San Marino Memories: My First Job

Getting my first job back then was as difficult back then as it is now. Knowing what to do with connections made all the difference.

In a recent blog, I wrote about an exciting job while building the McNary dam on the Columbia River 200 miles upstream from Portland, Oregon. Living in quiet San Marino, how did I manage to get such a plumb job on the Columbia River?

On this job, we excavated thousands of tons of basalt poured millions of yards of concrete and diverted the whole Columbia River a half mile. This was an interesting and exciting project. The McNary Dam is 5,000 feet long and has a spillway, ship locks and fish ladders. It generates one million kilowatts, day in and day out, generating 24 hours a day.

Here is how I got there. In 1937, a new family moved in next door at 1414 Wilson Avenue. The new family was Earl Holt, his wife, Wilma Atkinson Holt and their two children. Mr. Holt’s new job in Southern California was project manager on the Hansen Dam out off of Foothill Boulevard (years before the 210 was built) in Lake View Terrace. In 1936, there were serious concerns about flooding of San Fernando Valley from the big and little Tujunga canyons and the Angeles National Forest mountains.  So, the U.S. Corps of Engineers drew up plans for the Hansen Dam and Guy F. Atkinson Company got the contract. 

The Hansen Dam would have a crest length of 9000 feet and would require 14 million yards of earth fill and four million cubic yards of excavation. It was the largest earth-filled dam at completion on 1939 in the world. The spillway structure in the center of dam was concrete. 

By 1938, construction was well underway. Mr. Holt invited myself and a classmate, Clark Hunter, to visit the construction site. When we got there, Mr. Holt put us in the backseat of his car and off we went touring the whole job site, first one place and then another. At each stop, he would confer with his superintendents and foremen. The roads were rough and the car was bouncing all over the place.

As we were driving, we were surrounded by giant earth moving machines. These were enormous machines.  Then as they were scrapping up a load of earth, a tractor would get behind and push as the machines filled up their load. Then the earthmover would go a mile and push its load out on the ground. Then giant rollers would compact the load. The din and movement were unforgettable. I didn't know it then, but someday I love working with machinery. 

Fast forward ten years. I was a student at Stanford at that time.  I visited my old neighbors who were now living in the San Francisco area. I took Mr. Holt’s son out fishing one day and ended up back at their house listening to stories about various construction projects around the world. The whole thing sounded very interesting to me and, of course, I had been quite impressed years earlier by Mr. Holt’s tour. I must have hung around long enough, because Mr. Holt finally offered me a job. Sincere interest and persistent are the qualities that I think did it.  And, the results?  Working on that dam turned out to be a terrific start to my career.  A real “blast,” in fact!

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