13 Building the first Rim Road

History of Rim Drive, Crater Lake National Park


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Design and Construction of Circuit Roads


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Building the first Rim Road

Estimates for construction of a complete road system in Crater Lake National Park also reflected the emphasis on a circuit of the rim. Roughly two-thirds of the $627,000 needed to complete the grading for this system in 1911 would go to building the “main highway,” one that the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to locate as “near to the edge of the crater as can be done at as many points as possible.” They figured an average cost of building each mile of road to be $13,000, with the construction estimates based on a roadway 16′ wide shoulder to shoulder and an eventual surfaced width of 12′. This figure did not include paving at another $5,000 per mile, nor the need to build a guard wall as a safety barrier. The engineer in charge of the survey, however, believed that the latter could be hand laid with “dry rubble” without increasing the total estimated cost.

Road building started during the summer of 1913, with work supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers continuing over the next six years. Construction proceeded from the park’s east entrance to Lost Creek, where the Rim Road was to commence. Crews hired on a day labor basis, rather than on contract, started a circuit from there. One group went north toward Kerr Notch and then to the top of Anderson Point in 1913, while another crew worked from a permanent camp established in Munson Valley to reach the rim and continue west. Assistant Engineer George E. Goodwin had immediate charge of the project, which in 1913 also involved a number of refinements to road location indicated by the survey done three years earlier.

Rim Drive
Taken from the West Rim Drive with Watchman in the distance.

Much of the construction was accomplished through either hand labor or equipment like horse-drawn road plows and graders. Progress in clearing and rough grading could be slowed, however, by the considerable amount of needed excavation by hand with picks and shovels in some places. The likelihood of continuing appropriations from Congress allowed for multi-year commitment by the Army Corps of Engineers at Crater Lake, so Goodwin reported on experiments with various kinds of road surfacing in 1913. This step would follow the grading phase, of course, but the engineers needed to find which type of surfacing could best withstand the climatic conditions and anticipated traffic. They compared various treatments on short sections of road in Munson Valley and found that a combination of an oil bound macadam and bituminous paving held the most promise.

Despite having a small rock crushing plant and a wood fueled steam roller available during the surfacing experiments, lack of funds for surfacing prevented the engineers from completing anything more than a rough graded road around the rim over the next five seasons. Crews completed grading and installation of cross drainage (wood planks in a few places at first, but corrugated metal culverts later predominated) of two segments on the Rim Road in 1914. One connected Lost Creek with the permanent camp in Munson Valley and covered 10 miles, while the other went from Kerr Notch to the summit of Cloudcap, a distance of 4 miles. Having 250 men and fifty teams (many with drag scrapers) during August made a huge difference over 1913, especially since three steam shovels handled most of the excavation.

Appropriations for the work dropped in 1915, so the grading on Rim Road was limited to a section of 3.5 miles between Rim Village and the foot of Watchman. An average force of fifty-five men, six teams, and one steam shovel worked from July to October, with much of the work heavy excavation. The steam shovel handled much of the rockwork, often after drilling and blasting, with finish grading done by hand and teams. Despite the relatively slow progress with grading and installing cross drainage, the engineers reported having settled on a final location for the remaining road construction between the Watchman and Cloudcap.

The heavy winter followed by a cold spring and a labor shortage limited the 1916 season to just 3 miles between Watchman and the Devil’s Backbone, on the highest portion of the western rim. At that point about two-thirds of a projected 35.6 miles of Rim Road had been rough graded, with the engineers commenting that the newest section “provides many advantageous viewpoints of the lake and many beautiful outlooks on the surrounding country.” Grades varied between 2 and 10 percent on the already built road sections, with no curve being less than 50′ in radius and very few being less than 100′. Without surfacing material, however, the Rim Road was bound to become so badly rutted and dusty that automobile travel on it was described as “slow, disagreeable, and in some places dangerous.”

Closing the loop around the rim took two more seasons. Work continued from both ends in 1917, when 100 men and fifteen teams cleared, graded, and installed cross drainage from the Devil’s Backbone and then around Llao Rock to a point above Steel Bay on the northwest side of the lake. A separate contingent of sixty men and ten teams completed a switchback descent from the top of Cloudcap to the Wineglass, where a temporary shelter cabin was built. Day labor thus completed the grading of 6 miles despite a continuing labor shortage that put park road projects in competition with haying and harvesting operations in the nearby Klamath Basin.

Virtually all of the $50,000 appropriation for building roads at Crater Lake in 1918 went to the Rim Road, with most of that amount going toward rough grading of the last 6 miles from Steel Bay to Wineglass. Enough work had been completed by the end of September to allow the first vehicles to complete the entire Rim Road circuit. American involvement in World War I made the labor shortage more acute and snow conditions dictated a late start, but double shifts that often had the two steam shovels working sixteen hours a day allowed the engineers to close the construction camps in early October.

The engineers came back to Crater Lake in 1919, using the unexpended balance from allotments made the previous season to do a small amount of grading and repair on the Rim Road before transferring all property, materials, and supplies to the National Park Service in July. Work had progressed to the point where NPS director Stephen Mather thought it economical for his bureau to assume the responsibility for park roads, even though the engineers saw their project as only 50 percent complete. They pointed to the need for surfacing and paving in every annual report to the Secretary of War since 1913, but no funds for these phases of road construction had been forthcoming, even after a grand total of approximately $417,000 had been expended for equipment, supplies, and labor as of 1919 for grading a system of roads and trails in the park. Well over half that amount was spent on the Rim Road, a project that remained unfinished throughout the following decade.