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The Trailblazers

My Early Years In The BPR

George B. Forrest

I hired out to Mr. Marshall who was in charge of the Missoula office in September of 1919, and was sent to Rexford, Montana, on location of the Libby-Rexford Highway. A camp had already been established along the Kootenai River and it was the intention to move camp every five miles, using a "bateau" which is a large boat approximately 32 feet long, pointed on each end, and 7 feet wide, at the widest part. The camps consisted of tents approximately four men to a tent and one large tent for a cookhouse and dining room. Everything was very primitive; the tables were built out of local materials - trees were cut and split for the table tops and the beds were only boughs which were cut off the trees. Each member of the party furnished his own blankets. While the camp was pretty primitive, we had an excellent cook and excellent food was furnished and everybody was very satisfied with the food, which made the going more tolerable.

Mr. E. E. Avery was the chief of the party and he was a very dedicated man and an excellent engineer who believed in speed. He was a very hardworking man himself, and he expected everyone to work in the same manner. Usually we set a goal of five miles or survey to complete each week. We would run line for five days, and on the sixth day, the crew would split up into a moving crew and a topog crew. I was in charge of the topog crew and had two assistants. We were supposed to take topog on the five miles during the sixth day. If we did not complete on that day, the crews were sent out on Sunday to finish.

This project was completed during the latter part of October and I was transferred to survey on the Selway in Idaho, where Mr. Adamson was the survey party chief. When I arrived, Mr. Adamson had left that morning to take a survey of fifteen miles of line ahead, and he expected to be gone that day and return the next. When he did not return, the other members of the party got nervous, and the next day we headed out to see what had happened to him. We went clear to the station where he expected to go without finding him. We turned around and on the way back we found him beside a little creek bed. He evidently had stopped to take a drink out of this creek and the revolver he was carrying on his hip ad fallen out of the holster, hit a rock, and shot him in the stomach and crippled him very badly. As this was very cold weather at this period and he figured he would freeze to death during the night, he had placed his finger in the blood from his wound and written a note on a map he was carrying, "Mother, this is an accident, God bless you, Goodbye," and shot himself in the head. This was a very sad incident, and the next day we built a stretcher out of material we had at hand and carried this man out of the woods -a very difficult job as he weighed over 200 pounds and the going was very rough.

We worked on this survey until shortly after Thanksgiving when the job closed down due to weather conditions. This camp was located along the Selway River, and the conditions were practically the same as those previously mentioned with the exception that foodstuffs and other necessary materials were brought in by pack train, which served the camp once every week. I was laid off for the winter and returned to the University of Montana for the winter quarter.

I went to work again in April of 1920 for the Bureau of Public Roads, and was sent to the Pend Oreille Forest Highway Project near Metaline Falls, Washington. Work on this project consisted of 3.1 miles of construction and 6-1/2 miles of location survey. Mr. Wallace was chief of party on this project, and I was engaged as transitman. The project began three miles north of Metaline Falls and extended to the Canadian boundary. The construction work on this project was done by a gang of 33 Swedes who took subcontracts from Rich Marus and Crow Co., the main contractor. The material was all side cast with the exception of a very small amount which was loaded onto wheelbarrows and moved for a distance of about 30 to 40 feet before being cast over. For every three shovels, one man with a pick was used to loosen the hard material. The fellows used short-handled shovels and worked 10 hours a day. These men would start to work in the morning at 7:00 a.m., and would work steadily for about 2-1/2 hours, take a 10 minute break, work again until noon, then take one hour off for lunch and repeat the same performance in the afternoon. The whole gang, which included pickmen and the boss, averaged 16 yards per day for each day they worked. The last mile and one-tenth of this project was built by a gang of 40 Russians, because this was mostly rock, and drilling was required. The drilling was done single jacks. The boss of this crew was a very good organizer, and they had some very good powder men. Consequently, they were able to shoot 50-75% of the material off the roadway, leaving only about 25% to be thrown over with shovels. The percentage per man was very good, also, although I do not recollect what each man averaged. The engineering crew on this project consisted of five men and we did the engineering for the construction crew. When we were not required or busy on the project we worked on locations. And when the fall came, and the projects were shut down for the winter, we had the locations completed and the total construction project staked.

I recollect one incident on this project when we made the cook very unhappy. Whenever we worked a little late and came in late for noontime lunch the cook would get mad. And so one day, I came in a little late and said to him, "How's everything going?" He got mad, and he said, "I jack the job!" and he threw the two bowls of beans he had in his hands up in the air and they all came down on top of him. I thought it was about my time to leave because he sure was mad. Later that evening, as I was driving to town, about three miles away, I came upon the cook about halfway there and carrying two big suitcases. I asked him if he would like to have a ride but he replied, "the Devil with you," and so I went on without him.

When this job was closed down for the winter, we again returned to Missoula, Montana, and all the crew was laid off with the exception of the chief. I again returned to the University of Montana for the winder semester and in April 1921, returned to work as a instrumentman on the Coram-Spotted Bear Project in Coram, Montana. This project extended from Coram approximately fifty miles southeast, along the south fork of the Flathead River. This project consisted of 12 miles of construction and 38 miles of location survey. Mr. Shaffer, the chief engineer on the project, had an office located at the contractor's camp about 6 miles out. We were housed in tents and boarded with the contractor. As I remember it, this road was constructed on a 14 ' standard. The contractor employed approximately 100 men on this project. The work was done with teams, fresnos and with a few wheelers for the long haul. The fresnos would drift the material approximately 100 feet while the wheelers could go up to about 300 feet. The material was mostly common, with a little hardpan in the lower part of the road. The plow team would be used to loosen the material and then the fresnos would follow up and drift it where necessary. One plow team would be used to approximately three fresnos. The driver of the team on the fresnos would load up his own fresnos, while the wheeler would have a man to load the wheeler. Clearing and burning was all done by hand, but the stumps were removed by "shooting: and most of them were loaded enough that they were shot clear out of the right of way. Where small bridges were necessary, they were built out of timber collected within the right of way.

The location survey on the remaining 38 miles started in the middle of July when we had most of the construction work done. This work progressed very rapidly as we had a fair sized crew and the work was well organized. We continued to survey in the early part of September and I returned to the construction project for the rest of the season. When we moved out, we had approximately a 50 mile hike to get back to where we could get to our modes of transportation. The cook was a big, heavy, husky gentleman who was 55 to 60 years of age, and the walk was so hard for him that we left one man with him, and gave him two days to walk out. Otherwise, we all walked out in one day.

In May of 1922, after spending the winter at the University of Montana, I returned to work for BPR as transitman on a location survey in the North and South Highway in Idaho, between Harvard and Emida. Mr. H. J. Taylor was chief in charge at this location. We set up headquarters with a farmer near Hargvard, in a large house with several rooms which he rented top us for sleeping quarters and an office. His wife cooked the meals for the crew. It was a very nice place to stay, and the food was especially good. As I remember it, the survey comprised the complete route, which was 18 miles long. We worked on this project about two weeks and then on the weekend decided we would go to Potlatch to a dance. Upon arriving, we tried to get a room in a hotel in order to clean up and change, but they refused to rent us a room. We couldn't understand why, but anyway we changed our clothes in the public bathroom and went to the dance. When we got there, no one would talk to us or have anything to do with us. After a while, we found out that they thought we were revenuers and that we were going to confiscate their moonshine. After a couple of hours, we got acquainted with some of the boys and they asked us if we were revenuers. We told them no, and so they kinda broke down and let us enjoy ourselves the rest of the evening. I always remember this incident as it was quite amusing to us.

We completed this survey sometime in August and I was sent to the Clarks Fork Project in Idaho to stake clearing for a construction project. This was the first project in which I had complete charge for the Bureau. When we arrived, the contractor was already on the job waiting for us to stake out. We staked him some clearing and told him to go ahead and go to work. He started to work that morning, and had worked about two hours when the owner of the property came out and told him he couldn't work there, that that was his property. In those days, the county bought the right of way for the projects, and we presumed they had completed their deal before we arrived. In this case, they had not, and so I went and talked to the owner of the land and told him that we would cut only three or four trees until he got paid for the right of way. He finally agreed with our request, s I told the contractor to go ahead and go back to work the next morning. He did, but the owner came out again in about an hour with a shotgun and chased him off. So, I had to stake another area to get the contractor to go to work. I had been on this project about a month when I was advised that Mr. E. E. Avery would come over and take charge of the project and I was to go to work. I had been on this project about a month when I was advised that Mr. E. E. Avery would come over and take charge of the project and I was to go to Coeur d' Alene to take charge of the trestle which was just being built in that vicinity. I left the project on Friday and arrived at Coeur d' Alene to find a wire there for me to go to Bonnet Ferry, Idaho, to take charge of a project there on the Kootenay Forest Highway. We had a tent camp at Moyie Springs located near the contractor's camp and ate with the contractor. The contractor worked all winter on this project, although at times the weather got down to 20 below zero. Due to the fact that he had cast most of the material, he was able to work regardless of weather and snow which got to be about two feet deep. By working every day, he could keep the frost pretty well broken up. The canyon work was done with steam shovels but the three miles that was left was done with horses and fresnos, with two

or three wheelers. The contractor subcontracted out portions of the work. Charlie Osterholm, superintendent on this job was a very efficient man and never questioned the authority of an engineer; he would do anything that was asked of him and the job went very smoothly. The project was completed in the fall of 1923 and another project for an extension of six miles was let during this same year. Mr. E. A. Webster, an old superintendent from the railroad, was awarded this contract and I shall always remember my first meeting with him. We walked over in front of the job, after he received the contract, and he said to me, "You know, I always bid these jobs exactly for what I can do them for, and I expect treatment from the engineer for my profit." I said, "Mr. Webster, I think you just broke even on this job." Mr. Webster did not have any equipment of his own, and he subcontracted this job completely. The subcontractor figured on doing the job with mule teams and horses and he had brought I 100 head of horses and mules. They worked a short while in the fall of '24. About the middle of the summer, the Idaho inspector came out and checked his horses, found that they all had glanders and condemned them. The contractor had brought these horses in from Montana without having them inspected when they crossed the State line and, therefore, Idaho would not compensate him for the horses. He took the horses out and built a trench about ten feet deep and 100 feet long and lined the horses all up along the edge and shot them all but three, pushing them over into the trench and covering them up. This was an ordeal that was difficult for me to handle. In addition, this incident broke the subcontractor and the contractor had to go out and get another outfit to come in and complete the road for him. In those days we used what they call a Wisconsin Drag to help maintain the gravel surface on these projects. The contractor was required to build one of these and use it. Upon completion of the project, the drag was to be left on the project in good workable condition so that the government could use it for maintenance. The cooperative agreement with the State and county called for the government to maintain these projects, they hired local residents who lived adjacent to the road and had teams of horses. They used a team to pull the drag whenever its use was needed.

I hired a local man by the name of Dave McGuire to maintain the section of this road and he would start about 7:00 in the morning and work until dark in the evening. So, I said to him, "Dave, we only want you to work ten hours a day here, which is a normal day. When your time is up you should park your drag off the road and quit for the day." "Oh," he said, "I just wanted to finish the strip so that I can get back home." I said, "Well, I wouldn't do that if I were you, because we don't pay you any extra for it, therefore, it isn't necessary." Later I found out the reason he did that was the fact that he couldn't tell time. He had to wait until it started to get dusk to know when to quit. When he got his first check from the government for doing this work, he brought it down to me and he said, "What do I do with this?" and I said, "Well, sign 'er and take 'er down to the bank and get it cashed, Dave." "Oh," he said, "just put a cross there for me, will you?" I said, "Well, Dave, I could teach you how to write your name in a half hour." "Oh, I used to write 'er but I haven't writ 'er for so long . . . just put a cross down there." So that's the way he continued to sign paychecks. Dave was quite a character, and also a very good worker, but while on the job he decided to get married and went down to Bonnet's Ferry to get a marriage license. The lady at the window, said, "Who are you going to marry?" He said, "Old Granny." The lady said, "Well, we've got to have some name besides Old Granny, what's her last name?" "Oh," he said, "Damned if I know. Everybody called her Old Granny and that's all I know." So he had to wait until he talked to Old Granny before he could get the license.

We had a very good surfacing contractor on this project and surfacing was something new in those days. I think we both learned a good deal from the experience that we gained on these two projects. We wound up with a very good job, which lasted about 18 years before it was necessary to resurface it. I might add, though, that traffic was rather light in those days which is one reason that the surfacing held up as well as it did.

In our spare time while working on the construction of these projects, we ran a location survey from the beginning of the project under construction. This was worked up in the spring of 1924 and the contract was let for the construction of two miles to Turtling and Sons. This was one of the first contracts they had and they later became one of the largest contractors in the Northwest.

I had just completed a staking of this new project when I was advised that I would be replaced and was to go to Coeur d' Alene to handle a project on the North Pacific Highway from Coeur d' Alene extending a distance of 11 miles. This was a widening and surfacing project; the old road was pretty narrow, but the alignment in most cases was good. The work was chiefly widening from 16' to 26' and surfacing. Equipment was getting better as time went on and on this project the contractor brought in a three-quarter yard shovel and a fleet of five cubic yard trucks. They were the old war surplus material and had hard rubber tires, but they did the job well. Woodruff, the contractor, was a one-armed man, but did most of the finishing himself, with a heavy grader pulled by a small tractor. He was able to do an excellent job, even though he had only one hand. The work progressed rather rapidly and the surfacing contractor was able to start fairly soon after the grading contract was let. This project was completed early in the fall of '25 and I was transferred to a construction project on the Selway River.

This project was an 8' road bed for forest development, and was all being done by station men. I was only on this contract for about two months when the weather conditions forced us to shut down for the winter and I went into the Portland Office. During the winter, I worked on design projects for Rainier National Park and in early spring, I went to Wapinita, Oregon, to run a survey to Bear Springs. I had this survey 2/3 of the way finished when I was replaced by Mr. Carrier of the Portland Office, and I was sent to Montana to take charge of a project in Yellowstone, just outside of West Yellowstone. This project was a large flat with the exception of the last 3/4 mile along the Idaho line which was on a fairly easy slope. It was all covered with a heavy stand of jack pines. and the material was all obsidian sand except for an area along the Idaho border, which had some clay mixed in. The project was completed and built with teams, wheelers and fresnos, with the exception of one flat which was swampy to the depths of three feet. There were two concrete bridges on this project -one 80' long and the other 24'. This was my first experience with concrete structures, but with the aid of a good contractor, the bridges were built without any trouble. Here, again, the resident engineer acted as his own transitman and as inspector on the concrete work and did his own office work. Since this road was built through virgin territory, we were not bothered to any great extent by travelers. We did go across the old road three or four times, with very little interference from cars. The finishing was mostly accomplished with a power grader which was one of the first power graders in this territory. It worked very efficiently and had a very good operator and was able to dig where necessary. With this equipment, a very fine looking job was secured. The project was completed in the fall of 1926 and I returned to the Missoula office and worked there for the winter.

In the early spring of 1927, I went to the Madison River project, which was located in the section of Forest Route 60 to the junction of Project 50 at Duck Creek. This survey was 22.5 miles long and followed the Madison River fairly closely on the entire route. The terrain was moderate and there was a slight hillside along most of the area. It took about six weeks to complete this survey and we were able to secure sleeping quarters and a place to eat with a farmer who lived about a mile below the beginning of the project. Upon completion of this project, I was assigned to a construction project on the West Gallatin Forest Highway located near Carson Camp, and extending southerly about five miles. The five mile grading project was let on the Madison River in the early spring of '28 and I was assigned as resident engineer. The contractor brought in a three-quarter yard shovel to do the heavy work, and had teams and fresnos to do the lighter work. The contractor's name was Southerland and his plan was to do the light work during the summer months and save the heavy work for the winter. He planned on working all winter using his three-quarter yard gas shovel and truck. He had brought in about 1,000 barrels of gasoline and oil and other supplies since the road would be closed. He did work all winter, sometimes not to any great advantage, but was able to work sufficiently enough to make it pay. His only contact with the outside world was by dog team and sled. In the spring after everything thawed out, George Southerland went around kicking all the barrels and since some of them sounded like they had gas in them, he told his men to gather up all that fuel and put it in the tank so that they could use it in the machinery. What was actually in the barrels was water that had condensed and frozen, and after the gas had been taken out, melted back to water. After he got that into the tank and put it in the shovel, he was stuck for about three days. But George was a Scotsman and he didn't want to lose anything.

Upon completion of the job, we returned to the Missoula Office for the winter. From 1929 until 1934, I worked on various jobs throughout Montana. Our winters were spent in the Missoula Office working on design projects throughout the State. The outstanding project during this period, in my estimation, was the Bitterroot-Salmon, where I supervised 4 miles of heavy construction on the Idaho-Montana State Line. The contractor brought in a new two-yard Northwest gas shovel which was the largest used in Montana up to that date. He used it to pioneer a road up through the project to that he could get his hauling equipment in to haul material into some draws where it was possible to make fill. In order to get around some of the steep valleys which he had to fill, it was necessary to make steep grades down into them and steep grades back up again. Once, when the shovel was going up a steep grade--about 15%--the chain on one side broke and the shovel went backwards over the grade and turned over with the shovel runner (operator) still in it. It took about five hours to cut the shovel runner out and a doctor had to be brought from 20 miles away while were cutting him out. In addition, there was the danger that the gasoline had spilled out and could catch on fire; we had to be very cautious with our cutting torches. The doctor was able to crawl in and reach the injured man and give him a shot or two to deaden his pain but after that date, the shovel runner decided never to operate a shovel again. The shovel was righted and brought back up to grade with cats, a new chain put on, and restored to good condition.

In those days a good deal of finishing was done by hand. The ditch lines were lined up by hand and the outside shoulders were hand-trimmed to make a very good-looking job. With the large shovel, the contractor was able to move a lot of material that would normally be drilled and shot and in that way he cut down his costs and made a reasonable [profit on this project. Therefore, we had no trouble getting him to do an excellent job. When it was completed it was, in my mind, as good a job as had been done in Montana in all the time I had worked there.

In the spring of 1934, I was assigned as a resident engineer on a project on the Weston-Elgin Forest Highway in Oregon. This project began at Tollgate and extended southerly for a distance of five miles. This project traversed a high plateau and the work was medium-light. Surfacing was not included in the contract. Work progresses very satisfactorily until the summer ended when work had to be shut down due to weather. About that time, which was October, I returned to Portland and worked in the office during the winter season. I returned to

this project in June of 1935 and stayed there until the first of July. I was then transferred to Rainier National Park to take charge of a park project, and I also had charge of the work that was done on the nearby Yakima highway. M<post of the work in Rainier Park was on the Steven Canyon Highway and Eastside Highway. The Eastside Highway terrain was very rough and consisted of a large percentage of rock. It also called for a 640' tunnel. I was the engineer in charge of all the work in Rainier Park from mid 1935 until September of 1944, when all work was shut down due to the war period and I was transferred to the Portland office.

Great care had to be exercised in the park so as not to disturb the landscape anymore than was absolutely necessary. The road from Longmire to Paradise had always been closed by snow during the winter and was not used during that period. But after the surfacing and new pavement was put on the Park Service plowed off snow and allowed the people to go to Paradise during the winter season. There were several difficult switchbacks on this road, and in some places it was very difficult to plow due to the fact that snow would be thrown down on the lower switchback and had to be plowed a second time. The curvature on this road was very sharp but a 30 to 35 mile speed limit helped keep the accident rate down.

Every effort was made to protect the park landscape whenever possible. Attempts were made to shoot the rock up in such a way that no more would go over the sides hills and knock down more trees than was necessary. Masonry walls were built in many places to cut down the damage and the Park Bureau landscape architects came around to the job two or three times a month to see if they could keep us from damaging the landscape. I remember one incident which happened just before my arrival on the project, where a contractor had fired shot and a slide developed cutting a big gash down the hillside knocking down several acres of trees. The landscape architect wrote the Bureau Engineer and letter and told him in the future he wanted them to shoot the material so that it would go on the upper side of the hill and stay up there instead of coming down the hill to the lower side. I arrived about the same time as the letter and I asked the landscape engineer if he wouldn't come over and stay on the project for a couple of weeks to design a way in which we could do a better job of shooting. This he declined to do. The contractor made every effort possible to avoid damage, loading the charges in such a way as to keep any more from going over the side than was unavoidable, although it was impossible to keep all the material in the roadbed. We finally convinced him that we were doing the best job possible.

The project was nearly complete when we were forced to shut down for the war period. All the finishing on this route was done by hand as we did not have the equipment which was later available to do this kind of work. The shoulders were trimmed by hand and the ditches were dug by hand. About the only credit an engineer got was when the job was finished. The general public was never aware of what a job cost, but they sure were aware of what it looked like. Therefore, if an engineer did a good job of finishing, he got pretty good credit on the project.

One of the real tragedies in the Bureau occurred while I was a resident engineer in the Portland Office. We were working on some projects above Estacada and I was going to go take a look at a location site near there. Mr. Farmer, our District Engineer wanted to go with me to tale a look at another site which was ready to go to contract. When we got there, he told me to drop him off and go to the location project, but I got one of our guys to accompany and drive him around.

When I got back awhile later, I saw the man I had left with him, but not Mr. Farmer. He told me Mr. Farmer had gone across the river on a footlog and was somewhere on the other side. We went to the other side but saw no trace of him. We got every available man and searched until dark, but without results. I called the Portland Office and they sent out a dozen people the next morning and we continued to search the river and the country around there for two days.

Portland General Electric had a dam about a mile upstream from the footlog and we asked them if they could close the dam for a short period and lower the river so that we could better search it for the body. They couldn't do it at that time, but they said they would in about ten days. So, we came out again at that time and found him about 500 feet below the footlog, lodged under a fallen log, which had been underwater when we made the original search. We were very sad over this loss, as Mr. Farmer was a very respected member of the engineering force and a very valued employee.

I thoroughly enjoyed my many years with the Bureau of Public Roads and I often think of how different conditions are today than they were when I went to work. A person has to like his work to stand the hardships. Which engineering crews endured in the early days. IO was always proud to be a member f the Bureau of Public Roads because I always figured that they gave the public at least a dollar's worth of value for every dollar spent.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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