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The Trailblazers

Reminiscences, 1940 - 1973

Joseph A. Todd

Region 15, Bureau of Public Roads, was going pretty strong when I came on board in 1940. I began my career with the Bureau of Public Roads assigned to the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Division, then under the supervision of Col. W. I. Lee. Col. Lee was one of the most dynamic men I recall in my life. He actually trained all of the men who later followed in his footsteps. Mr. F. W. Cron served under Col. Lee during the construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the construction of the Clingman's Done Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Mr. Cron's successor entered in service at Gatlinburg, and during the early part of World War II, Mr. Obenschain was assistant to Col. Lee. I began my career under Col. Lee and when Mr. Obenschain was transferred to Region 15 Headquarters, I was assigned to fill Mr. Obenschain's vacancy. I might add that my success came through my association with all three.

I began as an axeman, SP-2, on location surveys for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Over a period of 20 years I was associated in some way with surveys for roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; entrance and service roads in Mammoth Cave National Park; entrance roads and service roads in the Everglades National Park; the Foothills Parkway in Tennessee, and many forest highways within the overall area of Region 15.

During this same period of time, I was assigned on various construction projects first as surveyman and later as inspector, then project engineer, and finally as resident engineer. I served in the construction positions about 15 years.

The collection of incidents I relate include a variety of experiences and by no means cover the whole spectrum. I have left out the names to avoid embarrassing individuals. I hope you will enjoy sharing a few of my experiences.

I recall a number of moonshine whiskey stills encountered in the area of our surveys. We had a policy of not telling anyone of our find because too much talk would lead to poor public relations. In one case, the still was in operation when the survey crew arrived, but the operator was nowhere near the area. One of our surveymen had, prior to his employment, gained some experience in moonshining. He noticed that the jug at the condenser was about full and the fire needed some attention. So with his expertise we ran that batch of mash for the man who was not there. Next day when we returned to continue the survey, the still was gone and on our line a "Jar" of white lightning was left for our surveymen.

Later, and on a different survey, one of our surveymen discovered a cache of moonshine near our work area. The surveyman took a sample and hid it in the back of the truck which we used for transportation. We had dual-wheel trucks enclosed with wire and covered with canvas curtains. The cab was used for the chief of party and the truck driver. The cage was fastened from the outside after the men were loaded. I was not told about the moonshine; otherwise, I would have made the surveyman return the find to the cache. Usually, the survey crews worked full 8 hours on the line and traveled, walked, and ate lunch on their own time. This usually resulted in late arrivals back at the office. On this day, the Regional Engineer, Mr. H. J. Spelman, was to be in the office the next day. To get the message to me, one of the office personnel waited for us to arrive at the vehicle storage place. The messenger told me to bring my crew to the office before going to the field the next day. After parking the truck, I opened the back to find one happy bunch of surveymen. I shudder to think what could have happened. What they surveymen did not know was that the moonshine was almost pure grain and had a kick like a mule.

Over a period of 30 years, I visited several moonshine operations and collected the data needed for one of my publications. During World War II, Mr. Obenschain and I called on persons living in the area of our project to sell War Bonds. One of the characters we called on had a reputation as a moonshiner and he had served several sentences in Federal prison. This man told a Federal judge prior to his sentencing that as long as water flowed downhill he would be making moonshine. The judge informed him that during the next 5 years he would not be making moonshine and water would be flowing downhill. When Mr. Obenschain asked the individual why he would not buy bonds, he said, "Mr. Obenschain, I have just given the Federal Government 5 years of my life and I think that is enough." This man is still living and in good health. He is over 85 years of age.

I had a number of experiences with black bears on the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Great Smoky National Park; also on the Gunflint Trail in Northern Minnesota. The only time I thought I was a goner occurred on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Balsam Gap, North Carolina. After we arrived at the survey point one morning, the party chief discovered that he had left the field book needed for a tie in his pack in the truck. I was then backsightman and the party chief sent me to the truck for the book. I thought I could make it quicker on my return by using a short-cut back to the survey crew. The trail I was on was a game trail. About halfway back, a large log had fallen across this game trail. The log was not high enough above the ground to see under and a little too high to step over. I ran a little and plopped my rump on top of the log and turned around and dropped off on top of a sleeping bear. That bear, equally afraid as I, jumped up, which threw me about 10 feet into the air, and took off like Snider's pup. From that day on, I never tried that trick again.

In northern Minnesota, there were many black bears and usually every trash dump had a few. We were using an abandoned CCC camp for quarters and a few black bears were in the area. One night I was walking in the dark alone and got the feeling that I was not alone. I stopped and listened, but could not see or hear anything. I decided to light a cigarette (to show whatever that I was brave) and when the match flared up, I was less than one foot from a black bear. The bear climbed a tree and I am not going to tell you what I did.

Snakes were never much of a problem for me. However, several of the men with whom I worked had their narrow escapes. In most cases, we killed poison snakes when encountered and we rarely hunted snakes due to regulations in National Parks. We had to make a hurry-up line revision on a location that had been staked several years previously. To meet the deadline, several persons from the office were assigned to help with the surveys. One fellow, a design engineer was very much afraid of snakes. He was assigned as backsight man. The beginning point from which he was supposed to give a backsight was occupied by a very large rattler. Instead of killing the snake, he set his rig up on another control point about 10 feet away. Of course, we did not tie or close. After checking, we discovered the source of the error. The backsight man admitted his reason for avoiding the correct point. We never let that fellow forget his mistake.

Later we were cross-sectioning the rock cliffs near Mount Pisgah, North Carolina, for a section of the Blue Ridge parkway. One of our surveymen climbed up on a very large rattler which struck at his head three times. Finally, the surveyman was able to dislodge the snake avoided being bitten. This was a case where the surveyman would have been hurt seriously if he jumped or turned loose, and if the snake had hit him in the face, death was sure. The surveyman's hair actually turned several shades of gray because of his experience.

We were paving a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway between Wagon Road Gap and Deils Courthouse in North Carolina. Mr. Tarwater came to the project to inspect the mix and as he drove to the mixing plant, where I was, he killed a rattlesnake in the road. After telling me what the pavement was like and making some adjustments at the plant, he told me where he killed the snake. He said that he would like to have the rattlers if I found the snake on my next trip to the paver. About 2 hours later I went to the paver and as I drove, I looked for Mr. Tarwater's snake. I found the snake where he indicated I should. I parked my vehicle and took out my pocket knife to cut the critter's tail off, and just as I touched the snake's tail, he coiled and struck at me. Then I made an exception to my rule and I killed the critter the second time, I thought. After removing the rattlers, I looked a few feet down the road and found Mr. Tarwater's snake good and dead. I collected his rattlers too.

While we were locating one of the roads in the Everglades National Park we hired several local laborers to help with the line clearing. One of the axemen came out of the front real fast and I asked him what caused him to leave. He pointed to a brush pile on which a very large rattler was sleeping. I saw that it was easy to catch so I picked it up real quick and came walking out with the snake in my hands. The fellow that ran out said to me, "Boss, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you don't have a d--- bit of sense." As I think back on it, I agree with that fellow. Even now when I see a snake, I recall what that man said.

On the Foothills Parkway in Tennessee, we tied with an apparent error in angle. Since the line was more than 20 miles long, I decided that I should isolate the error by a mid-line check on polaris. The point was on top of a long ridge and a foot trail crossed near enough to one transit point to be convenient for night traveling. I had a very young surveyman that was anxious to learn how to get the true azimuth and he volunteered to help me with the backsight. About that time a bobcat squalled just under my friend and he abandoned his point and came to where I was. No amount of telling could make him go more than 100 feet away. So all I could do was transfer azimuth to the ground and check the line the next day. Needless to say, I had a new rodman the next night.

During construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, we discovered an error in leveling that would require some revision of construction plans. The error was just under Water Rock Knob and about 10 miles from any other control point. I requested a new rod to make this check on elevation and had to do a lot of justifying before delivery was made. I sent two graduate engineers to run the closing line of levels. On the way to the project via jeep, one of the fellows saw a rattlesnake on the side of the trail. He jumped out of the jeep and killed that snake - with the new rod. He brought the pieces back and I made the fellow help me get a replacement. These are moments that we do not wish to relive.

On another project we had a jeep that had been totaled as it was being delivered to my residency. We cut the top off and removed all glass and made a few repairs underside and used to jeep to get men and supplies to the work site. The trail was so narrow it was impossible to turn the jeep at either end of its run. We bought gas in a can and stored it on the job. At the end of a reporting period we had used 55 gallons of gas and the vehicle had gained only a mile or so. We had one hell of a time getting this matter explained in the division office.

On one survey I had several engineer trainees assigned. It was almost impossible for me to assign them in positions that would not require one trainee to supervise or be responsible for another trainee. I assigned one trainee to assume the duty of party chief, another trainee was assigned as transitman, another was in charge of leveling, and another was responsible for cross-sections. I made frequent checks on their progress to be sure that production was being maintained. The work production began to fall off seriously so I decided to have the Chief of Party come to my office for a session. I soon discovered that one of the trainees resented having to work under another trainee and his attitude was seriously affecting production. So I swapped the two in assignment and told the ex-party chief to give the other guy the same kind of treatment. In a few days we had that gentleman straightened out.

The trainee engineers worked good for me. As I look back, I realize that without them I would have needed many more experienced technicians to handle the workload of my residency. We had as many as 13 projects going at one time. Several projects were major by today's standards. From 1955 through 1960, I had as many as eight trainees at one time in various assignments. I decided that while I had all of this talent available, I would use them to train the Engineering Aids. I organized a voluntary self-improvement club. We met twice each week at Maggie Valley Grammar School. Each meeting would last 2 hours and the meetings would be at night on the employees' own time. Mr. Cron consented to our use of Government transportation. The trainees prepared papers for class use and acted as instructors. The skilled technicians also made presentations to the combined classes and through this method we were able to show considerable improvement. The oil companies sent their experts to show training films and present technical papers. The powder companies and concrete projects companies followed suit. Finally, a few consultant firms sent instructors to our classes. This activity was finally noticed in the Regional Engineer's office. Several of the trainees and I were given awards for having this program of self-improvement.

During my 10 years as resident engineer at Waynesville, North Carolina, at least 20 Highway Engineer Trainees served under my supervision. Their inquiries about the work in progress kept me on my toes and reading the latest engineering books. Usually they would drop in at our house and drink coffee with our family an sometimes they would stay and eat with us. We became very close through this informal relationship. We still hear from several from time to time, and I am pleased at their successes.

One trainee demonstrated a very excellent knowledge of materials. I needed a materials engineer, so I set up a position as materials engineer for my residency to absorb some of this man's talent. This trainee was single and loved the outdoors. He would work all hours of the day or night to meet any schedule set for materials testing. I more of less kept in contact through his test reports and when he was needed for new work I called him into the office. He was a "rock hound" and as such he had a very good collection of minerals in possession. I had some interest in mineralogy and often talked with him about some find that I had made. About that same time my son started flying aeroplanes and as a pilot, he joined some flying club. The club published a monthly magazine which was mailed to my home. This trainee had been testing concrete pipe in three States for about 2 weeks and I had not been on contact with him except through his reports on material tested. I knew he was working, so I did not make any special effort to see him. My son's magazine came in the mail and on the cover was my trainee materials engineer with maps spread out on the hood of a Government-owned vehicle with the pilot standing beside him. Under the cover the name of the trainee was given, saying that he was acting as guide for a bunch of rock hounds who also flew aeroplanes. So I made a special effort to see that gentleman every day from that point until he graduated from my residency.

I was in Washington, D.C., along with several others from the division office to attend a conference on highway construction and maintenance. Mr. James Bell, Administrative Assistant to Mr. Obenschain, and I were staying in the same room to save money. One evening Mr. Bell said to me that he was taking me out to dinner at one of the clubs in Washington, D.C. I thought about it for a while, thinking this was unusual for Mr. Bell to take me to a place where drinks were served with the meal. Anyway, I also wondered why he was waiting almost 2 hours for us to get eat. When we arrived at the club, Mr. Bell told the headwaiter that we were part of the Todd party. Then I knew something was up. When I walked into the room with Mr. Bell, I could see a banquet arrangement with several persons that I knew standing around the table. They were trainees and former employees with whom I had worked giving a party for Joe Todd. After dinner one of the trainees acted as emcee and different ones stood up and told some story about me involving them. Pretty soon they had me stand up and they presented me with a gold watch. I was so flabbergasted that I could not do anything but cry. Even now, as I write these lines, I still feel the warmth of their love for me. I shall never forget that moment.

During my 33 years with the Bureau of Public Roads, I was fortunate to be able to work with the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Division Office. I had a number of short assignments in other divisions, but none were of long duration. During 1953-54, I worked out of the St. Paul, Minnesota, Office on forest highways, location and construction. I also was assigned for a short period of time in Chile, South America, as a bituminous expert, early 1960.

Since this is memoir writing, it would not be complete without one of my poems. The poem I use was written several years ago on the occasion of another's retirement. I have copyrighted the poem in publication of other poems.


We often sit and think about
The ones that we have known
The ones that are living
The ones that have passed on.

We have a way of grouping them
Even when the number is few
Some we call the old friends
Some we call the new.

The new friends we will admit
Are as recent as today
But the ones we call the old friends
Are not forgot from yesterday.

All of our friends are of value
When we are feeling down and out
And just a word from one of then
Will make us turn about.

Make what seemed so gloomy
Be a silver lining
That turns away the clouds of doubt
Cures a heart that is pining.

Some forget their old friends
When in others they find pleasure
And find out when it is too late
In antiquity there is treasure.

I still love my old friends
I also love the new
And the greatest thing I could ever be
Is be a friend to you.

By: Joseph A. Todd

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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