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The Trailblazers

The Natchez Trace Parkway

Roderick S. Banks

I do not know that I should be considered an old-timer as I joined the Bureau of Public Roads some 30 years after it's inception. However, when I reported as an Engineering Aide to F. L. Brownell in Jackson, Mississippi, in July 1937, the Natchez Trace Parkway was in its infancy. The first shovelful of dirt had not yet been moved.

At this time the scenery along the line of the future motor road was not inspiring. The topography was relatively uniform; the fields worn out and gullied; the local roads tracks in mud or dust. The potential was there and, in cooperation with such farsighted men as Park Service Landscape Architects Ed Simmer, Gene Desilets and Charles Carter, a thing of beauty was produced, insofar as available funds allowed up to proceed.

It was not always easy, and the job is still far from finished. Competent, dedicated men do not always agree, and some of the interagency arguments would become rather acrimonious. It was always my contention that, since Park Service money was keeping us in business, whatever they wanted, that did not violate good engineering principles, they should have. When I succeeded to the position of Division Engineer, I tried to put into effect a policy of non-interference in matters that were the responsibility of the Park Service, but allowing no Park Service in Public Rods responsibility. Our relations became so harmonious that I was accused of having Milt Orcutt in my hip pocket. This is a gross canard, as Mr. Orcutt is a man of intelligence and integrity, and nobody owns him.

When I first began my career with Public Roads, several Engineering Aides reported the same day. I remember Oakley Hansard and Pat Wolff in particular. I was fortunate in that I had a friend, Tom Stokes, already on board. I have never inquired, but am convinced that he was influential in Brownell's decision to keep me in the Jackson Office; the other recruits were sent out to upcoming construction projects. C. H. (Buck) Buchanan was Brownell's assistant and was in charge of office work. For some obscure reason he seemed to take a liking to me. He assigned me to designing drainage, which he considered his specialty. There was one rather complicated culvert layout which I had roughly drawn up and dimensioned and given to a draftsman to put the pretty on. I thought no more about it until one Monday afternoon - months later - after the contract had been let and construction started, Tome Stokes came in from Koscuisko. On the morning after a large weekend he had tried to stake out this culvert, but couldn't get one dimension to check. He needed help from the man who did the layout. It developed that the draftsman had decided that another dimension was needed, so he scaled it and recorded it on the drawing to the hundredth.

Car pooling is not a new thing. In 1938, Buchanan, C. V. (Windy) Windsor and I moved from Jackson to Clinton to provide a little more room for our children. We took week-about driving the nine miles in to Jackson, not to save energy, but to save money, which, in those days, was in much shorter supply.

I worked under Brownell for less than two years and had very little contact with him as he was primarily interested in outside work and shunned the office. In the spring of 1939 he was transferred, and E. G. Middleton took his place. At this time local headquarters of both the Park Service and Public Roads were in Jackson. I don't know whose idea it was, but it was thought the two agencies were too close together for effective, independent judgment. At any rate, Mr. Middleton wasted no time in ordering a move. For some unknown reason, Florence, Alabama, was selected as our future headquarters. Nobody wanted to move, but no one could afford to quit.

Florence, in July 1939, was a sleepy town, still in the depths of the depression. The access from the South was by way of a combination of railroad and highway bridge. The railroad traversed the upper deck while the single lane road went beneath. The semi-isolation did not last long as a new, four-lane highway bridge across the Tennessee River was nearing completion.

When the new bridge opened, a toll charge of 10 cents per vehicle was imposed. Sheffield, south of the river, was wet and Florence, to the north, was dry. Often, after work, as many of us as could crown into one car, would cross the River and drink beer, being careful to save one dime for the return passage.

During August 1939, I took about two weeks leave. When I returned to work, Mr. Middleton called me in and told me he wanted me to make a soil survey of a forest highway in Bankhead Forest. I protested that I knew nothing about making soil surveys, to which he replied, "I don't know either, go on down there and make it." So, on the day Hitler invaded Poland, I went to Double Springs, Alabama, and mounted the first run of the ladder of what was to be my career.

At that time, most of the hold heads had little confidence in the value of subsurface investigations. I know of no consideration being given to the results of my work until after the end of the late unpleasantness with the Japanese. It was not all wasted effort, for I was learning a great deal about soils - especially Mississippi. In that State, there are many soil types, all of the troublesome from a roadbuilding standpoint. Gradually, we learned to cope with some of these.

Mr. Middleton stayed with us for only about two years. In 1941 he was transferred to Roanoke, Virginia, to take charge of the Bureau office there. S. L. Von Gemmingen replaced him.

There were some who were fearful when it was known that Mr. Von would be the boss. "Pappy" Dewitt made vague threats as what would happen should the "bear hugger" mess with him. I found him to be a man one had to admire and respect.

War clouds were growing darker in the Fall of 1941. Several of our men were detailed to the Washington area to work on the Pentagon network; High Brown, George Church, Cliff Lewis for Design; "Pappy" Dewitt and his party for Surveys. This was the beginning of the great exodus. In Spring 1942, Mr. Von and a very few others were left at the Natchez Trace.

At first the Trace people were scattered about but later many of us got back together at Suitland, Maryland, under F. E. Winter, for work on the Suitland Parkway, Indian Head Road, and Washington-Baltimore Parkway.

At one time Mr. Winter and High Brown, his assistant, were not on speaking terms. I still have to chuckle as I recall Mr. Winter passing in front of Hugh's desk to reach me with instructions to pass on to Hugh. I never did know the cause, but they got over it.

It was while living in the shadow of our Nation's Capitol that I learned to appreciate Florence, Alabama. I was by no means displeased when informed, in the Summer of 1945, that I was being transferred back to Florence. Before the "Enola Gay" made its famous flight, I was back on the Natchez Trace, preparing to make soul surveys for Mr. Von. To add to my pleasure, shortly after my return, I was raised to professional rank.

The immediate postwar period was a time of expansion on the Trace. Many had left in '41 and '42; so few returned. There was much work to do. A section along the Pearl River in Mississippi, graded and presumably given a stabilized surface before the War, had numerous failures. In order to protect the investment it was imperative that repairs be made as soon as plans could be drawn. There were sections in Alabama and Tennessee that were crying to be built. Bridges were needed to close gaps in the grading already done. The Park Service was anxious to get the completed grading permanently surfaced. The consummation was years in the future, but a start had to be made.

Government construction forces, which had been engaged in the construction of the Indian Head Road in Maryland, were sent with their equipment to Alabama to do grading and bridge building. Several men from Gatlinburg were transferred to the Trace. The man with the lowest rating proved to be the most valuable. Oscar Grant proved to be a tower of strength as long as he stayed with is and a valuable ally after his transfer to the Region.

We not only had work on the Natchez Trace, but National Forest work as well. During a winter slack period, engineering personnel from the force account work and projects in Tennessee were sent to the Bankhead Forest to stake out an up-coming job. After about two months most of the men were recalled, although the stakeout was incomplete, and the Project Engineer was told he would have to do his own survey work. One morning at about this time Mr. Von called me into his office and said, "Rod, go down there and fire that SOB." I didn't ask where to go nor which SOB to fire, but went to Cullman, Alabama, dismissed the Project Engineer, and took charge until a man would be permanently assigned. The Project Engineer had rather rudely refused to do as directed. This time he stayed fired for 10 months.

I never knew what I would have to do next. Soil surveys took up only a relatively small portion of my time. It was also my responsibility to train Inspectors, although I had never been an Inspector, and instruct them in the testing procedures necessary to their work. In my spare time I had to help Buchanan with his design.

When resumption of work in Tennessee was imminent, Mr. Von asked Mr. Spelman to send him a hard rock man. In due course, N. N. Royal arrived on the job. There may have been a hundred yards of rock on the project, but I doubt it. This was probably fortunate as, so far as I was able to determine, the hardest rock Mr. Royal had encountered was a dried mud ball. Naturally, he was known as "Hard Rock" Royal. At first he resented the sobriquet but soon accepted it with a modicum of pride.

By 1949 we were ready to begin bituminous paving. In September of that year I was detailed to observe the operation of a new Barber Green Continuous Mix Plant at Sevierville, Tennessee. The work was to be performed under the supervision of Mr. F. W. Cron. Mr. E. L. Tarwater, the bituminous expert for the then Division 15, was there to shake the bugs out of the mix. There was delay getting started, so I was able to observe only two days run. The most I got out of the trip was a two-week vacation on per diem.

Larry Seeman was assigned as our first Project Engineer on bituminous paving. He didn't stay long enough to put down any mix before being assigned as District Engineer in Saint Paul. Henry Gorschboth inherited the grief attached to this job. In his three years tenure, he got about 60 miles paved, in spite of rotten sub-grade, no base, and disloyal help.

In the Spring of '53, construction on the Trace was winding down. There had been a great exodus of manpower, and President Eisenhower - new to his job - was trying to give the Parkway to the States. Mr. Von was fast approaching the time of mandatory retirement. Larry Seeman had a classified rock job, in Superior National Forest, about to start. Mr. Spelman, knowing our workload, had asked Mr. Von for a man competent to handle the job. Mr. Von had instructed the same man I had fired some years before to report to Seeman, not because he thought he was competent, but because he didn't think the man would go. He was right. I was in Mr. Von's office when he called Mr. Spelman and gave him the news. I could only hear one side of the conversation. Mr. Von's portion went like this, "No." "I don't have anyone I can send." "But I need him." I said, "Hell Von, tell him I'll go." That's how I got my first assignment as a Project Engineer.

The assignment there was temporary, and before winter I was back in Florence. In the Winter of '54, activity on the trace was at a low ebb. Government forces were winding up force account work at Tupelo, Mississippi. There was a minimum of engineering manpower available, almost everyone had been transferred to Mr. Tarwater's office. Buchanan, who had stepped up when Mr. Von retired, had not been confirmed as District Engineer, but was Acting only. A 35-mile paving project was scheduled for that year, and was reputed to be our final activity. When work started in March, men had to be called from Arlington to handle the job. I did not have sufficient forces to take care of the inspection adequately.

Before the year was out, the national administration had a change of hear. The work load had become heavy. Buck couldn't get men from Civil Service. In desperation he raided the Alabama Highway Department, securing some excellent men. Most of them were sent to Oscar grant at Eupora, Mississippi, to separate the sheep from the goats.

With the completion of the '54 paving job, my days as a project engineer were over. Henceforth my work was on a higher level. My duties were varied and my operational title non-existent. It was a busy time and a time of change. Mr. Spelman retired and, after a brief interval, Bill Cron was appointed as Regional Engineer. Buchanan became dissatisfied and took a foreign assignment. After a few months, during which Bill Compton was Acting, Henry Gorschboth was appointed Division Engineer in Florence.

At about this time, early 1961, Mr. Cron urged all professionals to become registered. To prove to myself and others who doubted that I deserved the title of Engineer, I determined to make the attempt. As I am not college educated, I was required to take a 16 hour examination. The first eight hours constituted the hardest day's work I ever attempted. By some strange happenstance, I succeeded in becoming registered. I am convinced that, without registration, I would not have succeeded Henry Gorschboth when he transferred to Arlington.

There were changes, not only in personnel, but there was also a change in the location of the Parkway, caused by damming the Pearl River near Jackson Mississippi. This portion of the trace lies in an area of Jackson clay, one of nature's most active clays. Many efforts have been made to control the movement of this material, largely without success. Much thought and effort were spent on the design of the pavement structure to be used where the clay occurred. Our past experience and the experience of the Mississippi Highway Department were studied. A contract was let in '63 for the construction of this relocation. Oscar Grant had a real fight to get this job constructed according to specifications.

In late '61, Bill Cron transferred to Denver as Regional Design Engineer and Galen Wilkins replaced him. On July 1, 1963, came the great reorganization. The Divisions were reduced to Districts with responsibility for surveys and construction only. Design personnel were transferred to the Regional Office. I have never been able to see where the efficiency of the organization was improved by this move.

Henry Gorschboth transferred to Arlington in August of '64 and I succeeded hi. I had now advanced far beyond my earlier aspirations.

In the Summer of '66 my assistant, Clyde Morningstar, died suddenly. I requested that Bobby Wiginton be assigned to this position, to which Mr. Wilkins reluctantly agreed.

Early in '67, W. O. Comella replaced Mr. Wilkins, who retired. Bill Comella tried to make something superior of Region 15. He got the Districts raised to Divisions with promotion for the Division Engineers. He was a great champion of registration. It is illustrative of the inbred condition of the Region that none of the three Division Engineers were in possession of an engineering degree, and the only one registered was myself.

The Administration and national priorities were against us. There was too much preoccupation with Southeast Asia. Funds became nonexistent. We fought hard, but on December 1, 1971, the Florence Division was disestablished, and I retired.

Authority without responsibility is tyranny.

Responsibility without authority is slavery.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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