Civil Engineering

Erie Canal Builds America

Bond of Union, Gerard Koeppel, 2009 Jesse Hawley first proposed a canal across central New York state linking Lake Erie with the Hudson River in an essay published in the newsweekly "Commonwealth" in 1807.  He used the alias "Hercules" to maintain anonymity for such an outrageous idea.  After much politicking, construction was begun on July 4, 1817 and completed in October, 1825.  The Erie canal became a powerful link between the eastern and western states.  The commerce that flowed through this link created New York City as "The Big Apple", created a truly united states by breaking the economic isolation caused by the Appalachian Mountains.  The Erie Canal propelled the North to dominance over the south that had opportunities during the previous fifty years to expand routes of commerce to the west but failed to do so.

I was not taught much, if anything about the first twenty five years of our nineteenth century history in school but, after some study, it appears to be a vastly important era.  It was the time when the Marshall Court created the foundational jurisprudence for the nation.  It was the age of the development of the steamboat and steam locomotives and it was the age of the canal, best exemplified by the Erie Canal.  It was the proliferation of canals throughout the U.S. that gave great voltage to our economic growth.

Jim Blake,Sr. - Bridges in the Western States

My father was a civil engineer.  He received a degree in Forestry and Civil Engineering at the University of Washington in 1950 and started an illustrious, international career building transcontinental railroads (southern Australia) Atomic energy plants (Hanford, WA) Cement production plants (California),  mining facilities in Peru, tunnels in the New Guinea jungle for a copper mine and Highway bridges in California (2), Washington and Montana.  I had a chance to see him in action as a construction superintendent at two of the bridge construction sites in 1964 and 1969.  He was generous enough to find me useful employment at both sites.  During the construction of the Central Ferry bridge in Washington state,  he  telephoned a state official of the Columbia River watershed and had the volume of the river reduced for a two weeks while his crews installed coffer dams in the middle of the flowing water.  This was probably the most God-like thing I saw him do.  He was a great leader of men.  On the Libby Dam Reservoir Bridge near Rexford, Montana in 1969 he was directing a few hundred men and having the time of his life.  He loved to figure out all of the steps required for a massive project and then mobilize his men to make it happen.  He was a great communicator who could stand up on a wooden crate  in front of the entire work force and firmly deliver the site policies, directives and schedule outlines.  He was like Abe Lincoln at a political rally:  good-humored, forceful and to the point. He was a great problem solver who could invent dramatic and immediate solutions to very difficult construction emergencies.  I was with him one morning at the Crystal Springs Bridge (Eugene Doran Bridge - San Mateo County) when a footing excavation had begun to fill with water after an underground spring was hit by a backhoe.  His team was worried.  He decided on the spot to fill the sixty by sixty foot excavation partially with loose dirt, soak up the water, use a backhoe to put the mud into trucks thus de-watering the big hole then we raced down to a construction supply warehouse and bought a few submersible pumps (Flygt) and some flexible hose and had it installed into the excavation.  These pumps kept the hole dry until the cage of number eleven rebar could be installed and the concrete poured.  later in his career he was a superintendent on a section of the Alaska Pipeline,  Oil production facilities in Daching, China, Radar Towers in Argentina, Earthmoving operations in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia and many, many others.  During my childhood he was in demand all over the world so I rarely saw him.   He had hearing problems from guns firing on his destroyer and deep diving mine-setting work, PTSD from World War Two heroics (bronze star)  and he had a bad temper, I consider his domestic absence a blessing.  He was a great man but in his chosen element which was the dynamic playing fields of construction sites around the world.

It is interesting to note that his work was part of the heroic age of post WW II civil engineering when the United States was financing projects all over the world to great acclaim.  Today he would be called an "Economic Hit Man" who participated in the destruction of tropical jungles, the creation of hydrogen bombs, the building of facilities that exploited indigenous populations etc etc.  I'm glad most of my memories of him are from the era of the American hero.  He was a hero to me although he thought artists were pussies and he hated my paintings (and said so!)  after 1969. the "Montana barn" ("art" this blog) is where I lost him as a fan of my painting.

Re:  The pussy thing.  We had a contest in his backyard in Mission Viejo, California one afternoon to see who could do the most one-legged deep knee bends,  one of his benchmarks for strong legs.  He could do fifty or so on each leg.  When my turn came,  I started and after fifteen minutes (a few hundred) he stopped counting and suggested we go have a bourbon.

Lake Letterman Indiana

It is time for a very large scale WPA style civil engineering project to get the heartland and the rest of us back on our feet.  Let’s turn Indiana into our sixth great lake and connect this lake to the rapidly diminishing Oglala aquifer that lies beneath the Great Plains states.  What to do with the farmers and small town residents?  Swap them their soon to be submerged land for lakefront property.  There will be thousands of new miles of this valuable real estate.  The actual edge of  Lake Letterman will be located ten miles from adjacent borders.  Indianapolis will become an island of sorts connected by spokes that form the five major highways into surrounding states.  Lafayette / Purdue may lobby for island status but it is not likely to be granted.  This project will employ all willing workers on the North American continent for ten years: blue collar, white collar, no collar.  Lake Letterman will become a thriving tourist destination for vacationers  and shoppers from around the world with direct flights from Asia and the Middle East.  Our new great lake will replace rust-belt industry with global scale recreation opportunity. “Make no little plans” - Daniel Burnham