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The Trailblazers

Service with the Federal Highway Administration

Logan L. Ratliff

In 1939 I reported to the Bridge Division of Region 15 as a bridge designer. Region 15 was then, as now, in charge of designing and constructing public domain roads on the eastern shore of the country.

The standard structure was a reinforced concrete rigid frame faced with local stone except for the Natchez Trace Parkway where the stone was available. The bridges were architecturally pleasing, durable, possessed enormous reserve strength and, at that time, were competitively priced. Many of these structures are still providing satisfactory service for the parks and parkways of the east.

The stone facing was an expensive item and the pricing unit was the cubic yard.

As time went on, the price for stone masonry increased proportionately more than other items and when it passed $1,000 per cubic yard, we changed the pricing unit to the cubic foot. That did not change the cost any but it looked better. Another problem with the use of stone masonry was the scarcity of good masons. Some of the contractors imported crews of stone masons from Portugal and Spain. They would work here 2 or 3 years and save enough to retire to their home villages in the Old Countries. Eventually, stone work became so expensive that it was discontinued except in the most monumental urban areas such as the Mall in Washington, D.C.

During the early 1940's, it was decided to build the Pentagon Building and the road network around it. The Federal Highway Administration, then Bureau of Public Roads, was given responsibility to design and construct the road network. A task force headed by Mr. Joe Barnett was organized for the project and Bureau personnel from all over the country were detailed to the project. It was a large group and to provide working quarters it was necessary to lease whatever space was available. The Bridge Division was located over a night club in Northwest Washington. This was fine in the daytime, but after 10 p.m. (we worked a great deal of overtime due to demanding time schedules), we had to quit upstairs since the joint was so jumping downstairs. Many of the Pentagon Network brides (there were so many that we referred to them by number) are still in service although some have been replaced by later work on the Interstate route in Virginia.

As my career progressed and I became involved in administrative work, one of the more interesting aspects of my job was the telephone. When it rang, there was no way of anticipating what the type of message would be. One day it rang and I received the breathless message from the BPR Roanoke Office, "We have a bridge burned down." Since the bridge in question was of reinforced concrete, burning it was quite a trick. Actually, the bridge was under construction but substantially complete. The contractor had used creosoted timber telephone poles to support some falsework and the poles and falsework had partially burned. Of course, the creosote gave off a dense sooty smoke and the structure looked terrible - it looked beyond repair. Actually, careful examination disclosed that sandblast cleaning and spray mortar repair would be adequate. The entire structure was finished with tented sprayed mortar and presented a handsome appearance. I believe that was the first use of that finish for a bridge on the public domain.

On another occasion, the phone rang and upon answering I was asked, "What have you done to Old Faithful?" My response was "Nothing, to my knowledge." It developed that the Federal Highway Administration had built a small interchange bridge at the end of the Old Faithful thermal area. This was in connection with the Old Faithful access road and was about 2 or 3 miles from the Old Faithful geyser. During construction of that bridge it was necessary to drain off some hot water to a nearby stream. This was, as I remember, in the order of 100 gallons per hour. Some self-appointed geyser "expert" had noticed this and had convinced himself that draining the water in question would alter the subterranean water pattern to the extent that Old Faithful would cease operation. He had some personal contact with officials in Washington, and had called the Washington Office of the National Park Service with his "the sky is falling." They in turn called me and asked what I had done to their geyser. Since Old Faithful is of national importance, some Congressmen became interested in the matter. It took several months of hand-detailed work to settle the issue, and, gratifyingly, during that time and since, Old Faithful has continued to be faithful.

One of the greatest satisfactions of my career was the successful promotion of the use of bridge types more suitable for today's needs. This included early use of long-span concrete slabs, continuous prestressed concrete girders and concrete box girders.

I am proud to have been associated during my professional career with public works that are so clearly vital to the continued well being of our Nation and that are also the source of great personal enjoyment to the great majority of our population.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000