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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Building Going-to-the-Sun Road

The eastern and western sections of Going-to-the-Sun Road had been completed before Kittredge's survey of the central and most difficult portion. Even after the final route was chosen, it took eight more years to complete construction.

The story of building the section of the road through the extreme terrain and conditions west of Logan Pass illustrates why construction took so long. Because work on all parts of the road progressed at the same time, workers did not have a completed road below them to transport their supplies. The contractors relied on about 15 miles of construction trails and a crude road to haul supplies around incomplete sections of the road. The west side tunnel was a major obstacle. To get around the tunnel area, the contractors sent their supplies up an existing hiking trail. They then built a rough road downhill. They built a cabin to store supplies and even parked a steam shovel there during the winter of 1925-1926.

Most of the 12-mile central section was constructed with the aid of three power shovels--two steam shovels and one gas shovel. The contractors also used pneumatic drills and almost 500,000 pounds of explosives. Construction typically took place in stages. First, the engineering crew marked the way followed by laborers who cut down the trees and did the "grubbing," removing stumps and roots. Then the explosives men moved in. After the explosion broke up the rock, the power shovels cleared and loaded the debris on trucks or on "dinky" railroads. These little trains, powered by small gas locomotives, generally had about 12 dump cars and ran on tracks several hundred feet long to dump the rock in a designated location. Once the rock debris was removed, the remaining rock bed was essentially complete except for surfacing and any necessary masonry work.

Most of the masonry work--bridges, culverts, retaining walls, and guardrails--was done by subcontracting "station gangs." Typically, these were groups of eight to ten men whose efforts were particularly useful in places the power shovels could not be used--especially along the Garden Wall. Laborers came from all over. One group of Russian immigrants set up their own cook tent with their own cook. A number of Italian immigrants worked on the masonry guardrails. One Irish-American contractor tended to hire his fellow Irish from Butte, Montana.

Animals were sometimes a problem. One account describes a deer that became entangled in blasting wires and prevented a blast that would have killed it. There were many stories about the bears that were drawn to the camps by the smell of food. Employees had to watch their lunches; they would hang them in trees along with saws or other tools that would move with the wind and frighten off the bears. At food supply stations contractors would pound nails in the walls with the points outward. One meathouse was built on stilts and fitted out with a drawbridge. One black bear even set up a permanent post at the back door of a camp kitchen. Grizzly bears were far more dangerous than black bears and caused serious alarm. When one threatened the Russian crew at Camp 6 on Logan Pass, the contractors called in park rangers for protection.

Three men died during construction of the road. One man was hanging from a rope to check the safety of an overhanging rock and slipped and fell to the roadbed. Another man was hit on the head by a rock; the third man was killed in a rockslide.

When the road was ready for traffic in 1933, the Park Service prepared a dedication ceremony. Both Congressman Louis C. Cramton and Park Naturalist George C. Ruhle are credited with coming up with the name "Going-to-the-Sun Road," borrowed from nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. The park superintendent, J. R. Eakin, liked the name because "it gives the impression that in driving this road autoists will ascend to extreme heights and view sublime panoramas." Visitors ever since have agreed.

Questions for Reading 2

1. How many years did it take to construct the central portion of the road? Why was this section the most difficult?

2. How did the road contractors get supplies to the highest sections of the project?

3. What stages did the road construction go through?

4. Who made up the labor force?

5. What were some of the dangers workers on the road encountered?

6. Why did the park superintendent like the name "Going-to-the-Sun Road"? Do you think it was a good choice?

Reading 2 was compiled from Kathryn Steen, "Going-to-the-Sun Road," (HAER No. MT-67), Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Historic American Engineering Record, 1990, 1, 23-32; and "Through the Years in Glacier National Park" (Glacier Natural History Association, 1960).

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