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The Trailblazers


Henry Gorschboth

My career with the Federal Highway Administration, formerly the Bureau of Public Roads, covered the period from 1933 to 1973. I started as an instrument man in a survey party, and attained the title of Division Engineer before retirement. My work ranged from Bar Harbor, Maine to Chalmette, Louisiana, in many States on the east side of the Mississippi River, and in the States of Texas and Arkansas on the west.

In the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Bureau pf Public Roads was involved in the design and construction of roads in historical and military parks in the design and construction of roads in historical and military parks in the eastern section of the United States/ Work was being done in Gettysburg, Manassas, Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway, and also the Washington National Airport here in Washington. This was part of a national recovery effort, and as this work expanded to other areas, Region 15 was formed to handle it. The region covered all states east of the Mississippi River, and Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska on the west.

Work in these historical areas was a great privilege, as it was possible to relive portions of our early history. It has been a humbling experience to realize what a great heritage has been left by those who have preceded us. There have been many design and construction problems over these years, but they are part of the work, and are expected. There have been many frustrations, but many joys and many amusing stores, some of which I will relate.

In 1933, America and the World were still in the throes if the worst economic depression. Business was at a standstill, and unemployment was rife - before unemployment insurance, social security, food stamps, and all the present day relief aids. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was responsible for many new programs to prime the business pump and to provide employment for those in need. Federal agencies such as NRA, WPA, and many others were designed to marshall business, labor and Government, in a massive effort to list ourselves by our bootstraps. Road-building was the ideal way to give immediate employment to many people. Many WPA projects were done by hand to utilize more men. These were usually Government noncontract projects. Workers were restricted to 30 hours of work per week, and a minimum of $.30 an hour was set up on Government work. Contractors usually worked two shifts of 5 hours each, 6 days a week, in order to employ more people. Among the workers, the 30-hour restriction was known as "The Hob Law." (Lists of unemployed workers were compiled by Federal, State and local officials and names were furnished contractors by the local unemployment office set up for this purpose.) There was a story going at that time relating to a properly staffed WPA grass cutting job. It went like this: "Two a coming, two a going, two a bleeping, and two a mowing."

Of interest to roadbuilders, I think, is a story concerning the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Natchez Trace was a high ground Indian trail between the Natchez, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees, reaching from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. It then became a migratory road for the settlers from Virginia and the east, following the rich backlands into Mississippi, and by the French from Acadia, Canada, who landed on the Mississippi Gulf coast and explored up the Mississippi River to Natchez. Upstream from Natchez, the current was too swift for navigation, so that was as far as they could go. The Trace was the mainland artery from the colonies to French Louisiana, until the invention of the steamboat. Spain, who had taken over Natchez from the English during the Revolutionary War, deeded the land to the U.S. Government in 1797, and Natchez was made a capital of Mississippi Territory. Once mail service was established, and as traffic increased over the Natchez Trace, repairs soon became necessary. President Thomas Jefferson, in 1806, obtained an appropriation of $6,000, and he directed Postmaster Gideon Granger to proceed with the work. Soon after this, the Postmaster advertised for bids in the area to be reconstructed, between Grinstone Ford and Chickasaw Towns, where 18 to 25 miles of trail have been lost. The bid items were as follows:

  1. The road must be at least 20 feet wide and all the timber and underbrush taken off for that distance.
  2. All marshy places are to be causewayed and all causeways to be at least 10 feet wide.
  3. All streams under 40 feet in width, not fordable at the common winter tide, are to be bridged by good secure bridges, well built and made safe and secure for passage. The bridge must be at least 12 feet wide.
  4. A tree shall be laid across all larger streams where the breadth of the stream does not exceed the length of any tree to be found within ½-mile of the road.

That was a four-item contract in the amount of $6,000.

The Trace was continuously in need of repair and was used by General Jackson's Army in the defense of New Orleans in 1814. Merriweather Lewis died while traveling in the Trace and was buried at Hohenwald, Tennessee. After the invention of the steamboat, the importance of the Trace declined and it was no longer used.

The Natchez Trace reconstruction started again in the early 1930's, and during reconnaissance survey between Ridgeland and Kosciusko, Mississippi, the following incident took place. We were walking in a rather large flood plain and met a farmer who owned the land. He had hoped the Government wanted to acquire a lot of it because he needed the money. When we asked him about the drainage, and how high the water usually got, he said, "Well right about here, it gets belly deep on a mule."

As parts of the parkway were completed and opened to traffic, cows grazed on the parkway and became a menace to drivers. Park rangers would corral them and charge the owner $ a head to redeem them. On one occasion, the ranger had four cows in his corral and went to see the farmer to apprise him of this fact. The road to the farmhouse was soft and the ranger became hopelessly mired in the mud. He went to the farmer, and after telling him about the cows, he asked for help to pull out his truck. The farmer readily agreed, but he said that his going price would be $20.

When President Harry Truman was in office, the White House was in such poor shape that he ordered extensive repairs to the house and grounds. He also wanted constructed a balcony on the south portico. The front entrance road was being reconstructed y us, and a problem arose in front of the building. The roof of an underground room beneath the roadway was too high to accommodate the design roadway section, which included a deep granite curb. It was impossible to maintain the plan profile, so the grade had to be warped and "humored" so that it would look satisfactory. The necessity for this field change irritated a few people in high places of interested agencies. Mr. Truman got wind of this controversy and made an inspection of the work. He said that road and curb looked fine to him, and he didn't want any chance made and for everybody to get the job finished so that he could "get the hell out" of the Blair House where he had been staying during the reconstruction. No change was made nor has a change ever been made to this date.

Another instance, during World War II, was when the Bureau of Public Roads was building the Pentagon road network. All of our regional field construction project personnel not in the armed forces were sent to Arlington to design and construct the roads and bridges around the Pentagon then under construction. On one contract, the concrete pavement was done with a concrete mixer using "sacked" cement. The batch was set up to use eight sacks of cement. The aggregates were hauled to the mixer skip by truck, and the sacks of cement were placed along the subgrade to be placed in the skip after the aggregate had been dumped. The mixer inspector noticed that sometimes the workmen put in eight sacks, sometimes they got in seven, and sometimes only six. Being a little curious and feeling somewhat responsible for it, he asked the pavement foreman about this disparity. The foreman explained it this way: "This mixer is equipped with an automatic skip; it does up automatically and has to dump before it comes down. The men get as many sacks in it as they can before the skip goes up, and that is all they can do."

This last incident concerns a safety meeting held on the "Trace" where the leader was extolling the safety benefits to be derived by the use of seatbelts. In a question and answer period later, a young ranger asked: "Suppose I use the belt, have an accident and am killed?" The safety leader replied immediately: "In that case, you get to go to heaven."

These are some of the more amusing incidents that I can recall and there are many more. I cherish the friendships and associations which I have enjoyed over so long a time. They are priceless possessions to me and I am sure each of you will have similar memories when you enjoy your "Golden Years."

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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