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The Trailblazers

Memorable Days with BPR

A. W. Parsons

I am honored to be included with those rough and tough old-timers who furnished the first engineering talent for the BPR early-day roads. However, I really belong with the second generation of BPR engineers having commended my highway career as a roadman and chainman for the Washington State Highway Department and only getting into the Bureau's direct Federal work during the summer of 1929. My first assignment with BPR was on a location survey on the Pendleton-John Day highway between Ukiah Hotel in Ukiah, Oregon, and included such notables as Rex Mack (locating engineer), Marv Martin, Ed McKinstry and Felix Ranta. The crew soon left the comforts of the Ukiah Hotel and established a tent camp on the farm of John Canfield near the John Day River. This was rattlesnake country and prime deer-hunting territory, but fortunately no one was snake bitten or shot at. The most hair-raising incident of the summer was when one of the axemen tried to drink from a spring and noticed that a rattlesnake was coiled within a foot of his head. The survey was finished in the late fall, after which I returned to school for the spring semester, returning to Ukiah the following June to work with Bill Peters, Resident Engineer, on a 3-mile construction segment at the north end of the project. The contractor was O. D. Wolfe of Vancouver, Washington, and the engineering party lived in the O. D. Wolfe camp and boarded at the contractor's mess hall where deer meat was the main staple of sustenance during that summer and fall. The most notable occurrence during the long hot summer was an epidemic of dysentery that swept through the contractor's camp and the engineering crew. At the end of the fall season I returned again to school for the spring semester and in June came once more to Ukiah to serve as an instrumentman for construction under Resident Engineer Marios Stevens. During that summer I was borrowed for a few weeks to serve as instrumentman on a location survey under Locating Engineer, Mr. Overman, between the John Day River and Long Creek. The highlight of this session occurred when our of our section lines, as ran it out, went through a patch of brush in which was located a rather large still, for those were prohibition days and the still was quite active in manufacturing moonshine for the local imbibers.

I could not close out this account of the Ukiah episode without stating that there was a certain Miss Holt who was principal of the local Ukiah High School and who counted among her duties that of being the baseball coach during the spring and basketball coach during the winter months. Having played a little basketball during my school days, of course I couldn't do other than offer my services as assistant basketball coach for a while and, as you might guess, the association developed to the point where the coach and the assistant coach decided to get married. The wedding date was set for the next Christmas vacation and which took place, but only after a long separation period during which one of us was assigned to the Red Lodge-Cook City Highway in Montana and the other to the teaching system in the Medford High School.

My assignment on the Red Lodge-Cook City project started in July of 1032 and continued until December of 1933. My work the first season consisted of running the location line from Cook City to the summit of Bear Tooth Mountain at an elevation of approximately 11,000 feet. The second season was spent as an assistant resident engineer on a 17-mile grading project extending from the Yellowstone National Park border easterly to the beginning of Bear Tooth Mountain. This work was done under the general supervision of Mr. Harry Mitchell who later became resident manager for planning survey at Salem, Oregon, and still later resigned from the Bureau to take up the raising of cattle and potatoes on a farm near Tulelake, California, where he still resides. The headquarters for the Bureau crew was located at a dude ranch known as Richel Lodge about 20 miles west of Red Lodge, Montana. There were five engineers who wintered at this dude ranch the winter of 1932-33. Besides Mr. Mitchell, there were Marv Martin, Guy Jarrett, Clifford Peterson and myself. The long winter's gloomy days had it's effect. Three of the five engineers went outside during the winter to bring back brides to brighten up the dreary atmosphere. Sorry to relate my bride had a teaching contract at Medford, Oregon, and could not come to the Red Lodge area until June of 1933. She had to return to Medford at the end of the summer for a fall teaching season and for three months during the fall I lived with other members of the crew at Cook City on a dude ranch where we boarded with the dude ranch kitchen and lived in canvas tents. The temperature part of this time fell to a -20 degrees and I can tell you that a rag tent is no place to live in such a frigid atmosphere. During the time we boarded at the dude ranch, we came in from work one evening to be told that in the cold room adjoining the warm kitchen there was a coffin containing the body of a young girl who had been killed in a playground accident in Seattle and had been returned by her mother to Cook City, the mother being the daughter of a local family, who incidentally were Irish and carried out a certain procedure known as the Irish Wake. While we thought that this would take only one evening and that the coffin and corpse would be gone the next day, we were sadly mistaken. It seems that certain members of the Irish family got into arguments over just how to conduct the burial, whether in an ordinary coffin or in a concrete vault, and this discussion went on night after night for approximately a week. Fortunately, the weather was very cold and fortunately also we were working hard enough during the day to have good appetites at night regardless of the situation.

During the summer of 1933 while my wife, Christine, was with me we had a call one day from a Mr. Red Mills who was bringing in his new bride and whose car had broken down-country from Cook City. We drove down and pulled Red and his bride in their disabled car back to Cook City where the newly married couple stayed with us for two days until their car had been repaired. One other incident occurred that fall indicating the severe climactic conditions under which everyone labored. The first big snowstorm of the season occurred in early October and two men working with the bridge contractor near Cook City attempted to return to Red Lodge by going over the Bear Tooth Mountain summit. As they neared the summit, they could see that they would never make it and abandoning their car they hiked on foot and tried to get to a small shelter shack a few miles west of the summit. They made it to the shack all right but were unable to start a fire or do anything to save themselves as they were found frozen to death there at a later date. While inclement weather forced a shut-down of all construction work the middle of October, the engineering crew at Cook City finished out the remaining field and office work on the grading project and returned by way of Gardiner and Livingston to the Richel Lodge headquarters. We put in another month of very cold and windy work remeasuring cut and fill sections on the famous Quad Creek four-level switchback between Richel Lodge and the summit. One other crew working on this remeasurement at that time consisted of Mr. O. Sawyer (Chief), Mr. Jim O'Hearne, Mr. Al Neeley and a Mr. Russel. Since there was no winter work being performed for any of the contractors that winter, the Bureau crew shut down the Richel Lodge camp and all returned to Portland, Marv Martin and myself each driving a Bureau truck back to Vancouver Equipment Depot.

During the early spring of 1934 I had two short assignments, both as instrumentman on location, first on the Grand Ronde to Otis section of the Oregon Highway from Willamette Valley to the ocean beaches. The second assignment was on the Warm Springs relocation project between Government Camp and Madras under the direction Location Engineer Paul Carriger. About halfway through this location project I was notified to report to the Portland office for a new assignment in the Federal-aid department. Paul Carriger was a rather irascible individual and the morning that I was to report to Portland, he took the crew out to assume the transit duties himself until my replacement showed up later in the day. When Harry Miller, my replacement, came to Government Camp and we started to take him out to the job, we had not gone far when we met the other crew car returning to camp. We stopped to find what the trouble was and were told that Paul couldn't find the crosshairs in the transit because they were working in a dark-timbered brushy area. He was sending the blankety blank instrument in to have new crosshairs put in it, they said. Harry Miller took a look through the gun and decided he could see the crosshairs all right so they returned the instrument and Miller took up where I left off.

While the above assignment was the last one I had as a regular member of a Bureau field crew on direct Federal construction or location, during the ensuing years I had many occasions to participate in inspections or other administrative duties connected with direct Federal location design construction work. During the years 1938 to 1941 I was assigned to the materials and Soils Department under Materials Engineer Raymond M. Schwegler, with Mr. A. B. Lewellen as an associate. During this period I trained as a soils mechanic and soils analyst at the Oregon State Highway Department Laboratory and at the Washington Soils Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Following this training I made a number of soils surveys on Forest Highway projects throughout the Northwest and directed the activities of Mr. Norman Wood and Mr. Grant Meyer on other soil survey projects. A study of soils and techniques involved in applying soils information to highway design was something new in those days, and as I traveled around from project to project I became aware that I had a new title, that of Mr. P. I. reflecting the very important soils tests know as plasticity index.

In closing, I feel I should mention several very notable characters who were most active in the early BPR work involving location, design and construction of highways. Of course, Mr. W. H. Lynch, who was the District Engineer in overall charge of work in Oregon, Washington and Montana at that time. Mr. Hal farmer and Mr. Bob Kellogg were the inspectors on State and direct Federal work, in Oregon and Washington respectively. Mr. Frank Andrews was in charge of all direct Federal work in the three northwest states in the Portland district at that time and later became the Division Engineer after the retirement of Mr. Lynch. Mr. J. B. Reher, who recently passed away at age 88, was in charge of location and design for many years and was one of the very early BPR location engineers who had a reputation for being a tough taskmaster and running a highly efficient, no-nonsense type of operation when he got out in the field. Mr. Bob Bloodsworth and Mr. C. E. Short also were known for their no-nonsense policies when conducting location surveys or when acting as resident engineers on construction projects. We could not close out this account without mentioning also Mr. John R. Sargent who was a highly-skilled technician on location and construction and particularly on the field supervision of surfacing and paving projects. John once ran a location survey from the Klamath Falls-California Highway to a point near the Crater Lake National Park which location contained a 10-mile section with only one flat angle-point too flat to even put in a curve. As a result of this, John became known throughout BPR as Mr. John R. Tangent.

It has given me much pleasure to recall those memorable times and I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to do so.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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