The Defense Backbone Route: Open Wire Helps Fight World War II
“As time passes, the road will again be covered by sagebrush, and there may come a day when travelers will ask, ‘What road is that, and where does it go?’ The proper answer by a historically-posted person will be, ‘That’s the road built by the telephone fellows, back in ’42 during the war. It leads north and south.'”
–Richard C. Smith
The story of this major toll construction project in the West beckons back to a time when most cities and states were linked by either long routes of cable or more often, open wire toll routes. Naturally, the major cities of the east came first, then the eastern coastal routes south and finally the Midwest. There, the building stopped, while telephone connections prospered along the western coast. Nothing up to the early 1900s crossed the continent until the first U. S. Transcontinental line was completed in 1915. This linked most cities with a few tender strands until several other routes crossing the continent (including the Canadian Transcontinental in 1932 – see “Canadian” section on this website) were inaugurated.
Most of these paths crossed east to west, some major routes north and south–but in most instances, the circuit miles crossed the country in straight lines from city to city. Economic and terrain considerations were the most vital of the needs whereby such lines were built in tight straight point-to-point directions. Sometimes, less direct routes were chosen because of mountains, or bodies of water. Such routes had advantages, too. These also might serve other intermediate cities by a glancing touch and then progressing to a return terminus city.
The early advantage to early open wire toll and early aerial cable layouts was that intersecting additions of cable and open wire would provide alternative routes for switching calls in emergencies, such as floods, hurricanes and ice storms. Since the direct lines to these cities were not economically justifiable at earlier times, these indirect lines now performed significant duties. Also, when business to certain cities did not allow a major construction project, these indirect routes furnished facilities until it was time to build a major toll construction project.
In the 1920s, Chicago callers to Seattle and Tacoma went by way of the Central Transcontinental Line until the early 1930s, when the Northern Transcontinental Line was built between Chicago, Minneapolis, Fargo, Helena and Spokane. This similar circumstance dictated another transcontinental line from Kansas City, Albuquerque to Los Angeles.
As the growth of radio networks expanded, program network circuits were needed to link the various stations in major cities. These open wire and cable circuits were utilized for these radio networks and furnished a redundant means to send programming throughout the various affiliates across the nation.
By the mid-1920s, there were 63 telephone circuits between New York and Chicago mainly used for long distance toll calls. Ten other circuits on those routes carried special circuit programming for radio. 15 circuits were also dedicated for voice frequency telegraph and these (with carrier) offered 180 telegraph circuits, including five used for emergency operation. These were just an example. Here are some of the others in use by 1930:
93 circuits – New York – Chicago – Distributed on different routes such as (7) Buffalo-Cleveland-Toledo; 64 from Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo; 22 circuits by way of Pittsburgh-Dayton-Terre Haute.
In addition at the time, four cables (both underground and aerial) carried 86 circuits between New York and Pittsburgh, but all were routed in different ROWs so that all wouldn’t be damaged at one point. In the late 1920s, this same reasoning was undertaken when New York and Boston were connected. One route between Hartford and Providence was 230 miles in length, but while the second was identical in length, it took a different path: Hartford-Springfield-Worcester. These were all underground. Later in the 1930s, a third route was constructed: Albany-Springfield-Worcester. This last route was 100 miles longer, but again, offered redundancy in case the other two were taken out by ocean storms or hurricanes.
Here’s a great example: On November 20, 1930, a vast, hard-hitting winter storm plowed through New England lasting over a week. Three of the Transcontinental Lines were downed. The West Coast only had one connection to the East, and that was the Southern Transcontinental Lead which traveled through El Paso to Phoenix and Redlands to Los Angeles.
Another fine feature of this network of interconnections was made apparent when on September 29, 1927, President Coolidge and Mexican President Calles, ceremonies were held on the occasion of opening telephone service between the U. S. and Mexico City. As the telephone conference was about to begin between the two leaders, a tornado near St. Louis, Missouri passed right through the South Central Transcontinental Open Wire Lead causing lines down and a circuit broken between the two leaders by way of their route between Washington, St. Louis and Dallas, Texas. Immediately, an emergency line was re-established between the two leaders. This new route linked Atlanta-New Orleans-Dallas with another (just in case!) between Chicago-Omaha-Kansas City.
Without any recognizable delay, and without the two leaders knowing they were speaking over a line routed through Omaha, Nebraska and Kansas City, Missouri, the Conference went on undisturbed and to its completion of ceremonies.
New York and Washington, D. C. also had alternative routes, such as the cable route between Harrisburg and Baltimore. These are just a few of the Eastern routes for example. Other cities of the middle South and Midwest were similarly designed with alternative means to direct calls if emergencies dictated their use. The West was no different.
At the Bell System, the Long Lines Department, handled these switching processes and maintenance on various toll routes whether open wire or cable. At Long Lines, in the past years, an Engineering, Traffic and Plant Departments were joined so that satisfactory transmission elements would function together. They also monitored traffic congestion and monitored volume of calls. The Traffic Control Bureau section heads were located in various Long Lines’ operating cities across the nation. When an earthquake occurred in California in the spring of 1933, 45 circuits to the west were immediately expanded to 79, so that 75% more capacity could be allotted to emergency operations by government.
When the Great Depression erupted on the occasion of Bank Holidays in March 1933, one major Midwestern city had an increase in circuits of 40%. In Cleveland, a few days later, the crisis expanded, necessitating the release of 58% more circuits in that region of Long Lines. By the time the banking crisis was at full tilt, over a period of 21 days, 1300 circuits had been opened and affected 180 cities! The economic crisis might have been far greater had failure at one point or all points in the nation’s telecommunications system had been breached and information lost. These were among the many needs for which beyond the mere climate redundant system the multiple lines were originally built.
The United States Joins the Allied Effort
in World War II
The proceeding routes and the story of their establishment of a nation-wide telecommunications system now stood ready to lend itself to the war effort. And remember, just 27 years earlier, only three circuits had tied the entire country together. Now, these modernized, extended network of cable, open wire and coax would affect the winning of the war against the Axis.
When Pearl Harbor was hit by Japanese bombers and submarines in late 1941, the U. S. faced a war on two fronts, because as soon as the U. S. declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on the United States as part of its responsibility as a signatory of the Tri-Partite Pact in September 1940. The U. S. now braced its coasts in preparation for what might be possible invasion by the Japanese and infiltration by the Germans on the Eastern seaboard.
In the West, the war crisis acutely affected the communications networks which revealed themselves to be very risky in terms of possible sabotage and invasion during an attack. Invasion was seriously considered to be a major possibility. Troops were stationed around electrical substations in San Diego and other metro areas and surveilance was increased where strategic stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, fuel and gas were possible enemy targets.
Up to the time of the war’s initiation, there were several major toll leads in operation between Seattle and Yuma:
- Yuma (AZ) – Whitewater – San Bernardino – Fresno – Sacramento – Portland – Tacoma – Seattle.
- Salt Lake City – San Bernardino – Los Angeles
- Los Angeles – San Luis Obispo – San Francisco – Sacramento
- San Francisco – Sacramento – Reno (NV)
The third route, which hugged the coast for much of its meandering way, was quite susceptible to possible sabotage and offered the enemy a means to disrupt valuable communications without traveling far into the coastal areas.
This threat was not lost on telephone executives and engineers, who worried about the critical nature of these possible potential disruptions. April 1, 1942 was the start date of a new project, approved by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph management several weeks prior and given budgetary approval not long after. This project was called officially, the Defense Backbone Route. Unofficially, its nomenclature included both the humorous and the near vulgar, when employees set out to build the thing. “North-South Toll Lead,” “Jackrabbit” and “Damned Big Rush,” were among the appellations derived from both the aggressive nature of the project and its speed of construction.
This project, was by no means the only project on the drawing boards, but its priority meant that it was considered of such high priority a new organizational component was conceived to build it. This new division at Pacific Telephone & Telegraph was responsible for its construction in Northern California and Nevada. However, the overall project commenced with more at hand than the actual engineering and construction of the line from Yakima, Washington to Danby, California:
- 892 miles of pole line (707 miles California & Nevada, 90 miles in Washington, 30 miles in Oregon, and 65 in Southern California)
- 7,700 pair miles of conductor
- Nine new buildings constructed
- Two building additions for components
- Central Office equipment installations
- Carrier & Repeater installations
- Existing 425 miles of line were equipped with additional crossarms and eight line wires
- A road to furnish material, construction forces’ access and a future maintenance route
Surveying the Route
Surveying the possible path of the DBR came first, as in all major toll route construction. But, in this case, by aircraft. Aerial photography captured by one team flying north from Reno, Nevada and another detailing the route south, would provide comparison land choices. When the photographic proofs were revealed, the 22,000 foot alt. revealed nearly everything in considerable detail–so richly–that when the line was completed, the path drawn from them was of a nearly 95% unchanged route. Much of the Nevada desert had never been photographed with such precision. Once the photographs had been prepared for crews, the actual “staking” of the line was undertaken by 55 men who maintained bases at four towns nearest the potential route.
The Project’s main construction office was in Reno, Nevada. However, this office didn’t just establish camps, pole marshalling yards and on-site freight delivery locations. The office contained procurement and purchasing personnel, accounting people who paid the workers, organized bills and payroll activity for 640 workers (averaging 522 men and women), coordinating contractors (yes, the temporary laborer issue called upon volunteer college and high school men for the summer), investigating right-of-way and easement property questions, compliance with proper tools and finally, safety provisioning.
Now, the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph still faced a labor problem. While 23 foremen and 112 linemen worked on the project, there was a need for more people within the Bell System. Some of these people “borrowed” for the job came from Northwestern Bell (Omaha), Southwestern Bell (St. Louis), Mountain States Telephone (Denver), Illinois Bell (Chicago) and the Long Lines Department of AT&T.
All of this responsibility was under one domain, the Pacific Bell people, which contained the Washington-Idaho area; Oregon geographic section, Northern California and Nevada as well as sections of Southern California. Where the 707 miles of line drove through California and Nevada, there were three separate project “districts” and ten equal work “sections.” Most were between 82 and 43 miles in length.
This was a daunting task in arid desert lands, to say the least. It took 60 miles to get to the site of the proposed construction and to return each night. Major roads were rare. Once the construction crews began excavating holes for poles, it seemed that they were within eyesight of the staking crews, the demand for time was so great. Everything was needed in a rush! For example, that required:
- 30,000 poles
- 64,000 10′ crossarms
- 1,589,000 lbs. of conductor
- 1,000 anchors, among many other things necessary to complete the job.
The desert offered deep sand and hard rock. Some stakes easily were absorbed into the sand; others were placed inside of rocks gathered only to hold up the stake.
Simultaneously, in other more temperate offices, outside plant transmission engineers made notes and figured the quantities of poles, hardware, conductor and sleeve splices necessary, not to mention crossarms, pins, insulators, transposition brackets, bolts, and braces necessary. Electronics was also a major demand of engineering talent where repeater and carrier systems were planned for new and expanded existing offices.
Since this was a Bell project, Western Electric was responsible for equipment and procurement needs as well as scheduling deliveries to work sites. Many different W. E. manufacturing locations were involved in bringing equipment to the DBR project. Since so much was involved in procurement, the Western Electric central Pac Bell Warehouse at Emeryville, California was considered “too small” for this onslaught, so nearly everything went directly to the job site. In order to “un” complicate bookkeeping, requisitions and orders were assigned special codes so referencing the right piece for the right section of the job could go smoothly through what would have been a terrific bureaucracy.
Combine the massive task with the new limitations of the time: wartime rationing. Every ounce of gasoline was valuable; every vehicle called for the very most it could give. While the major equipments were found on the West Coast, there was still a need for additional trucks which other Bell Operating Units were only so happy to engage for this work, outside their regular company territories. Again, Northwestern Bell, Southwestern Bell, Wisconsin, Ohio, Southern, New Jersey Companies and Long Lines’ joined the fray to offer their vehicular contributions. These trucks were used in five ways: digging pole holes, pole setting, straightening and aligning them, wire stringing and sagging.
Meanwhile, war traffic on the railroads and highways began to increase at a significant clip after the spring of 1942. The DBR’s needs didn’t take higher priority than the other high impact war procurement, and it was a major challenge to get materials from far away places to the California and Nevada locations. Poles, for example, were shipped from Mississippi, Texas and the Pacific Northwest by railway freight car. Using a telegraphic method, each shipment was located and its whereabouts communicated to the receiving office in Reno. This continued throughout their shipment every day and at all times.
“He Hardly Had Time To Get His Hand Out Of The Way . . . “
Construction commenced, as we mentioned in such a flurry that one staking crew foreman claimed, “He had hardly had time to get his hand out of the way before a mechanical digger would be there to put in a hole!”
And–he was right. While the first pole was set on June 15, 1942, the stakes were still being driven into the ground to the north. Finally, on August 20, the last stake was struck by a hammer and the full construction process began assembling pins and transposition brackets and braces on arms, pulling them into place atop poles and moving northward. Here’s the breakneck speed schedule of the project as it first turned a beginning corner . . .
- Main lead and side lead connections to the DBR was completed on August 31, 1942.
- Branch lead to Bishop, California was completed October 15th.
- Site final clean up was November 20th
- Project Office closed on December 1, 1942.
While today, most of the line is gone, you will still see remains of the road which brought the construction crews to the pole line sites. You will have to climb to get there. Most of the route was 4500 foot elevation and above. Climate was radically different along the route reaching 109 degrees in Southern Nevada to an ice storm in the Reno area (in June!).
Let’s look at the adjectives involved in describing this immense feat of delivering line wire from one end of California to the Yakima Valley:
- The pairs sometimes separated by no more than a man with a stick walking behind the trailer.
- Extensive explosive detonations where 3,000 poles required excavation with 13,000 lbs of TNT, where in some cases, 40 sticks of dynamite was used for one (1!) pole hole.
- A grand number of 80 pole line miles of rock was powerfully blasted
- Weary crews dug 4,000 pole holes . . . by hand!
- Wooden cribs were used in swampy areas where poles could not stand unassisted and filled with rocks.
- Strong copper-coated steel conductor was used as a war-effort savings in copper.
- Distant locations delivered poles to sites 100 miles from them
- A useful cowboy used a horse to hitch to rope a pole and pull the pole upon a truck
- A bounty of crossarms, equipped with pins, were fitted to each pole on the route, and pike poles were often used in difficult terrain.
- Transpositions were artfully “thrown” as wire reel trailers hitched to trucks adjusted
- Wire sagging was done according to the ambient temperature of the location. In one case, a terminal pole was found “plucked” out of the ground by the tension of the frigid cool night air from the heat of the previous day!
- Wire levels in spans could not deflect more than 3/4″ per wire at any point between poles except at the higher point-type transposition locations.
- Oscillation adjustment of wire sags was undertaken with a stop watch until the wires pulsed together five times in ten seconds: a tension which did not exceed 1/4″ variable.
- Truck tire inflation was a regular problem with the heat and cold climates encountered which took out trucks frequently. With sparsely populated areas and few maintenance shops, these repair businesses were always busy with Bell vehicles.
- A major use of non-corrosive anchor rods for guying and the use of a “desert-type” anchor which had to be constructed on the job.
- Construction camps were built where a contractor arranged for food and living conditions bearable. Water was hauled in for showers on tank trucks. 81,000 meals were served; 50 men at one camp drank 25 gallons of milk and 25 gallons of lemonade.
- Only two minor lost-time accidents but draft board calls interrupted the lives of the workers even more so, as physical examination and induction was constantly a possibility.
There is no better way to sum up the completion of this mammoth undertaking than the Division Construction Superintendent’s last word on closing the project: “The sentiments of the entire gang can probably be expressed in their often repeated hope to be in on the next big one.”