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Building memories from the river up
Retired ODOT surveyor discusses the Willamette River Bridge
Retired ODOT surveyor discusses the Willamette River Bridge
Retired surveyor Warren Neer reflects on his long career with ODOT


Throughout his 33-year career with ODOT, 88-year-old Warren Neer wore many hats as a survey chainman, an inspector, a transitman and a party chief. Neer's first role at the agency in 1948, however, was much simpler than these.


"It was a funny thing that happened," Neer chuckled as he sat in his living room. "[The agency] had a help wanted sign out on the lawn, so I went inside. I had been taking drafting in vocational school, so I thought I was a draftsman. I went up to this room, and there was an older gentleman sitting at a typewriter, typing with one finger. He looked up, and he said, 'Can I help you?'
 
"I said, 'Well, I wondered. I saw the help wanted sign. Do you need any draftsmen?'

"He said, 'No, I don’t need any draftsmen. Can you type?'
 
"I said, 'Yes.'
 
"He said, 'With more than one finger?'
 
"And I said, 'Yes, all of them.'
 
"He said, 'You be here Monday morning.' And that’s how I got on with the highway department."

Eventually, Neer worked his way up to be a chainman on ODOT’s survey crew.
 
"I didn't know anything about engineering or surveying or highway construction, but it was such an interesting job," he said. "We had lots of people that were very knowledgeable, and they were more than glad to share their information. I used to go over to their houses at night and learn how to do the mathematics and basics of engineering. They were just really great."
 
WillametteRiver Bridge
 
With this education in hand, Neer later became one of the original surveyors for the Interstate 5 Willamette River Bridge, built in 1962.
 
As the population of Springfield and Eugene boomed in the 1950s and ’60s, an interstate highway was built to address increasing traffic. Neer recalled that even as far back as the 1930s, there were quite a few public works projects helping to improve the muddy, gravel roads. Regardless, he said, the roads and traffic "didn’t seem to be a problem for people. Of course, people in those days were used to not everything being perfect. …They had little country roads, and they got around."
 
Before the Willamette River Bridge was built at Judkins Point, I-5 ran to the north and south of Eugene and Springfield, but the highway did not cross the river. Drivers traveling through the area were forced to leave the interstate and navigate city streets and bridges before reconnecting with the highway.
 
ODOT began work to fill in this missing piece of the interstate by surveying the site to determine the required span of the structure and the elevation and property boundaries of the surrounding area.


The Willamette River Bridge became an important piece of Oregon's freeway landscape, connecting not only Eugene and Springfield, but forming part of the West Coast freight corridor that links cities and towns from Vancouver, B.C., all the way to Long Beach, Calif. For nearly 50 years, this bridge has helped bring together communities, allowing for a convenient passage across the river.
 
"Eugene and Springfield were two very separate cities" before the bridge, Neer said. He called the bridge "a major improvement, because there was no other way around it."
 
Scoping out the scene
 
In his more than three decades with ODOT, Neer always took pride both in his job and in well- done craftsmanship. He smiled when he said he could count on one hand the times he was late for work.


As Neer recently showed off a vintage transit — a telescopic instrument used to measure horizontal and vertical angles — in his backyard, he recalled meticulous details, for example, that the tool’s accuracy is affected by one one-hundredth of an inch for every 15 degree change in temperature.
 
"If you’re doing accurate surveying, you have to take into account the temperature and the measurements," he said. "It’s very complicated for precise surveying."
 
In addition to a transit, the other surveying tools Neer and his fellow crew members used for the Willamette River Bridge were a tripod, a plumb-bob, a level, a thermometer, stakes, hubs and the steel tape, commonly referred to as "chains," that gave him his job classification as a "chainman."


Neer explained that in former times they used actual chains with links to take horizontal and vertical measurements. By the time Neer started working, though, the chains had evolved into steel tape, which nevertheless kept the old name.
 
To position the Willamette River Bridge accurately, Neer worked with an engineer to locate the center line where the connection to I-5 would be built. To start, they worked out mathematical calculations on paper "because you couldn’t stretch a chain or a measuring piece across the river — it was too far," Neer said.
 
"So what they did was triangulate across the river. We got the guide to take people out to those little rocky islands out in the river, and we would measure to there with maybe a 300-foot chain, then we would measure again on to the other side as a check to make sure that everything is correct."


In the early 1960s, surveyors didn't have the technology for precise bridge and location measurements, such as GPS tools, laser levels and computerized plotting software. Still, the measurements Neer and the crew took with their equipment were usually within a few inches of accuracy relative to their calculations, in spite of the daunting conditions: Back then, Neer said, the environment around the riverbanks was almost a jungle.


"We would have to walk and carry our instruments and our equipment for sometimes half a mile, maybe up to a mile. It was a lot of work just to get to the job site," Neer said.
 
In addition to measuring and locating distances across the river, the crew had to deal with clearing the dense foliage ahead of them as they worked.
 
"We didn't have chainsaws — we used machetes and brush hooks to clear the pathway so we could see through with our instruments. It took a little thought about where they were setting the points and what they were doing out there," he said.
 
When the crew members finished gathering surveying information, they would send it to the division office in Roseberg for review and recommendations. These recommendations were sent to the final design department in Salem where engineers worked out alignment on the bridge. The project would then be set up, let out for bids and built one section at a time.


Neer remembers that in the initial building stages of the Willamette River Bridge, there was a construction blunder that set work back a bit. 
 
"We had some exceptionally heavy snow in the Cascades up along Willamette Pass," he said. "Then we got a very warm rain, and it took the snow out right away. The highway up where the railroad bridge is — down back toward Oakridge — was probably at least 50 percent washed away."
 
"[The contractor] started in the spring to build it. They got out in the river, and they put up falsework that looked like the framework of a big building, maybe two or three stories high, to hold the forms that the bridge was going to be built on."
 
"Well, we kept telling them, you shouldn't assume that that river is going to stay like that because every year — this was before some of the dams were completely in operation — in the first part of June we’d always get a runoff from the snow melt. They wouldn't listen, and they went ahead with all this falsework. It was all fastened together. And then we got the runoff, and that great big falsework just rolled over and over and over till it got down to the Ferry Street Bridge," Neer laughed. "At least we could say, 'I told you so.'"
 
Despite any ebbs and flows that may have occurred in his more than 30 years with the department, Neer said he'd do it all again.  
 
"I don’t believe a person could find a more enjoyable job to work at. The working conditions were very good, we had good benefits. There were a lot of college graduates that worked there and the fellows like myself that were eager to learn. It was kind of like a big family — the people were really good to work for and to work with."