of all the others were missing. Later several keys were found in the brush where they had been thrown. Our suspicion, of course, another prison camp parolee.

The bridge contractor was a house builder who had never built a bridge. His bid was somewhat lower than his competitors, but was in order and could not be denied - besides, he was able to secure a satisfactory bond. Right from the start he was in trouble. His first estimate went for a new Studebaker sedan and his creditors became apprehensive. His troubles mounted, until one day he and the Studebaker were absent from the vicinity. Work stopped and the bonding company was notified. The representative arrived on the scene and shortly a new crew was hired under John Dobnecker, an experienced bridge man. The work proceeded without further delay.

Between us and with the assistance of Al Nelson, who had been with me at Blewett Pass and was invaluable in performing any kind of work requiring a high degree of accuracy, we worked out a falsework layout system that is not unique but it eminently practical, time saving and economical. Selecting a level piece of ground free from trees and brush, controls for the entire arch ring were established on the ground. Each arch rib was to be supported in pouring, by three 2" by 10" joist or stringers across which were laid 2" by 6" tongue and groove flooring. By laying out each falsework bent and its cap, we were able to mark the cuts on each stringer at the cap, and also trace the arch curve on the stringers which were then cut to the arch curve. Each stringer was properly marked and with the bent supports accurately located and cut off elevations established, the rest of the falsework construction was as simple as putting together an erector set.

Work on the two arch bridges over the Smith River and the Tee Beam Bridge over Patrick's Creek were completed on time and accepted by Ray McMinn for the Bureau. George Washington and his little black dog have long since vanished from the scene but the bridges are still there and after almost fifty years are apparently as sound as the day they were built. The completion of the Smith River work ended my field career. I gave it up with some regret to become an Assistant Office Engineer.

I remembered the early days of the Bureau with nostalgia, and the people with whom I worked with affection. They were wonderful people and their labors have left a lasting monument to a great organization, the U. S. Bureau of Public Roads.

Previous | Contents | Next

Updated: 06/26/2020
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000