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

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J. David Rogers

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Last edited 7-15-2015

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, and the recommendations of the Walker Board appointed by President Cleveland in March 1897, the Corps involvement with developing a viable deep-water port for southern California 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 contractors developed more efficient methods of placing the rock, and the breakwater project was completed between 1902-05.

In 1902 the Pacific Electric Railway connected Long Beach and San Pedro to their expanding system serving southern California. In 1905 the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad (acquired by the Union Pacific in 1921) made connection with the fledgling Port of Los Angeles, providing a second transcontinental rail link, with the Santa Fe Railway at the Hobart Yard in Los Angeles, and Union Pacific’s transcontinental link, in Ogden, Utah. In 1907 the Los Angeles Harbor Commission was established, which oversaw the continual evolution and development of the new port facilities. Everyone on the west coast expected the Panama Canal, then under construction, to b ring increased maritime commerce. 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 Los Angeles the rest of his life, exerting a marked 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 massive infusion of silt left the new wharves “high and dry,” at the most inopportune time because the Panama Canal opened six months later, in August 1914. 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 new port.

In March 1917 the United States entered the World War in Europe and Charles Leeds volunteered to return to Army duty as the Los Angeles District Engineer. This allowed 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 was ordering a record number of cargo ships, to any yard able to throw a vessel together. These contracts were a real boon for the fledgling Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In 1914 the Port of Los Angeles handled about 150,000 tons of cargo per month. By the time the First World War ended, four years later, the Port of Los Angeles was handling 2,500,000 tons/month. Commercially speaking, it was now a force to be reckoned with.

After the First World War the Corps of Engineers began tackling the siltation problem by constructing five miles of levees along Nigger Slough and Compton Creek, between 1920-23. These improvements were then turned over to the newly-formed Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LACFCD), which developed the Dominguez Channel improvements. This was a series of concrete channel improvements that stretched 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 shoals. 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 western breakwater extended 11,152 feet from Point Fermin and was christened the San Pedro Breakwater. 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 feet 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 brought increased congressional appropriations for construction of military facilities in, beginning 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 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 wartime modifications could be made 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, 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 Los 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 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 problems, 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 two decades (1932-52), as well as enormous quantities of natural gas. These consultations resulted in the most voluminous reports ever prepared by Terzaghi, some which exceeded 400 pages in length (in 1952). 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 in as additional consultants. After several years of intense testing and analysis, everyone was surprised to discover that the siltstones of Pliocene and Pleistocene age, lying 2000 to 6000 feet beneath the ground, 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, in cooperation with local agency sponsors, on a shared cost basis. The Los Angeles District was authorized to construct $70 million worth of flood control improvements envisioned in Los Angeles County’s Comprehensive Plan. This infusion of flood control work led to a complete re-organization of the Los Angeles District, with a much-increased emphasis on flood protection. The scope of this work increased dramatically after the disastrous floods of March 1938, which wrecked havoc with the improvements along the Los Angeles River. Major channel improvements were subsequently carried out along the Los Angeles, Rio Hondo, and San Gabriel Rivers. From 1941-53 Burnham H. Dodge served as Chief of the Hydrology and Flood Operations Section, who authored an article titled Debris Control (Ch. 19) in the classic 1950 tome Applied Sedimentation (edited by Parker Trask). Over the next two decades (1940-66) the Corps expended $350 million on flood protection works, while 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. 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, one of the Corps’ most capable engineering geologists at that time. Roberts worked for Dames & Moore’s San Francisco office between 1963-65 and 1967-75, before retiring to Laguna Hills, where he passed 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 rebar, 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 Fetzer'>Claude Fetzer (1922-2001) replaced him. Fetzer graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1943, then served as a shipboard Navy officer in the Pacific Theater. After the war he worked for Freese & Nichols in Fort Worth. In 1947-48 Fetzer completed his master’s in soil mechanics at the University of Illinois under Ralph Peck, and joined the Los Angeles District in December 1948.

In 1953 Fetzer was joined by two experienced geotechnical engineers, Jack W. Rolston (MSCE ’47 Harvard; MEng ’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’ senior 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.

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, until he retired in the mid-1970s. Other people working in their geotechnical group in the 1960s-70s included: James R. Townsend, John S. Ferguson, Charles W. Orvis, Terrence J. Smith, and 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.

Geotechnical firms spun off by the Los Angeles District
Leeds and Barnard (1913-1930)

Charles T. Leeds graduated #2 in the Class of 1903 from West Point, just behind Douglas MacArthur. He and MacArthur were both selected for duty in the Army’s elite Corps of Engineers. Leeds was sent to MIT to obtain additional engineering training, receiving a second bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1906. He was sent to Los Angeles as the new District Engineer in 1909, where he also served on the California Debris Commission from 1909-12. During this time, most of the district’s work was associated with improvement of the expanding Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro Bay (described above). In 1912 Leeds was granted a medical discharge for “injuries sustained in the line of duty.” After his discharge he remained in Los Angeles, and in March 1913, formed a partnership with Wilfred K. Barnard (1879-1936). They began working together in late 1912 to see if they felt compatible. Both men were prominent consulting engineers with sterling reputations for integrity and honesty during the early days of Los Angeles’ meteoric growth.

Will Barnhard was a native of St. Joseph, Missouri, whose father was president and general manager of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, followed by the Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern Railroad. Young Barnard attended the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1901. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and moved west in Feb 1904 to work on the construction of the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad between the Port of San Pedro and Salt Lake City (until December 1909), and then, as Engineer of Maintenance-of-Way & Structures for the Pacific Electric Railway, from 1909-13.

Leeds and Barnhard’s partnership commenced in March 1913 and continued through May 1930, a period when Los Angeles was literally exploding with growth. The firm had a pioneering role in developing flood control systems for the lower Santa Ana River, the Coachella Valley, the development of Newport Harbor (from 1923 onward), land appraisals for railroads in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, comprehensive plans for the enlargement of the Port of Los Angeles (San Pedro had been absorbed into the city in 1909), shore protection for Venice, water supply system for Montecito (Buell Dam and Doulton Tunnel), etc.

Charles Leeds was a pivotal figure in the development of flood control in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. He was named to the Board of Engineers for Flood Control appointed by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors after the Flood of 1914, who prepared two important reports. The first report, released on May 2, 1914, addressed the damage that occurred in February 1914; while a more exhaustive report, released in July 1915, formalized a long-term plan of flood control for Los Angeles County, which included the Dominguez Diversion of the Los Angeles River. Leeds made headlines when he pointed out that Los Angeles had suffered 41 floods in the previous 37 years (between 1878-1914). Leeds also spared publicly with J.W. Reagan, who was critical of the Board of Engineers report and who succeeded in being named the first County Flood Control Engineer in 1916. However, both men agreed that floods were becoming more frequent because of widespread development and the appurtenant construction of impervious surfaces, as well as summertime irrigation.

Will Barnard was left to manage the affairs of the firm during the First World War (1917-18) when Leeds availed himself to serve as the interim District Engineer for the Los Angeles District. Leeds was promoted to major and in additiotn to his administrative duties at the district office in downtown Los Angeles, he also managed to teach military science and tactics courses to the newly established ROTC detachment at Throop Institute in Pasadena (which became Caltech in 1921).

Leeds was promoted to Lt Colonel in the Army Reserve in 1924, and was thereafter referred to as “Colonel Leeds” by the media. During the late 20s and 30s he was named to numerous high-visibility investigative panels, including those charged with examining the March 1928 St. Francis Dam failure, the reassessment of its sister structure, Mulholland Dam, in 1931, the design review board for the Bouquet Canyon Dams in 1931-32, the panel investigating the effects of the March 1933 Long Beach earthquake, the board of experts charged with assessing the deadly Jan 1934 Montrose-LaCresenta floods, and the board of engineers charged with evaluating the record floods of March 1938, which devastated much of southern California.

Barnard served on the Greater Harbor Committee of 200 in 1922 (sponsored by the LA Chamber of Commerce), where he played a major role in the unification of the various railroads serving the ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach (they used common trackage), as well as establishment of the Harbor Belt Railroad serving both ports. Bernard was also an early advocate of a centralized Union railroad terminal in downtown Los Angeles, which was eventually ordered by the State Railway Commission and opened in May 1939. In June 1931 Leeds and Barnard received a patent for a concrete block groin or sea wall system they devised during the 1920s. In 1930 the firm joined Quinton, Code and Hill, described below, under the U.S. Reclamation Service threadline.


L. T. Evans Foundation Engineers (1945-58), and L.T. Evans Corporation-Consulting Foundation Engineers, Los Angeles (1958-78)

Leonard T. Evans (RCE 5241) was born in 1902 and grew up in New Albany, Indiana. He received his BSCE degree from Purdue University in 1924, where he was educated as a structural engineer. He immigrated to southern California in 1932 and his son L. T. Evans, Jr. was born on March 8, 1933, two days before the Long Beach Earthquake of March 10, 1933. L.T., Sr. was unable to find any engineering work until the day after the earthquake. The City of Long Beach hired him to inspect “structural damage.”

In 1935 L.T. Sr. joined the Los Angeles District of the Army Corps of Engineers, where he served as Head of their Structural Design Subdivision between 1936-45. During the Second World War he visited a number of universities back east to ascertain what would be needed to build a soils and foundation engineering laboratory for the Los Angeles District office of the Corps, which needed soils engineering data and expertise for many of their wartime projects.

In July 1945 Evans started his own consulting engineering firm out of his home in Long Beach. He moved to Sherman Oaks in 1950, and moved the business to Los Angeles, just west of downtown, where he offered soil mechanics and foundation engineering services. His son L.T. Evans, Jr., PE, GE went by the name Tom. He attended Stanford and received his BSCE in 1955 and MS in structures in 1958, before re-joining his father’s firm as a partner, and the firm’s name became L.T. Evans Corportation. They did a lot of work for the Hollywood movie studios, UCLA, and many of the colleges and high schools in the Los Angeles area. They never provided recommendations for single family residences in the hills, finding it “too competitive.”

During the 1950s and ‘60s L.T. Evans and LeRoy Crandall were the primary geotechnical reviewers for the City of Los Angeles Grading Review Board. In the 1950s Evans used G. Austin Schroter of Schroter and Lockwood as his consulting geologist. Schroter and Evans co-authored a 1959 presentation titled “Engineering Geology and Urban Growth” for the Rocky Mtn Section Mtg of the Geological Society of America. In the early 1960s they began using retired USC Geology Professor Tom Clements as their consulting engineering geologist, continuing into the early 1970s. Around 1972 they began using Jim Slosson as their engineering geologist. This relationship continued until the business was sold to Harding-Lawson in 1978.

After the firm’s sale in the fall of 1979, Tom Evans headed to Berkeley to work on a doctorate in geotechnical engineering with Professor Mike Duncan, developing a “Simplified Procedure for Evaluating Lateral Loads of Driven Piles,” completed in 1981. He then returned to Los Angeles area and became Chief Engineer of Converse Consultants in Pasadena, until retiring in 1999. L.T. Evans, Sr. died on August 29, 1988, at age 86, and Tom retired from Converse in 2007.

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