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The Trailblazers

The Best Years of my Life (1928-1941)

B. J. McClarty

My career with the Bureau of Public Roads began the summer of 928 when I signed on as a temporary employee (Chainman) on the construction of the West Sode Highway in Rainier national Park. The boss was C. R. Short, a grand old timer and a fine engineer; sometimes affectionately called the "Rock Crusher Diplomat."

The St. Andrews Station that I worked on was being constructed entirely by "Station Gangs." Ethnic groups (approximately 20) of Italians, Swedes, etc., would take so many stations (100') of highway for a fixed price per station. Picks, shovels and wheelbarrows were the construction equipment; and it was amazing how much yardage was moved each week by these hand methods. They worked hard, ate enormous amounts of food; and did little playing - too isolated and too tired. Food, construction equipment and supplies came in by pack horse.

I believe the West Side Highway was completed only from the Main Entrance Road to the Puyallup River. Severe grades and curvature were required to get to Rounds Pass, from whence the highway dropped to the Puyallup River. One of the most scenic spots appeared on all maps as "Ford's Rest," since it was assumed that the Model T's could get no farther without a stop to cool off.

After time out for a stretch with the Washington Department of Highways, I returned to BPR in 1930 as a Rodman-Chainman with W.C. Struble on the Republic-Tonasket Highway in NE Washington. Believe me, BPR personnel were popular in Republic, as all the main routes to the town were on the Forest Highway System; and until BPA began its road improvement program in the area, the town was almost isolated from the outside world. Republic was an old gold mining camp, and some of the mines were still operating in 1930. It was also the headquarters for some important "Rum Runners." Whiskey was shipped from Canada to Republic in the ore cars, and then loaded out for truck shipment throughout the West. It was claimed, but never proven, of course, that some of the BPR surveyors picked up a little extra cash helping unload the ore cars.

Anyway, when BPR got the Republic-Tonasket and Republic-San Poil Highways improved and the Republic-Kettle Falls Highway built, the town folks could get to Spokane and elsewhere without much difficulty. W.C. Struble could have been elected mayor if he had desired the office. But instead he just picked off one of the prize school teachers (Eunice Webb) for his wife. His father-in-law owned a ranch west of town, and Struble's location forced the old gentleman to move his chicken house - that just about destroyed the romance. Then, later the old gentleman took his shotgun and stopped the contractor from working on his land since he had not received his right of way payment. None of these situations were conducive to good family relations, but the "newlyweds" survived it all, and are still going strong in 1975.

After another time out to get in a little more school, I returned to BPA in 1931 as a Senior Levelman, working for Ed Saunders on the construction of the Barstow-Laurie (Canadian Line) Forest Highway (US 395). This was probably the last large team constructed highway project in the Northwest. The contractor had 100 head of horses; the sidehill cuts were large and high, and it took great skill and "horse-sense" to get the material down and in place with horses and fresnoes. Saunders did not like the grading foreman, and often when I was asked if I had seen the foreman, and the answer was affirmative, Ed would say, "Was he behind a horse, because if he was and the horse was all right, he is probably all right and no trouble is brewing." Temperatures dropped to almost 40 degrees below zero, and working horses in this extreme temperature without seriously damaging their lungs required great skill and understanding of stock.

Ever try to set sloe stakes in 30 degree below zero weather? We did, and not too successfully either. My eyes watered so badly, I couldn't see through the hand level, and putting a stake in the ground, even with a frost pin, was almost an impossibility.

The project was completed, however, without serious mishap. The contractor did break some of the hotel windows in the little town of Orient and a few others with his blasting. As a result, every farmer for miles around that had any kind of a broken window claimed blast damage and got replacement.

I next worked on a few real tough location surveys. The Little Sheep Creek Forest Highway in northeastern Oregon with Ed Kinney, the Cascade Wagon Road (now called North Cross-State), and the South Ford Stillaguamish, the Loup Loup (Okanogon-Twisp), the Republic-Kettle Falls (Eastside), all in Washington, and all under W.C. Struble, the best locator in the business.

Little Sheep Creek (Imnaha) was rough - not the terrain, but the hot weather, rattlesnakes and poison oak. We had a list posted in the office tend of all objectionable and/or poisonous items discovered on the project, and as I recall the list had grown to 18 items before I left. This was the project when the rattlesnake strike at major Bohler and hit the metal band of his wrist watch. Bohler reacted instinctively and struck back and his the snake on top of the head and broke it's neck. The crew thought the event should be sent in to Ripley's "Believe It or Not" as the man who could strike faster than a rattler.

The Cascade Wagon Road was the proposed new Cross-State route in northern Washington. Since the route crossed the Cascade Mountains, it was a tough, rough location survey. But we were used to tough surveys, although we did not enjoy taking topog hanging from ropes, which was necessary on sections of this project. It always seemed as if the BPA got the toughest sections of new highways to locate and build. I guess that is why the saying was prevalent in those days that "if they ever built a road to Hell, the BPR would get the last seven miles."

The South Fork Stillaguamish was noted for rainfall, blue clay, and large "devil clubs." We had 76" of rain in the month of November, unbelievable but officially recorded at Verlot. "Cruiser Pads" became standard equipment for the first time on this project, because note keeping was impossible without some type of "rain pad."

Then it was the Willamette Highway, in early 1934, both location and construction. Hugh S. Stoddart and A.B. Lewellan, two grand gentlemen and fine engineers were the residents. The location was a pack-horse job; but trails were adequate, camp sites good, we had a fine cook, and the topography was only real rough in spots, so no big problems were encountered. It was interesting to note that from a common point with the SP Railroad at Heather to the Summit, was 7 miles by highway (when we finished) and 22 miles by rail. That is what main line railroad gradients can cause.

However, the location and construction took too long, and Oakridge was pretty isolated and a couple local girls trapped O'Hearne and me. When H.D. Farner, the inspection engineer found out I was engaged to be married, he rushed me to Glacier Park, Montana, to "give me time to think it over." It did not do any good though, and I was married Christmas Day 1934, in Eugene, Oregon. And the "Oakridge Trapper" is still with me, so I never made a better decision when I "thought it over."

During the Montana stay, I put in a few miserable Fall months at Babb. That must be where all the big winds in Montana originate. Even setting up a heavy model transit was a major undertaking most of the tie (and impossible the rest of the time). The wind could snap a 100' chain straight out like a string. When they asked an Indian (this was the Blackfoot Reservation) if there was any snow in Babb, his reply was "Nope, but heap lot going through." And believe me, that was no exaggeration.

In 1935, I drew my first full-fledged residency with a construction project in the John Day-Burns Forest Highway. With a salary of $150.00 per month and $1.30 per diem, we were affluent residents of Canyon City. We rented a cabin for $15.00 a month, including wood, light and water. In other words, we could practically exist on the per diem. The depression was a terrible experience for a great many people, but for most of us regulars with BPR it was a "boom" period.

Assignments from here (1935) on were not particularly unusual or tough (I refer only to those in the States). They included principally the Assistant Resident Engineer in Crater lake and on the Santiam highway, Resident engineer assignments on construction of a section of the Mt. Adams Highway, office man for George Forrest in Rainier National Park, and party chief on location of a section of the Transisthmian Highway in the Republic of Panama (1940).

Looking back on the 1936-1940 period, a couple of events stand out as somewhat unusual. On the Mt. Adams Highway, because of a petition circulated by people in the Husum area, we restored the waterfall on the White Salmon River that was designed to prevent damage at the bridge site. We didn't have environmental impact statements in those days, but sometimes similar results were accomplished when public opinion was sufficiently strong. Also, I will never forget completing the surfacing of a Santiam Highway Project by placing the last few tons of rock on a foot of snow in a blinding blizzard at midnight with the State snow plows throwing it off just about as fast as we put it on.

After a couple of special assignments during the war at Kodiak, Alaska and Neah Bay, Washington, I was assigned to the Planning Section of the Regional Office in 1943, and the Direct Federal Highway Program was behind me as a direct participant. Soon I was in the Federal Aid Program; something most of the early BPR resident engineers did not understand and considered rather insignificant in the overall highway picture, At one time I asked my resident engineer what Federal-aid was, and he replied that it had something to do with the State Highway Departments. So, for years, that is all I knew about it.

When I look back at the many BPR "Mud Engineers" that I worked for or with, I recognize that they were a special breed of men. Engineers like Struble, Forrest, Saunders, Lewellan, Carriger, McGillivray, Mack, Stoddart, Kinney, Emery, Short, Rehr, Utz, Kit, and Cook all had one thing in common - they just knew how to locate, design and build a good, sound highway at the lowest possible cost. Many of them did not have much education behind them, and could not explain technically why certain soils or rock were good or bad for construction - they just knew. Almost without exception, they hated book work, letter writing, etc., and they probably would all be in jail in this day exact accounting and investigations; but I never once heard the slightest accusation or wrongdoing against any of them and no one will ever know the substantial sums of money they saved the taxpayers by keeping everything possible, "off the mahogany," as Bill Utz would say.

My direct Federal experience spanned approximately 14 years of my 42 year career. Sometimes the going was rather rough, but we were young and did not expect easy assignments. Although some claimed they were married for ten years before they knew people lived in anything but tents, it wasn't really that bad. My wife and I did live in a tent at times; but one could fix up quite comfortably in a tent. Furniture and cupboards came from Hercules and Dupont powder boxes, and some of this furniture was surprisingly efficient and ingenious. There was a close personal friendship with fellow crew members and their wives, and one had to make their own entertainment on most assignments. Even to this day, our closest friends are the engineers and their wives who shared the cold, the tents, and the continual moving (always on weekends) on the direct Federal Highway Program.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000