Monday, November 17, 1947
On Sunday, the giant looking glass moved 45 feet, from one side of the shop to the other. On Monday, it moved a little over 100, which took several hours and required one of the most difficult maneuvers of all: exit the shop.
Belyea’s crew had some trouble rolling the trailer under a 25-foot arch, off California Street, and making a 90-degree right turn through the door and into the shop. But moving the packing case back outside, with the “world’s most expensive mirror,” was another matter.
The load was now 20 feet wide, the opening 24 feet. Jutting it through at a 90-degree angle gave the movers only ¾ of an inch clearance on each side.
They began in the morning. Bruce Rule and Marcus Brown, head of the optical shop, tested the vibration gauges. During the move, they monitored them so closely they rarely looked up.
Twelve riggers operated pneumatic jacks and wooden rollers. Others fixed steel cables, linked to a huge, black power crane, to the trailer. Shouts and hand signals were constants: a miniscule finger-wave, creep a hair forward; open palm, stop; reverse wave, angle a fraction of an inch back; open palm. The intricate squeeze — which looked to one observer like “trying to take a ship out of a bottle” — took over three hours, the eyes of Caltech engineers and students inspecting every step.
Once outside, the crew jockeyed the trailer down a ramp. Then Lloyd Green, Belyea’s master driver for the last 25 years, maneuvered his huge truck, wrote the L.A. Times, “as if it were a baby carriage.” He backed into a “perfect coupling with the dolly.” The process concluded at 2:30 p.m.
Armed guards, standing at attention around the unit, kept sightseers across the street. As in so many other areas, the project’s planners took no chances. When Corning Glass Works poured the original — on Sunday, March 25, 1934 — a preacher said it would fail because “God will not approve such a use of the Sabbath” (the first casting did fail; but Corning’s second attempt in December succeeded). In the 13 years after the pouring, Caltech received letters and crank phone calls threatening to sabotage the “Satanic” project: the telescope would reveal the mysteries of God’s universe. Religious protestors posed more of a threat than economic strikers, writes Ronald Florence, because “police couldn’t be expected to show the same eagerness for scuffles with men and women of the cloth that they demonstrated against the unions.”
Later that afternoon, Jack Belyea met with Sergeant Martin of the Highway Patrol and John A. Anderson, the overall head, and unsung hero, of the project. The 71-year-old, soft-spoken Anderson became chairman of the construction committee and executive officer of the observatory council when George Ellery Hale died in 1938. He had an astronomer’s eye for the details inside of details.
The three men went over the revised route to Palomar. They had rejected the shortest way — 130 miles from Pasadena through Lake Elsinore to the mountain — because it had too many bridges and congested thoroughfares. The chosen route, down Highway 101 to Carlsbad, then east on State Route 78 to Escondido, added 30 miles but had fewer snags and better paved, more level roads.
Since the crate was twice as wide as a 10-foot highway lane, Belyea obtained permits from every town and city along the way. To eliminate inevitable traffic hazards — and potential saboteurs — Caltech asked newspapers, radio stations, and wire services not to announce the date of the move. In return, Bruce Rule issued 75 windshield pass cards to the media.
Anderson timed the trek down to the minute: leave at 3:30 a.m. After moving 1.8 miles from California Street (via Santa Anita and Lombardy Road, between 2 and 12 miles an hour) to San Gabriel Boulevard, they would perform load tests. Four miles from San Gabriel to Valley Boulevard at 8 mph, and so on. If all went well, the caravan would travel 126.7 miles — at 9 mph — and arrive in Escondido at 6:00 p.m. for an overnight stop. Officials would rope off a city block at the Charlotte Inn. where the crew would spend the night, if all went according to plan.
For the second day, Anderson’s timetable reads: “Escondido via Valley Center Road to Rincon, Rincon to Palomar Junction, Palomar Junction to Palomar Mountain.” They would arrive at the Junction at 10:00 a.m., wind up S6 (called the “Highway to the Stars”), and reach the Crest Line by 1:00 p.m. Anderson gave them another 90 minutes to travel the next 4.8 miles to the observatory.
For the last leg, a second Sterling tractor, identical to the first, would follow behind the “jeep” and push it up the seven percent grades. A third truck, also a Cummins-powered Sterling, would trail behind, hauling supplies, rigging, tools, and large black cans of diesel, since the trucks averaged three miles to a gallon and had to be refueled on the move. The third truck would also aid in pushing.
Lloyd Green would drive the lead truck. Since the caravan had to be in constant motion, when he took a break, Green would open the cab door and “Pony Express” with Earl Winston. A Belyea veteran like Green, Winston would slide over him and take the controls.
Along with the worry that any stark bump could abort the mission, Anderson and Belyea paid special attention to the last 12 miles. Originally called the Trujillo Trail, the road was constructed in the mid-’30s especially for the move. Since workers were hard to find for such a task, even in the Depression, the county ordered a gang of convicts to widen and pave the road.
“It was a strange crew,” writes David O. Woodbury, “for the convicts had come from an alimony jail. Some of them had never seen a shovel.”
When they completed the job, Byron Hill, onsite director of construction at the observatory and admitted perfectionist, hired his own crew and shored up the “highway.” Even so, the new road had 72 curves. Unlike today, it was about half as wide and had no barriers protecting motorists from 1000-foot drops. On some horseshoe turns, moving the mirror would resemble inching out of the optical shop.