Road Trip! Houston to San Francisco; 2018 to 1908


Westward ho!!  I can’t believe we covered all that ground!

(A word of warning to my regular readers, there’s not a lot of engineering or software content in this issue of my blog.  Even I have to take a vacation some time!)


I spent last week doing a three-generation road trip from Houston to San Francisco – with my mother, my daughter, and me all crammed in a Toyota Prius for over 2400 miles across some of the most interesting terrain that this country – or any other – has to offer.

If you are wondering how this came about, my daughter was recently hired as a software engineer at Tesla and needed to move herself and her car out to Silicon Valley.  I am always rambling on about all the road trips I took when I was young, so she challenged me to drive out to California with her.  Along the way, we decided we’d have to stop at the Grand Canyon, as she had never seen it.  Later, when we mentioned this trip to my mother, she said “I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon either – it’s the only thing left on my bucket list”.  So we invited her to come along, and she said yes!

Next came the detailed planning – maybe I could knock something off my bucket list too!  The only two items still on my list were 1) visit 100 countries (but there’s no way I could fulfill that one with this trip, unless I got lost), and 2) sleep in the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ.  I’ve wanted to sleep in that wigwam ever since my family drove right past it (over my howled protests) while traveling old Route 66 from California to Kentucky when I was four years old.


Ready to go!

So with stops at the Wigwam Motel and the Grand Canyon locked down, the rest of the trip fell into place quite easily:  San Antonio’s Alamo and Riverwalk, the artsy city of Marfa with its famed Hotel Paisano, El Paso, with its abundance of architecture by Henry Trost, the Gila National Forest, the Wigwam Motel, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Paris Casino in Las Vegas, the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, Los Angeles, a small part of the Pacific Coast Highway (parts of it are closed so we couldn’t do the whole thing), Silicon Valley (where we’d spend two days with my sister, a tech industry professional), and finally on to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

After the planning, came the preparation, which consisted of packing a week’s worth of clothes into an overnight bag, and buying a selfie stick.  You can’t do a road trip without a selfie stick – and this one did get quite a workout!

So even though I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about engineering this week, I could not help but be curious about – and impressed by – a lot of the things I saw last week, man-made or otherwise.  For example, I got the chance to admire all of these iconic engineering achievements over the course of just a few days (unfortunately we missed out on the Hoover Dam, as we arrived just minutes after the Visitor Center had closed):

Collage of engineering innovation:  The Alamo, “modern” teepee, Lake Mead, the other Eiffel Tower, the Tesla factory (after swapping my daughter for my sister), and the Golden Gate Bridge (look hard in the fog)


Anyway I lied to you.  I can’t totally stay away from engineering for a week, so after reaching my sister’s house in San Jose, I was glad to find some issues of the San Francisco-centric The Architect and Engineer Magazine from the early 1900’s.  (Why does my sister have a collection of architectural/engineering magazines, you may wonder?  In her spare time, she’s a California Certified Architectural Historian and author of a couple of books on San Jose architect Frank Delos Wolfe.)  It was fascinating to read what was going on in the world of engineering, and especially the world of steel, in those long ago days.


What the well-versed engineer was reading in 1908

For example, here are some samplings from the September, 1908 issue:

  • One article (“The First National Bank Building, San Francisco”) discussed the building that was going up at record speed at the corner of Montgomery and Market Streets.  This building, which would “tower” to a height of 13 stories, was expected to be completed in less than 10 months, and come in under budget.  Additionally, it was designed to withstand an earthquake.  (This was obviously taken very seriously, coming just two years after the catastrophic earthquake of 1906.  If you’d like to learn about the current state of earthquake design in San Francisco, you might like to read this interesting – or some might say “chilling” — article.).  How was this all achieved?  The building was supported by a steel frame, and was designed and constructed by the D. H. Burnham company of Chicago, pioneers of early skyscrapers (and the use of steel therein) such as Chicago’s Marshall Field and Company Building and New York’s Flatiron Building.  (By the way, Daniel Hudson Burnham was also the man most responsible for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  If you want to read a great book about the engineering miracle that made that event possible, check out The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.  And if you aren’t interested in engineering, the book has America’s first serial killer in it, too – true story!)

First National Bank in 1908 – and today, after its top 11 stories were lopped off

  • A second article (“The Story of Steel”) asserted that an unnamed consortium was putting up $750,000,000 to form a second US Steel Trust to challenge the United States Steel Corporation.   For those not then familiar with steel (not surprising, since steel as a building material was a relatively new concept, and the US Steel Corporation itself was barely five years old), the article went on to provide a history of the industry.
  • A third article (“The Steel Situation in San Francisco”) presented a call for protectionism.  It railed against the monopoly of the eastern steel and how it was taking profits out of California.  The article called on all builders to boycott eastern steel and instead buy it locally (even though the article admitted that there was not yet much of a local industry).  It ended with a call to local investors and industrialists to create a steel industry, using imported coal and iron ore.

Interesting stuff indeed!  But I had to put the magazines down, because it was time to take a selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge, and then head on back home.  While sitting on the plane flying back to Houston, I reflected back on all the fun that I had had during the week, and gave thanks for that engineering marvel – the selfie stick – that would make sure I remembered all of it!

rt-6Everybody needs a vacation once in a while.  But when you get back to work, why not choose the software that makes work as easy, and as pleasant, as a vacation?  Try CloudCalc — the collaborative, scalable, cloud-based structural engineering software. – Structural Analysis in the Cloud

By Tom Van Laan

Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2018

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