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The Trailblazers

The San Gabriel Project, 1933

Arthur E. Grissom

This project was a relocation of the road running north from Azusa up San Gabriel Canyon which was made necessary by a concrete dam down near Azusa and an earth fill dam a few miles north. Both dams were under construction at the same time we were contracting the new road up on the hillside above the level of the lakes behind the dams.

The hillsides were so steep that practically all cuts were "full bench" sections; fills were almost always help up with concrete retaining walls. Of course the slopes did get down to almost flat in a few places where we encountered cross drainage but generally speaking it was awfully steep country.

The first few days on the project I was assigned to a spoke stake party run by Woodson (Jimmy) Hicks. I was working the uphill slopes with a level rod and a dull hand axe. About the third day, I was so near complete exhaustion by evening that I actually could not taste the foot I had for dinner, never before nor since have I been so tired. Fortunately I was soon put in charge of the drainage structure staking crew - as the man who regularly ran it went on annual leave.

The two men I had on the structure crew were very good workmen; one was Gene McClure; the other one, so help me I can't remember his name, nor the name of Don (something) who had been running the crew. But what the heck. That's 39 years ago so maybe I am entitled to forget a few names.

I just remembered his name. It was Kenneth Donnell. He was a huge built man, about 6'5" but so perfectly proportions that you wouldn't realize he was big until you walked up close to him. After this project I never saw any of these three men again. I believe McClure stayed on with the government longer than the other two. I heard what caused him to quit and I didn't blame him in the least. McClure and another fellow, Sam Lewis, were the same rating, GS-3 I believe. Now McClure's home was in Eureka, California, where winter weather gets quite cold at times. Sam Lewis was from Alabama where it never gets cold and Sam abhorred cold weather. Our personnel man in those days had a curious trait that made him give men assignments that were as far as possible from what they wanted. So when two GS-3's were needed, Sam Lewis was sent to Eureka where he almost froze and Gene McClure was sent to Blythe where it never gets cold and was 600 miles from Gene's home in Eureka. Result: Both of them resigned. Sam went back to Alabama and McClure became a highly rated field office man for the Guy F. Atkinson Company, one of the largest contracting outfits in the world.

Second assistant Herb Booth was another good man; quiet, hard working young man. I recall that his brother-in-law who was working for the contractor backed up to straighten out a tape without looking where he was going and fell about 200 feet and was killed. His death is the only one I remember on this project.

We had lots of other good men on this project; namely, Al Shimburg, Bridge Engineer, who would up his service in our Washington, D.C. office as did Herb Freel. Jimmy hicks who is now retired and lives as Tollhouse east of Fresno; Frank Carlson who later became head of our Hawaii Office and died there several years ago; Roy Tarbut, Bridge Engineer, who transferred to Portland, was still there in 1954. One character I don't want to leave out was a woman about 30 years old who lived at the Hilltop Hotel where several of us stayed. She was a dark complexioned women who claimed to be from India, said her father was a compatriot of General Allenby in the Riff War. Father was quite wealthy; he had died recently and his estate was not yet probated and until it was she had nothing to live on except her promise to pay as soon as the estate was settled. We never knew whether to believe her story or not. Mr. Woodman summed it up by stating, "I can't decide whether she's from India or Harlem." We always referred to her as the Princess.

The hotel was a two story frame structure built in a hollow square shape around an open courtyard. All second floor rooms, where we were quartered, opened onto a balcony in the courtyard. To get out we had to walk along the balcony to the front section, thence down a stairway to the lobby and out the front door. One evening, we had just come in from the project and were in the process of changing clothes and cleaning up for dinner when a low rumble began and increased in volume very rapidly. An earthquake. A violent one of the rolling/pitching variety. Half dressed, I started to dash out of the building but stopped in the room doorway because the balcony was vibrating so violently I thought it was going to fly to pieces. Just as I braced myself in the doorway, the Princess (who was supposed to be ill) came charging out of her room and went racing down the balcony toward the lobby. Herbie Freel in the room next to mine was taking a shower; all he did was hold on to the sides of the shower and yell like an Indian on the war path.

The tempo of the rolling/pitching motion became faster and faster and finally ended with a jarring, shivering shudder that seemed almost enough to shake ones teeth loose. I quickly finished dressing and got out on the street to see if the town had been damaged. Surprisingly enough, Azusa had suffered only minor damage such as broken dishes, etc. But within the hour we learned that Long Beach, the center of the tremor, had sustained catastrophic damage, many buildings wrecked and hundreds of people killed or injured.

It was sure a great relief when I learned that Whittier, where the family was living, was shaken no worse than Azusa. I don't recall what the intensity of the quake was, but I do hope I am never in a stronger one.

Well, back to the description of the project. Staking structures was quite a chore on this job. The slopes were so steep that we didn't dare route drainage down a gully. It would develop into a destructive wash. Quite often we turned the drainage off on the upper side of the road and turned it into a tunnel about eight feet in diameter which dumped the water at the foot of the slope. Of course, there were a few culvert pipes, a few small bridges and concrete box culverts and one steel bridge over the San Gabriel River.

One small bridge already had the abutments poured when I took over the bridge staking. Mr. Bruning, the boss, one morning told me to set some points for roadway centerline, so we found good points 100 feet or more on each side of the bridge and set a number of points for the bridge construction crew to use in forming the superstructure. The next morning, Mr. Bruning asked how I set the lines and I said, "just a simple projection between hubs on either side. Why, is something wrong?" He said, "The points on the bridge are out of line. Let's go have a look." We found that after we set the centerline points the whole thing, abutments and all, had slipped down the hill about .6 feet. It didn't slide anymore so we finally went ahead and built the superstructure .6 feet out of line.

We had some slides a lot worse than the one described above. The largest was a side hill cut bank almost 100 feet high. The Assistant Engineer, Mr. Woodman, had just walked through the cut admiring the nice smooth cut slope; he had cleared it about 2100 feet when he heard a swishing road behind him. Looking back the whole cut bank 12,000 cu. yds. was down in the road right behind him.

This project was the first one on which the new big diesel tractors were used. I had seen gasoline powered Allis-Chalmers tractors before, but they were not nearly as powerful as the new Caterpillar D-8 diesels. This construction season of 1933 was positively the last of horsedrawn or truck-drawn excavation equipment. Diesel tractors with dozers and carryall scrapers have ruled the excavation business ever since.

I don't recall that the project was so very difficult except for the gosh-awful steep slopes, our rodman had to hold onto ropes when slope staking in order to keep from falling.

About the last of June I was transferred to the first construction contract on Tioga Pass, so I was not in on the completion of the San Gabriel job. Now a few lines about the personnel and unusual incidents at San Gabriel. The boss (resident engineer) Cy Bruning was the highest rated field man in the district in those days and rightly so. He was an excellent engineer, well liked by all his subordinates and by contractors. Cy died a few years after this San Gabriel job. I was out on another job at the time and did not hear of his demise until I came in at the end of the season.

The assistant resident, Mr. Woodman, was a fine person past middle age. He had "lost his shirt" in a coal mining venture when the 1930 depression hit, and took the position with the bureau as a temporary measure.

That's about all I can think of to write about the San Gabriel project. Before long I was transferred to Tioga Pass. I have never seen the completed San Gabriel project.


After the earthquake I stayed at home in Whittier and Vivian brought me to Azusa each morning and came after me each evening. Another incident I had almost forgotten. Near the Azusa end of the project a concrete dam was being constructed. Just below the dam was a flat bench that served as an observation point where the public could watch construction. One evening, as we were leaving for the day I was somewhat surprised to see some sightseers standing there and one of their number was actress Fannie Brice.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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