Threadlines of Geotechnical and Engineering Geology firms in the Greater Los Angeles Metro-Southern California Area

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Threadlines of Geotechnical and Engineering Geology firms in the Greater Los Angeles Metro-Southern California Area

compiled by

J. David Rogers

Last edited 9-4-2012

Corps of Engineers Threadline

The Los Angeles District of the Army Corps of Engineers played an important role in the development of geotechnical engineering and engineering geology practice in southern California. After passage of the River & Harbors Act of 1896, the Corps involvement with developing a viable deep-water port for Los Angeles led to the establishment of the Los Angeles District of the Army Corps of Engineers in December 1898. The Corps began dumping rock into San Pedro Bay off Point Firmin in late April 1899. The granite for this first breakwater was quarried on Catalina Island. The project gradually picked up speed as the contractors developed more efficient methods of placing the rock, and the project was completed between 1902-05.

In 1902 the Pacific Electric Railway connected Long Beach and San Pedro to their expanding systems serving southern California. In 1905 the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad made connection with the fledgling port, providing a second transcontinental rail link, with the Santa Fe Railway at Hobart Yard (Los Angeles) and Union Pacific Railroad, in Ogden. In 1907 the Los Angeles Harbor Commission was established, which oversaw its continual evolution and development. With an eye towards expanding business expected with the completion of the Panama Canal, in 1909 the citizens of San Pedro and Wilmington voted to annex themselves to the City of Los Angeles. With similar visions the Southern Pacific Railroad completed their first major wharf facility at the port in 1912.

Captain Charles T. Leeds (1879-1960) became the Los Angeles District Engineer in 1909 and he would remain in LA the rest of his life, exerting a profound influence on the civil engineering practice there. During his first three year term as the District Engineer the 1,900 ft gap between Point Firmin and the first breakwater was filled-in, creating a continuous breakwater 9,250 ft long, using three million tons of quarried rock.

Siltation and navigation problems

Major setbacks to harbor development occurred with the storms of Feb 1914 and Jan 1916. The storms of February 1914 deluged southern California, overtopping dams and rail lines in San Diego and Los Angeles Counties, leading to the establishment of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District in 1915 (Leeds had a significant role in effecting these responses). The damage to the new port facilities was horrendous, with three to five million cubic yards of silt being dumped into the San Pedro/Wilmington and Long Beach Harbors by the various channels that discharged into Wilmington Bay. The silt left the new wharves “high and dry.” It took 1-1/2 years to dredge and dispose of the enormous volume of silt and sand from the 1914 storm when disaster struck again, in Jan 1916. This time silt from the Los Angeles River filled the newly excavated channels and wharves in Long Beach Harbor, making it inoperable and bankrupting the Los Angeles Dock & Terminal Co., which had developed the facilities. The City of Long Beach stepped in and took over ownership and operation of their port.

In March 1917 the United States entered the World War and Charles Leeds volunteered to return as District Engineer, allowing the younger career officers to be released for duty in Europe. The two ports (Los Angeles and Long Beach) grew dramatically because of U.S. Maritime Commission ship orders during the war. The Panama Canal opened in August 1914. That year the Port of Los Angeles handled about 150,000 tons of cargo per month. When the First World War ended in November 1918, the port was handling 2,500,000 tons/month.

After the First World War the Corps of Engineers began tackling the siltation problems, by constructing five miles of levees along Nigger Slough and Compton Creek in 1920-23. These improvements were then turned over the to the newly formed Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LACFCD), which developed the Dominguez Channel improvements, a series of concrete channel improvements that stretches nearly 16 miles, draining a 115 square mile area tributary to the harbor. It took the LACFCD nearly 40 years to complete the entire project.

From 1931 onward the Corps began viewing Los Angeles-Long Beach as an integrated facility, and the port continued to expand through placement of sandy hydraulic fill behind semi-flexible rock and timber bulkheads to reclaim vast tracts of land from what used to be offshore shallows. Between 1932-48 the Corps of Engineers set about constructing the detached breakwaters that protect the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, employing the joint venture Rohl-Connolly, who used granite quarried on Catalina Island. Three great breakwaters were completed: the first was extended 1,900 ft and a navigational beacon was fixed on its eastern terminus, marking the main entrance to the Los Angeles Channel. This was christened the San Pedro Breakwater and it is 11,152 feet long, connecting to Point Fermin. The Middle Breakwater was completed in 1937 with a length of 18,500 ft; leaving a 1200 ft gap for the main Long Beach Shipping Channel. The Long Beach Breakwater, east of the channel gap, was not completed to its final length of 13,350 ft until after the war, in 1946-48.

The port was surprising little damaged by the March 1933 Long Beach earthquake (because there wasn’t much hydraulic fill in place at that time), but problems with ground settlement began to manifest themselves during the Second World War, due to the withdrawal of petroleum in the Wilmington-Signal Hill oil field. By 1945 Los Angeles-Long Beach was the largest man-made port in the world, but the problems of flooding, siltation, earthquakes, and ground subsidence combined to make it one of the most geoetechnically challenging harbor facilities in the world.

The outbreak of the European War in September 1939 triggered the congressional approval of increased appropriations for construction of military facilities in 1940-41. The Corps of Engineers was charged with the design and construction of the domestic military facilities during the Second World War. The staff of the Los Angeles District grew by 400% between June 1939 and June 1942, and another 150% by the end of the war. These figures hardly reflect the increased volume of construction they were responsible for supervising, which increased $20 million per month after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The Ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach were enlarged considerably during the war, with the construction of the Long Beach Naval Complex, which included the Naval Shipyard - Long Beach, a Naval Air Station, four associated housing areas in Los Alamitos, Palos Verdes, San Pedro, and Whites Point; Naval Station Long Beach and its two associated housing areas at Savannah/Cabrillo and Taper Avenue; and the Long Beach Naval Hospital. The shipyard included warehouses with rail access, three dry docks (one able to handle fleet carriers), fitting docks, wharves, and the Navy Mole, where modifications could be elected on even the largest vessels (such as upgrading radar antennas, etc). In 1943-44 additional work was undertaken to develop Alamitos Bay, along the east side of Long beach, which had been plagued by flooding and siltation emanating from the mouth of the San Gabriel River. Twin jetties were constructed along the entry channel, the eastern of which trains silt-laden flows from the San Gabriel into deeper water offshore, keeping the Alamitos Bay channel clear. This work was carried out in cooperation with the LACFCD.

After the war (1946), the Corps of Engineers let the last contract to complete the remaining segment of the massive breakwater structures for the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. In 1954-55 parallel breakwaters along the Los Angeles River Channel were extended through the Long Beach Harbor to convey sediment to deeper waters, well offshore.

Terminal Island was expanded dramatically, through the use of hydraulically-dredged sand fill, excavated from the adjacent channels. The Port of Las Angeles became a major ship-building center, with construction of the West Basin around Smith Island and similar facilities chiseled into the old shoreline around Mormon Island, the East Basin, and the northwestern side of Terminal Island. In 1953 the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Los Angeles & Long Beach Harbors among the “Seven Wonders of Civil Engineering in the Los Angeles Region” (Hoover Dam and the Colorado River Aqueduct were selected as two of the Seven Modern Wonders of Civil Engineering in 1958).

Grievous settlement problems

By war’s end in 1945 the most vexing problem the port faced was increasing settlement, which eclipsed a rate of two feet per year by 1947, endangering the usefulness of many constructed facilities, such as Southern California Edison’s (SCE) power generation station on Terminal Island. In 1948 SCE and Stanford Research Institute brought in soil mechanics pioneer Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963) and petroleum engineer Charles Dodson to assess the settlement problem, which seemed to be worsening. Terzaghi soon learned from Dodson that 600 million barrels of oil and 200 million barrels of water had been pumped out of the ground over the previous 20 years (1932-52), as well as enormous quantities of natural gas. These consultations resulted in the most voluminous reports ever prepared by Terzaghi, some which (in 1952) exceeded 400 pages in length. When Terzaghi’s predictions were exceeded in the early 1950s, other experts, including Professors Ralph Peck (1912-2008) and Nabor Carrillo-Flores (1911-67), were brought into the work. After several years of intense testing and analysis, everyone was surprised to find that the siltstones of Pliocene and Pleistocene age, lying 2000 to 6000 ft deep, were actually the culprits, which no one, not even Terzaghi, initially believed plausible (the oil and gas was being withdrawn from the porous sandstone lying between the low density siltstone beds).

Flood control improvements

The Corps became increasingly involved in shoreline protection and enhanced harbor navigation during the 1930s, which was augmented to develop projects for the Works Project Administration (WPA). The Corps’ responsibilities were enlarged considerably with passage of the Federal Flood Control Act of 1936, which expanded their responsibilities to include provision of flood control. The Los Angeles District was authorized to construct $70 million worth of flood control improvements envisioned in the County’s comprehensive plan. This led to a complete re-organization of the Los Angeles District, with a much-increased emphasis on flood protection. This work included major improvements to the Los Angles, Rio Hondo, and San Gabriel Rivers. From 1941-53 Burnham H. Dodge served as Chief of the Hydrology and Flood Operations Section, who authored the classic article titled Debris Control (Ch 19) in the classic 1950 tome Applied Sedimentation. Over the next two decades (1940-66) the Corps expended $350 million on flood protection works and the LACoFCD spent $1.5 billion. Between 1898-1964 the Los Angeles District constructed $1.33 billion in military facilities and $570 million of civil works in the Los Angeles District.

Post-war drawdown

The post-war era also witnessed the resumption of emphasis on flood control infrastructure. Between 1948-58 the Los Angeles District averaged between $50 and $100 million per year in construction projects. By 1958 the district office employed 1,350 people, occupying five floors of the office building at 8th and Figueroa. It was the second largest Corps district in the nation (New Orleans employed as many as 4,000). Construction worked peaked in 1961 ($92 million), and by 1965 the district staff had been whittled down to 876 employees, and they moved into the 6th and 7th Floors of the new Federal Office Building in downtown Los Angeles. By 1966 the Corps was still studying 19 areas in southern California that were awaiting flood control projects (upper Santa Ana, upper San Jacinto, upper Santa Clara watersheds, Santa Barbara and San Diego Counties, as well as the upper Mojave River Basin).

Foundations and Materials Branch – Los Angeles District

The first geologist hired by the Los Angeles District was Mason K. Read (1891-1962; BA Geol 1913 Illinois) in 1935, as a Quarry Stone Inspector for the LA Harbor Breakwater, after having worked at the Catalina Island Quarry, teaching geology at Pasadena City College, and working in the oil industry. At In 1946 a new Foundations and Materials Branch was added to the district. The Branch Chief of the Foundations Group was geological engineer Vladamir “Wally” Pentegoff (1899-1982; profiled below) from 1946 until his retirement in 1963. The Materials Group was under the direction of former LADWP engineer by Elton Knight (1916-60). John M. (Jack) Bird (1916-91) left his position teaching soil mechanics at the University of Tennessee to become Chief of the Foundations Section, and Mason Read became Chief of the District’s new Geology Section (Read was a charter member of CAEG when it formed in 1957). After Read retired in Nov 1960, Vernon F. Minor became Chief of the Geology Section, assisted by engineering geologist Brandt D. Jorgensen. The district was also assisted by George D. Roberts, CEG (1910-80) (BS GeoE ’33 CSM) in 1965-67, the Corps most capable engineering geologist at that time. Roberts worked for Dames & Moore’s San Francisco office between 1963-65 and 1967-75, then retired to Laguna Hills, where he remained till passing away in 1980.

During the Second World War one of the district’s structural engineers, L.T. Evans, was dispatched to set up a soils and foundation engineering laboratory. Evans started one of the first soil mechanics firms in Los Angeles in 1946 (described below). At that time the Branch provided personnel to perform tests and provide inspection of the work during construction (concrete, including placement of re bars, and soils). During investigation of potential construction sites, the drilling, backhoe excavations, and soil sampling was performed by District personnel from the Geology Section.

When Jack Bird moved to the Corps’ new Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Center in July 1953, his former student Claude Fetzer (1922-2001) replaced him. Fetzer received his BSCE from Tennessee in 1943 and served as a naval engineering officer during the war, followed by work with Freese & Nichols in Houston. In 1947-48 he studied soil mechanics at the University of Illinois under Ralph Peck, receiving his master’s June 1948. After a short stint with C.F. Braun in Alhambra, he joined the Los Angeles District in December 1948.

In 1953 Fetzer was joined by two experienced geotechnical engineers, Jack W. Rolston (BSCE ’47 Harvard; ME ’48 Stanford) from Charles Lee in San Francisco and Joseph C. Sciandrone, (BSCE ’48 Kansas), who transferred in from the Kansas City District. Rolston had received formal training in soil mechanics at Harvard and Stanford (profiled below), and Sciandrone (1924-2007) went onto to become the Corps premier geotechnical expert on levees in California, working out of the Sacramento District. Fetzer achieved considerable notoriety solving embankment problems for the Corps of Engineers across the country. The soils engineering group in Los Angeles was joined by Gilbert Reyes, Neal Parker, and Gene Mahoney in the late 1950s. Nine years later Jack Rolston returned, initially working part-time, then full-time, off and on. He became a 60-year fixture working with the LA District.

When Wally Pentegoff retired in 1963, Claude Fetzer was transferred to the Ohio River Division and Jack Bird returned to Los Angeles to become the new Branch Chief in 1964, and he remained until he retired in the mid-1970s. Other people working in their geotechnical group in the 1960s included: James R. Townsend, John S. Ferguson, Charles W. Orvis, Terrence J. Smith, Filmore Turner. In 1960 Rolston started his own consulting firm (Foundation Engineers, profiled below), but returned in 1969, working full-time and part-time as their senior geotechnical consultant over the next 40+ years! Larry Luro replaced Bird as Chief of the District’s Geotechnical Branch when he retired.

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