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The Trailblazers

Period 1928 to 1940

Norman Wood

I first became aware of the Bureau of Public Roads in the early 1920's soon after the close of World War I, when a small party of engineers and construction people came to Cascade, Idaho, to locate and build a forest road from Cascade to Warm Lake, then in the Payette Forest - now the Boise. This crew - with R. R. Mitchell as chief - came from the then District 12 office at Ogden, Utah. They were a hearty crew and made a lasting impression on a young high school student (me) in the small town of Cascade. I was spending part of my after school time then shining shoes in the local barber shop. The principal relaxation for this crew was Saturdays nights in Cascade and as the real sports among them always wore "choke-bore" pants and leather puttees, the show shine boy had a big payoff each week working over those brown shoes and puttees. This crew put on an excellent example of what I later came to know as a "normal " Saturday night outing for BPR crews in small forest-related towns. Crew transportation was an Army surplus White truck with no windshield or top, but the loudest air horn around. It was customary for the group to "warn" the local people of their pending arrival in town from about two miles out - with the air horn on the White.

As my father was an engineer, I was not unaware of what engineering was all about and that this BPR crew, like most such, worked and played with considerable enthusiasm. I think it was at this time in my life I decided that road engineering, hopefully with BPR was the life for me.

I again came in contact with BPR a few years later in Southern Oregon. My father and family had moved to Oregon while I was at school. IN 1927, my father was a partner in the engineering firm of Powell & Wood in Medford, Oregon. By this time, I had a job as a levelman-draftsman, for the city of Medford, on field engineering and design of their local airport.

As some will recall, it was 1927 that BPR, and the Park Service entered into the lasting cooperative arrangement providing for BPR survey, design and construction of the principal roads in National Parks. As a result, BPR moved into Crater Lake National Park and started what was to be a comprehensive program there in rebuilding the road system originally constructed before World War I, by the Corps of Engineers. When the Park opened in June 1928, the Medford newspaper carried a release, by NPS, that BPR was to complete the surfacing of the Annie Springs -Rim section that season. This revived my desire to be a part of an organization privileged to work in western forests and parks., I made application for a job on the Crater Lake crew and a few days later, John Sargent, who had been assigned to this job as his first residency, contacted me personally in Medford, hired me as a "rockchecker" and my BPR career was underway. The contractor was Dunn & Baker of Klamath Falls, and they were working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Being the "new boy" in the rockchecking crew meant I got the graveyard shift from midnight to eight a.m.

Even though it was July, nights were really cold at the project elevation of 6,550 - 7,200 feet. The contractor's dump trucks were of different vintage and make with no cab or windshield and solid rubber tires. I recall that of the two more reliable trucks, one was a Packard and the other a Riker - both chain drive. The crushing plant was a "custom" type plant made up of several units of different makes the primary crusher being of some cone type powered by a Vern-Severin three-cylinder semi-diesel. Dependability was not characteristic of crushing plants in those days, This plant was anything but reliable even by the standards of that time, so we of the checking crew did get some time off during breakdowns - at which time John Sargent always found something to keep us busy. The 1928 Crater Lake crew consisted of John Sargent, Walt Gredveg, Ed Thompson, Dale Bleakman, George Barnhart and me.

BPR was not hiring permanent people of my qualifications in those days, hence, my first three years (1928-29-30) with the Bureau were as a "temporary employee" in and around Crater Lake National Park. However, in the fall of 1930, a Civil Service exam for noon-professional employees was given and I managed a passing grade as Senior Levelman. In February of 1931, I was offered and accepted an appointment to that grade at $1,620 per annum.

A 1930 assignment was a location survey for a new Forest Highway route extending from Union Creek to Beaver Marsh via Diamond Lake. This route is about 45 miles long and skirts Crater Lake Park on the west and north sides - opening up what has become a popular recreation area at Diamond Lake and providing an additional (North) entrance to Crater Lake Park. It was on this survey that my topog party and I experienced a situation which taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten. In late October, the survey party was camped at Union Creek and we were attempting to complete field work on the Union Creek-Rogue River portion of the route before winter close-down so that design of the construction project could be accomplished during the coming winter months. We had completed all necessary work except about one mile of topography. At this time, we were hit one night by a snow storm which looked like winter for sure. In the morning, the snow was about a foot deep and still snowing. It didn't look good, but Sargent and we decided we should try and get that final mile of topography. It was about a six-mile drive to the area from camp, over a primitive forest trail-road. Project transportation in those days was usually by Dodge panel ¾ ton units (not 4-wheel drive), having good power and ground clearance. John Sargent and I agreed that this crew and the powerful Dodge were up to the task, so we let camp at Union Creek about 8:00 a.m., with the Dodge and had no serious problems getting out to the work area. I did take the precaution to turn the Dodge around so it would be headed towards camp.

The snow was a little deeper at the work area, but it was powder type and cold-dry, so we proceeded to get the best topog we could under the circumstances and in our concentration on our objective we failed to note that the temperature warmed up and the snowfall tempo increased so that by 4:00 p.m., we had about two feet of wet snow to contend with. We did get the topog information we needed, got back to the Dodge and headed for camp.

I think the first run we made was about two hundred feet until the some two feet of wet snow piled up in front of the Dodge to bumper height, and she just couldn't push further. We did have shovels along and after shoveling the pile-up from in front, we were able to take another run. Our progress was slow by this procedure - it soon got dark and the snowfall turned to a light drizzle. After about a mile of this run and shovel procedure, the Dodge was finally forced sideways off the road and we were really stuck.

Walking out seemed to be the best course of action but after going less than half a mile, we found we were too exhausted to buck the knee deep snow. In fact, one of the crew members had become totally exhausted and incoherent and insisted he must lay down. We managed to get him to a sheltered area under a large fir tree and built a fire. All five of us were wet to the skin and the fact that we were able to get a fire going quickly was probably what saved some of us - if not all of us that night. Anyway, the long night did pass as we took turns keeping each other awake - but before daybreak, the rescue group headed by John Sargent, arrived with Coleman lanterns, flashlights, food and hot coffee in Thermos bottles. They had driven as far as they could, then walked about two miles to reach us.

It took some loud talking on their part, but they got us moving and by following their inbound trail through the snow, we made it to where they had left their truck.

With the added load, this Dodge had the same trouble as we had had, even though their outbound passage had broken a trail. By the same method we had used earlier the evening before, the group, which was now eight, finally made it back to camp at Union Creek at 9:00 a.m., tired but much wiser. We were somewhat shaken later in the day to learn that Jack Godfrey, the Chief Ranger in Crater Lake Park, had gotten stuck in the snow on the South Entrance route that same night and his rescue group had found his body about a half-mile from his pickup. He was not as lucky as we were. A day later, we were able to salvage our truck with a NPS snow-cat.

During the summer season of 1931, someone decided that part of the Rim Road around Crater Lake should be located inside the crater itself. I'm sure this wasn't an NPS idea. Anyway, John Sargent selected me and a transit crew to run a preliminary line inside the Rim and along the base of the upper vertical face of Llao Rock. No such plan would even be dreamed of in these times. Llao Rock is a massive cliff extending from its top, (the actual Lake rim) almost vertical and down some 500-600 feet, then about a 1:1 slope for approximately 100 feet, then another vertical drop of some 600-800 feet to the Lake surface. The purpose of the survey was to determine if it were possible to locate the Rim Road within and along the above-mentioned relatively "flat" area between the two vertical cliffs.

As was then customary on location surveys, the party chief (me) was out in front of the transit party "flagging the line." Along the base of the vertical cliff above me was a narrow game trail and it was along this trail we proposed to run the "P" line. About the middle of the afternoon, of the first day out, I was setting an angle flag along this trail at a point in a small draw along which I could look downward some 800 feet and see the deep blue water of the Lake. As I attempted to drive the lath I apparently shifted my weight and my footing gave way. Down I went - with my axe and bundle of lath. While the lath and axe were never found, I managed during my slide down about a 1:1 slope to catch hold of a large rock imbedded in the slope and stop my slide before I reached the vertical drop below me. I "froze" and was unable to move for a time, after which I dug my boot toes into the pumice slope and transferred some of my weight away from my arms. Further than this, I was powerless to move and my only hope was that the transit crew would come soon. They did, in about half an hour and working with a rope, fastened the rope around my shoulder and one arm and with this assistance, I was able to work my way back up to the game trail.

This is the closest I have yet come to going to the big survey camp in the sky - needless to say, I never again worked in such areas alone or without ropes. I cannot yet look over a high cliff without the same cold fear I experienced that day.

Until the fall of 1931, I had little contact with BPR personnel - except those assigned to John Sargent in the Crater Lake Park residency. I spent the 1932 construction season with Cliff Polk on a construction project on the west side of Mount Rainier National Park, on an NPS route that was to extend along the west side of the Park to a connection with the White River route, which extends along the north side. This was the last project ever built on this proposed route and construction priority was switched to the Stevens Canyon route on the southeast side of the Park.

In 1933, I was assigned to Glacier Park for the season and worked with A. V. Emery on construction of the St. Mary Lake section of the Going to Sun Highway. This route is the principal one in this Park extending from what is now West Glacier crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (Elev. 6,664) and connecting with US 89 at St. Mary, Montana.

It was while on this assignment I had my second experience with a fall snow storm and the experience of October 1930 was of some guidance.

Both the contractor and BPR were camped at Roe Creek, some six miles west of St. Mary. I was the only BPR crew member with my family at camp and there were several contractor families. My family consisted of my wife Mabel, Norman, Jr. (age 5 years) and Peggy (age 2 years).

About the middle of September we had a two-day snow storm which left some three feet on the ground. We didn't know whether this storm was "it" for the season - it was decided by the contractor to get "his" families out of there and into Glacier Park Station (now East Glacier), some thirty miles southeast on the other side of the Hudson Bay Divide.

Being "snowed in" was not a new experience to any of the BPR or contractor crew and it was decided the families would stay in camp until they had opened a trail with tractors, the six miles to US 89 at St. Mary. While snow removal equipment was not what it is today, the State highway crews were equal to their task and had US 89 open to Glacier Park Station by evening of the third day. The contractor crew having opened a passable road to St. Mary with dozers, we were advised by the State to get the families out that night as a new storm was due. We and the other families took off about dark and with a Highway Department escort made it to Glacier Park Station about midnight.

The irony of it all is that a week later I made the same trip on bare roadway. I had the family settled in a small apartment upstairs over the local grocery store at East Glacier. BPR and the contractor worked another month before being snowed out for the season. It may be of interest to note that the Stevens Canyon route in Mount Rainier, the Going to Sun route in Glacier and Rim Road in Crater Lake involved gravity type rubble masonry retaining walls of heights and cubic volumes not previously constructed on highways of this class anywhere and involved per-mile construction costs unheard of up to that time on either Park or Forest highways. While, the width and alignment standards are low for present-day traffic volumes, on many NPS routes, such as West Entrance and Stevens Canyon in Mount Rainier, Going to Sun in Glacier, Rim Road in Crater Lake and many routes in parks in California, Colorado, Utah, etc., I am personally pleased that NPSA has decided as a matter of policy they will not attempt to up-grade the standards on these routes. To reconstruct these routes to present-day geometric standards would result in landscape and environmental damage not acceptable in recreation areas such as National Parks. I must confess I did not agree with NPS on this important matter until about 1965 and I accepted it then on the basis of "if you can't beat them, join 'em." However, I saw the light in 1967 and am sure they were right then, and now. Recreation traffic is not a must and can be limited and/or controlled and usually serve a different primary purpose than NPS routes, environmental impact studies are and must be continued to determine the proper location and geometric standards compatible with the public interest. It is my personal feeling that the public interest would best be served by lowering present-day FHP standards on Class 1 and 2 Forest Highways, except those routes which are part of the Federal-aid Primary System.

Getting back to the early experiences of a BPR-SI - in 1935 I began a six-year work-association with Wendell Struble in and around Crater Lake Park. During this period, construction of the before-mentioned Diamond Lake Highway, Crater Lake Rim Road and North Entrance routes were completed.

Those who I consider the real "old timers" and pioneers in BPR in the Pacific Northwest area were a little ahead of my time. The top people on Forest and Park Highways in old District One (Region 8), when I came were such as Frank Andrews, Harold Farmer, Jack Elliott and Bob Kellogg. The so-called resident engineer group included a few who were classed as "characters" even in those days - such as Paul Carriger, Bill Utz, Rex Mark, Gene Ewing, Bob Bloodsworth, Fred Cotter, A. V. Emery, et al. There was also a group of younger and "new" resident engineers such as John Sargent, Wendell Stuble, George Forrest, Ed Kinney, John Hewes, Ray Schwegler, Ralph McMullen, et al.

It was this latter group that I really "grew up" with. I consider the six year work-association I had with Wendell Struble from 1935-1940 as probably the period when I gained the experience and principal highway background which served me well for the years that were ahead.

In any record of those early days on Forest and Park activities by BPR, it is proper to note that role played by the wife and children of project personnel.

Quite often, there was a "no-family" rule applicable on the more remote projects and almost always on location surveys. Under such circumstances families remained at District (Region) headquarters. However, on many construction projects families were at first tolerated - and in later years certain provisions were made - such as furnishing a tent or available government-owned facilities with consequent reduction in the per diem rate. (During the 1930's this rate was $1.30 basic, having been reduced from $1.50 in deference to the "depression.")

My personal experiences with family life "on the project" are many and varied. In the summer of 1931, BPR families were first permitted in Crater Lake Park. While NPS made a fine small stone house available to the BPR resident engineer, he was charged one-third of his per diem rate as rental, which actually was a bargain. Crew members were allotted an area for a tent camp.

My first real experience with the "BPR tent-town" at Crater Lake was when I returned to this Park, with Wendell Struble, in 1936. A rather heavy construction program was underway on the Rim Road and there was a large BPR crew. As I recall, the following had families in the Park, all at tent-town near Headquarters: W. Struble (in the stone house), B. McClarty, R. Ledrichy, W. Swearenton, W. Coble, Al Dippert, Max Kohler, Neil Body, Al Gilfillan and N. Wood. This group included some ten children ranging in age from one to twelve years.

Travel trailers and mobile homes were unknown in those days. Living quarters were basically a 12' x 16' tent on a frame with 4' sidewalls. NPS furnished electricity and water, with wiring and water pipes the employee's responsibility. We had a three-burner kerosene cook stove, powder box furniture, an airtight wood heating stove and steel cots, compliments of BPR.

Nighttime temperatures at Park Headquarters (Elev. 6,200) are such that the heating stove was in use both evening and mornings. Refrigeration was a snow bank nearby (until about July 4th), a homemade water cooler, or the nearby creek.

National Parks are noted for their bear population and Crater Lake was no exception in those years. These bears made daily attempts to get at stored food and they repeatedly "busted" into unoccupied tents if left unguarded. It was not unusual to return from a weekend trip to town and find your tent a shambles. Park regulations precluded your taking any action against these thieves, except yelling and beating on tin pans. You have never seen a real mess unless you have seen living quarters after a bear's visit.

Many of the wives, mine included, were convinced the bears would carry away their small children. While this was probably not a real danger, a female with cubs was always so, because of her concern for the cubs. In any case, it was necessary to keep the bear cubs and the human cubs separated and this was not always easy.

While living was certainly, "low standard" by present-day criteria, my wife and I now recall those days as happy and exciting.

However, when in later years I had occasion to visit BPR construction projects and observed the compact and comfortable trailer and mobile home living quarters for both single and married crew members, I realized that we were really "roughing it" back in the thirties. I salute the wives, (mine included) of project personnel who went through that period, and did a good job for the "old man" and their children.

It may be of interest to note that our son went to twenty-nine (29) different schools from fist grade to high school graduation, in three different States and two foreign countries during the period 1934-1946.

Insofar as Forest and Park Highway survey, design and construction methods are concerned, the decade 1930-1940 is perhaps the important period. As geometric standards were raised on all highways throughout the U.S., the equipment industry kept pace with the development of large and more efficient construction machinery. The trend has continued to the present in the general highway field. The engineering tools, instruments and machines available to BPR crews, and others, by 1960 has completely changed the methods and techniques from those used as late as 1950.

When one compares the simple transit and level we used up to 1940 with those now in use. It is amazing to me, as one who has never actually used the modern instruments, how some can be so small and light and still obtain acceptable accuracy. Aerial survey methods and A.D.P. have about eliminated the "line-level-topog," method of location survey. - at least in open country. Even in heavy timber the aerial map eliminates much route selection and drainage area survey work.

The first transits and levels I used with BPR were big and heavy. At that time, it was considered that size and weight meant accuracy. Either instrument weighed around thirty pounds along with the tripod. About 1935 Gurley came out with a so-called lightweight transit with eight inch vernier plates. Some of the "old-timers" would not use (or let their crews use) these transits because they felt them inaccurate. As an old "topographer" I have always felt getting accurate ground topog was an important step in location survey, especially in steep terrain such as exists in most western Forests and Parks. Several methods were used involving slope chaining, "Slope boards," hand level, and of course the ever-handy "same slope" and "eyeball." Getting topog by the above methods was hard work, slow, inaccurate and often dangerous. Even though the ropes were used on steep slopes, accidents can and do happen, even yet.

IN the 1936 summer session at Crater Lake Park, a young member if the topog crew, working on a Rim Road survey just south of Kerr Notch, was badly injured when loose rock above where he was working came down the slope. Even though he was using a rope, he was knocked unconscious and he fell about thirty feet, fracturing his skull. After many weeks in the Medford Hospital, he recovered enough to return to his home in Portland, but was unable to ever complete his college education because of brain damage.

The electronic computer has brought about many changes in most fields of endeavor, not the least of which is highway design. Up until recent years the design concept that the "cuts-make-the-fills" was basic and still is. I suppose on most Forest and Park work. Even so, the combination of aerial survey and computer design have about eliminated the need for old hand methods involving plotted topog, template, planimeter quantity determination and mass-diagram.

The old method was slow and subject to human error but it provided a management tool that was advantageous to both BPR and the "field engineers," in western Forest and Parks. While field work was closed down during winter months, the design activity kept many of us on the payroll getting out design on the next season's construction projects.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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