The Story of James E. Bennett, Jr.
in his own words
Niagara Power Project - Summer 1958 to December, 1961
Niagara Power Project - Summer 1958 to December, 1961
Uhl, Hall and Rich paid for the cost of the move from Idaho Falls to Niagara Falls. We left Idaho Falls early July, 1958 to drive to Niagara Falls. The entire trip was made in the rain. We crossed into Canada at Sault Sainte Marie and back into the States at Niagara Falls, New York. During the drive across that section of Canada, Kathy suddenly got sick and I pulled over on the road shoulder. The car bogged down in the soft shoulder and a large truck stopped and with a log chain pulled us back on the road. When we got to Niagara Falls, I called Mr. Douglas. They meet us and lead us to a motel. Kathy had thrown up in the car all over Kathryn when she got sick, so Kathryn was not looking her best when we met Mr. and Mrs. Douglas.
My first day at work Mr. Douglas gave me his company car to tour the project. The intake area was in an area that the various chemical plants had used for a dumping grounds. The smell was very bad in this area and in driving in the area the car would pick up the mud and smell. I did not realize it, and Mr. Douglas was a little unhappy when I returned his car. As soon as I got my company car later in the week I switched with him. All the people that worked in this area had to change clothes as soon as the shift was over to get rid of the smell.
The treaty rights between Canada and the United States required a certain quantity of water to pass over the falls during the day with a lesser amount at night. The project was a large hydroelectric complex located right in the middle of Niagara Falls, New York. It was comprised of two large conduits carrying the water from the intakes, upstream of the falls, to a forebay on which was located a small pump storage plant and one of the largest semi outdoor power plant in the world. Both plants were downstream of the falls. Once the project was in operation, the water at night would be pumped from the forebay to the pump storage reservoir to be used for maximum power production from both powerplants during the day.
Uhl, Hall and Rich of Boston were the engineering firm responsible for the design and surveillance of construction of the project for the New York Power Authority. They also were the engineering firm for the Saint Lawrence Hydroelectric projects on the St. Lawrence River between Canada and New York. The Saint Lawrence project were about 75% completed when construction started on the Niagara Falls Project. Uhl, Hall and Rich hired Mr. Douglas to be in charge of the Technical Support Division, which had four sections, Grouting Control, Soils Control, Concrete Control and Geology. A large percent of the engineers working on the project for Uhl, Hall & Rich were from the Bureau of Reclamation. Because of the lack of suitable rental facilities in the area, the Power Authority was building a housing complex for the engineers in Youngstown, New York.
The housing area was located about 15 miles from the project. The facilities were partly completed when we arrived and the house that I was assigned was about two months from completion, so we had to find a temporary place to stay. Kathryn found an old tenant house on a farm, located between Lewiston and Youngstown, that we were able to rent it until our place was ready.
We had placed our home in Idaho up for sale as soon as I took the new assignment, but it was around three months before it sold. We lost some money, basically the realty fee. The housing for the engineer was very nice, a full basement, attached garage, three bedroom for $90.00 per month plus utilities.
That part of New York was considered to be depressed area and the local people were not to happy to see out of state people taking jobs. In fact, on out of state hirees the Power Authority had to state that no one was available in New York to take the position. I drove our car with Idaho plates on to get my New York driver license and failed the driving test. I went back the next day using a company car with New York plates on and passed the test. Kathryn waited until we got the New York plates on before she went for her test, which she passed the first time.
My boss, Mr. Douglas, was retired from the Bureau of Reclamation. He had four managers reporting to him as follows: Manager of Concrete Control, Manager of Soil Control, Manager of Grouting and a Manager of Geology. I reported to Mr. Douglas as the Manager of Concrete Control. Mr. Douglas reported to the Project Manager, Mr. Ottinson. I had a Laboratory Supervisor, an Office Engineer, a Senior Field Supervisor, three shift supervisors and around sixty inspectors. The crews were all locally hired except for my Senior Field Supervisor, the Office Engineer and two Field Supervisors. All the inspectors, laboratory personal, the Laboratory Supervisor and one Field Supervisor had to be trained on the job site.
My section was responsible for the operation of the concrete laboratory, the concrete mixes, the quality production of the concrete at six concrete premixed batch plants and all the concrete produced at the local concrete plants, when they were producing concrete for the project. Our responsibility ended when the concrete was dumped into the concrete placing area. At that point the field inspectors took over the inspection of the concrete. The concrete plants operated six days a week, 20 to 24 hours a day and Sundays were used for cleanup, repairs and scale checks as needed. In a three month period the project plants produced over a million cubic yards of concrete. At the peak of construction Uhl, Hall & Rich had over 600 people working on the project.
My working hours basically were a 44 hour week, that is a half day on Saturday, but I was on call during the night. I did work longer hours and did pick up what was called "personal time". We could take approved time off and would draw regular pay while we were off. The winters were very severe, but construction did not stop. The contractors were paid a bonus on each cubic yard of concrete that was placed during the winter months. First power was produced in three years from when the excavation started. In a three month period the contractors placed one million cubic yards of concrete. Total concrete on the project was over three millions cubic yards. It was a very fast construction project. Upon completion, the project was one of the largest power plants in the world and also contained one of the first pump storage plants in the United States. I spent a considerable time writing procedures regarding batch plant inspection, rejection, materials inspection and testing both in the field and laboratory and keeping peace between the field inspectors, batch plant inspectors and the contractor personnel who had to place the concrete we sent to them, and supervising the personnel.
For the first time since I started working we were able to start saving money. We traded in our 1954, 2 door Ford sedan for a new 1960 4 door Chevrolet Impala model. In the fall of 1960 we took our really first vacation and drove into Maine during the fall color change. It was our first trip in that part of the country. On most of our vacations we would drive to Charlotte to visit our parents. Usually we would sight see on the way down or back from the parents. We also had a lot of company during the summers. The guys in the housing area constructed an ice skating area in an area behind our house and the winters were spent keeping the area flooded. We spent a fair amount of time on the ice rink and had a lot of fun. We even got double runner skates for Wayne when he was 18 months old.
The project was around 90% complete when I started looking for another job. Uhl, Hall & Rich had a large pump storage project on the Hudson River outside of New York City for Commonwealth Edison of New York, but approval of the site was under a strong attack by various private organizations and its approval was doubtful. Uhl, Hall & Rich did not have a position for me, especially if the Hudson project did not go. I was sending out resume to all the major engineering firms that were involved in projects involving large quantities of concrete, but had not received any favorable response.
One night in early November 1961, my boss, Mr. C. T. Douglas, received a telephone call from Professor Raymond Davis of the University of California (ed. note: at Berkeley), asking if he would be interested in an assignment in Thailand on an arch dam. Professor Davis and Mr Douglas had worked together on several dam projects where Professor Davis was an consultant for the Bureau of Reclamation. Professor Davis was head of the Board of Consultants for the Yanhee Project. The Yanhee Project was being financed by the World Bank, and the World Bank projects required a Board of Consultants. Professor Davis was a well known authority on concrete dams. Mr. Douglas suggested that he get in contact with me as he was not interested in going back overseas. Mr. Douglas has spent considerable time in India for the Bureau of Reclamation.
I was attending a local chapter meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers meeting in Buffalo that night when Professor Davis called, so he talked to Kathryn and left his telephone number for me to call. When I got home that night Kathryn told me all about her strange telephone conservation with Professor Davis. We did not know exactly where Thailand was located and had to look it up. I called the next day and talk with Professor Davis and he told me about the project.
I told him that I was interested in the project and Professor Davis said that he would arrange an interview with Sverdrup & Parcel, an engineering firm in Saint Louis. Mr. Sverdrup was General Douglas McArthur's Engineering Officer during World War II. The majority of the leaders of the firm were ex Army Corps of Engineers. They were the responsible engineering firm for the review of drawings and surveillance of construction for the Yanhee Project. Engineering Consultants from Denver were the design engineers. The World Bank required that the client, The Royal Irrigation Department, hire Sverdrup & Parcel to do the reviews and surveillance of construction.
Sverdrup and Parcel was well known in Thailand as they had been involved in the design and constructions of the highway system. During the week, I got a telephone call from Sverdrup & Parcel and we set up an interview in St. Louis. I flew to St. Louis and interviewed with General Robinson, a retired army general. We discussed the project, living conditions and what was expected from me, if I took the job.
The concrete situation was not too good on the site and there was a lot of problems. Less than 15% of the concrete had been placed in the dam with over a million meters of concrete to go. I would be replacing an existing Concrete Engineer. After lunch I was told by General Robinson he had orders to hire me from Professor Davis. I returned to New York and talked over the situation with Kathryn and Mr. Douglas. Mr Douglas was in favor of me going to Thailand I accepted the position, but should have asked for more money but I didn't. General Robinson assured me that the engineer that I was replacing would be gone by the time I got to the site.
The project was a gravity arch dam (550 meters high) and a powerhouse north of Bangkok, Thailand near the Burmese Border. Sverdrup and Parcel wanted me over there as soon as possible, however they wanted me to spend a few days with Professor Davis at the University of California. Mr. Douglas arranged my release from the project so that Uhl, Hall & Rich would move our furniture to Charlotte, N.C. for storage while we were in Thailand. Kathryn got busy trying to buy clothes for the children for two years. She did not have many choices as summer clothes in New York were hard to find in December. We had a small shipping allowance to ship items by air and by boat to Thailand. She had to kept separate our items that we were taking to Thailand in our suitcases, the air shipment, the boat shipment and what was going into storage at Charlotte. The boat shipment included a new wringer washer, and two air conditioning units.
We left New York State in the middle of December, 1961 and drove to Charlotte N.C. We spent around ten days at my parent home before leaving to go to Thailand. We sold our car to Kathryn's brother Ben.