Reporting for duty

Aug. 20, 2002

Jackson Durkee likes to respond quickly. He'll politely let you finish a question before unleashing a well-versed paragraph or two. But this man has trouble figuring out the value of the click-charging technology known as e-mail. It goes against his direct-approach nature--and he won't hesitate to say so.

"E-mail constitutes a big waste of time," he told Roads & Bridges.

The longtime engineer is a purist to the bone; one who believes the best means of human expression is face-to-face.

Jackson Durkee likes to respond quickly. He'll politely let you finish a question before unleashing a well-versed paragraph or two. But this man has trouble figuring out the value of the click-charging technology known as e-mail. It goes against his direct-approach nature--and he won't hesitate to say so.

"E-mail constitutes a big waste of time," he told Roads & Bridges.

The longtime engineer is a purist to the bone; one who believes the best means of human expression is face-to-face.

Getting his ideas--and answers--across to the right people is how Durkee climbed the tower of his bridge career, which was capped with the John A. Roebling Medal for lifetime achievement, sponsored by Roads & Bridges and the Engineers' Society of Western Pennsylvania, at the International Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh on June 10.

"I'm flattered to be on a list with great engineers," he said.

The great ones tend to be great learners, those who take something from the smallest of details. Durkee demonstrated this ability at a young age while looking up at each shining grain cluttering the nighttime sky. He was on duty on his first naval ship in World War II, and the stars were just too tempting.

The rookie deck officer was fascinated and was quick to borrow a handbook appropriately titled A New Handbook of the Heavens. The two became inseparable, and Durkee advanced his skills by gathering some navigation instruments and setting up his own star-sighting procedures. On his second vessel, an ammunition ship, Durkee was called on to navigate through the Pacific waters.

"It was a tough job, but I had been schooling myself for months."

Stardom in the field of bridge engineering was on the horizon.

Growing into it

Jackson Durkee's first official span walk came right out of high school as an office boy in the Bethlehem Steel Corp. field office for construction on the monumental Gov. O.K. Allen highway-railway cantilever truss bridge crossing the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge, La. Bethlehem Steel was an American power, and Durkee's father, E. Leland, was resident engineer in charge at the site.

"I must say he is the No. 1 construction engineer in my experience," said Jackson. "He had a way of getting the steel up in the air that I've not seen duplicated anywhere else."

Working for $16 a week, one of Jackson's primary responsibilities was to develop blueprints. But there was time for bridge exploration.

"In those days we made blueprints right in the field office, and part of my job was to put the tracings in the frame, set them out in the sun for exposure and then put the print paper back in the developing tank and come up with a blueprint."

"I got out on the job once a week, and I drove the company car. I remember one time I was out there I looked up at the main vertical on the cantilever truss and saw some guy climbing down from the top using those lightening holes in the vertical plate as a ladder. I thought, 'Look at that crazy guy coming down there.' After a bit I realized it was my father."

Durkee didn't have to look very hard when it came to choosing a career path. He was sold on civil engineering and enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he picked up his bachelor of science degree "With High Distinction" in 1943.

After his star-guided tour in the Navy, Cornell University beckoned and in 1947 Durkee, who thought he was in need of a "refresher program" after the war, earned a master's degree in civil engineering.

Choices now became more difficult. Durkee was reluctant to work with his father at Bethlehem Steel and instead aimed at a design post with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Toll Commission.

"I just thought it was best not to be in the same company with a close relative," he said.

After receiving advice from some engineering mentors, Durkee did start off as a draftsman at Bethlehem's Alameda (California) Fabricating Works. He didn?t expect to last. After all, a job with the Toll Commission was in sight.

Then in March of 1948 the decision became clear.

"I was sitting at my drafting table and the general manager of erection from the Bethlehem office came to my drafting table and asked, ?Young man, how would you like to go to the (second) Tacoma Narrows Bridge as our field engineer?' I said yes immediately. It turned out to be very fortunate because that was the beginning of a cycle of interesting and important suspension bridges."

Reporting skills

Mercury-diving winters, a saddle-plunging earthquake and a tower-scorching fire. Durkee had plenty to write about during his experience with the state of Washington's Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but it had nothing to do with natural elements that came into play.

He arrived on the scene and quickly found himself under the wing of resident engineer Tom Martinsen. "He was a hard, stern man, but a very good man."

Martinsen trained Durkee, whose job was to look after "every little engineering detail."

The winter of 1948-49 was the worst in 30 years but crews were out on the job all day, every day.

The earthquake hit at noon on April 13, 1949. Durkee was in the field office ready to eat his lunch when he felt the ground shaking. At first he thought it was a truck carrying in a heavy load of steel. "Then I looked out the window and began to think it was more than a truck."

He looked out at the bridge's east tower, where a cable saddle had been erected on top of the south leg. The trembling was enough to throw the saddle 500 ft down into the Puget Sound River.

"We needed to find the saddle and get it back up there because if we had to make a new one it would delay the job. I remember being out on the pier at night while the diver went down in 140 ft of water to locate that saddle, and on the fourth dive he found it."

Another dark moment came when a fire broke out on the west tower. Lines holding up a boom burned through, and the boom fell and bent over one of the riveting scaffolds. When the flames died out, Durkee went up the tower with the project's tool foreman and took inventory of the damage. Fortunately, the tower steelwork was unharmed.

Both towers were completed in 1949 when the cable contractor started work. Bethlehem was looking to spin into the cable construction business and directed Durkee to stay and watch. Keen observations were transcribed on paper, and Durkee later brought it all together into a cable construction report. Having gone that far, Durkee decided to add sections covering the rest of the bridge. He ended up with a 217-page book complete with pictures and other illustrations. A prime component of Durkee's niche in the industry was discovered. "I like to write and explain things." Durkee's writing hand would carry him through the rest of his 50-plus-year career. "It has been a key factor in my whole situation."

Even when the situation calls for working with your father. After the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Durkee was assigned to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in May of 1950. Paul Quimby, project engineer, was the only staff engineer between Jackson and E. Leland. "Business was business, and I really don?t think anyone cared we were related."

Jackson arrived a year and a half before fieldwork began and was involved with handling the construction engineering problems, which included the towers, the cables and the suspended deck structure, for the whole project. The experience with his father was "great" and led to another authored piece by Jackson. This report was on Chesapeake Bay Bridge and, according to Jackson, was twice as thick as the Tacoma version.

Wired-up idea

Whatever and wherever the project, Durkee had to see, hear and smell what was going on. An onsite presence is what made him a thorough and concise bridge engineer, and it was something he demanded.

In 1959, Durkee provided the cable construction procedure drawings for the second Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge between Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline, Ill., and pushed the chief engineer for a trip to the Midwest so he could help field forces construct the helical-bridge-strand main cables.

"My boss said, 'What's the matter, aren't the drawings any good?' I told him you couldn't put everything on the drawings."

Durkee received a one-week pass, and upon arrival on June 1 his assistance was needed immediately. "The next thing I knew I was out on the tower top calling instructions to the iron workers."

The trip validated one of Durkee's prize philosophies?voice your opinion when it counts. It was on top of one of the towers on the Iowa-Illinois Bridge where the wheels started turning for one of Durkee's greatest ideas. "I was gazing at the socketed helical-wire bridge strands in the completed cables," he recalled, "and asked myself, ?Why not make those strands of socketed parallel wires?'"

Durkee's logic was straightforward: "Helical-bridge-strand cables are much easier to erect than parallel-wire cables, which are constructed wire-by-wire using the tedious aerial spinning procedure developed by John Roebling in the 1850s. Shop-fabricated socketed parallel-wire strands (PWS) would combine the erection advantages of helical-bridge-strand cables with the superior in-place characteristics of parallel-wire cables. It was the best of both worlds."

The PWS method also saves construction time by allowing the cable strands to be fabricated in the shop while the towers are being erected at the site. With aerial spinning, workers have to wait until the towers are up before the cables are placed (e.g., the Golden Gate Bridge).

The PWS project led to seven patents, for which Durkee was inventor or co-inventor. The PWS cable procedure has been used on 50 suspension and cable-stayed bridges around the world including the longest--the Akashi Strait Bridge in Japan, which has a main span of 6,532 ft.

In the explaining business

Bethlehem continued to connect steel with the best through the 1970s, and Durkee served as chief bridge engineer for 11 years before Bethlehem Steel discontinued its construction division in 1976.

Durkee appears to still be in the business for life. He?s been a consulting structural engineer for the last 24 years, throwing expertise in the rehabilitation of the Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges in New York City, as well as the designs of the new Oakland Bay bridge and the Lions' Gate Bridge, this year's George S. Richardson Medal winner.

"I have this interesting challenge of quite a range of work," said Durkee. "And I don't really have any formula on how to do this. I just go week by week."

And accomplishment by accomplishment. Durkee has been honored with the Ernest E. Howard Award (Structural Engineering Gold Medal); a Construction Industry Citation by Engineering News-Record; and the Robert H. Goddard Award.

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