The largest crowd waited in Vista, where Vista Way had been widened so the truck and trailer could make a hard left turn off Hill Street. Young Patricia Bonyage watched the procession inch-worm through town. It “was gargantuan,” she recalled, “as if somebody was bringing a big spaceship down the highway” — New Mexico’s Roswell Incident having occurred in July.
Floyd Green pulled the truck into Escondido at 5:00 p.m., an hour ahead of schedule. His average speed for the 126.7 miles: “just over eight miles per hour.”
The caravan parked at the Charlotta Inn, on East Ohio Avenue, between Juniper Street and Valley Boulevard. Guards lit flares down the roped-off block and took up stations around the vehicles.
As hundreds of people paraded past in long overcoats, umbrellas popped open: charcoal skies began to sprinkle. Then a cold rain fell.
Wednesday, November 19, 1947
“I was assured by everybody that was supposed to be in the know [Caltech that is] that we would have good weather on November 18 and 19,” Jack Belyea grumbled.
It drizzled off and on all night. At 5:00 a.m., Belyea and Bruce Rule met with Byron Hill, who had reported clear skies 26 hours earlier. Belyea was famous for “taking nothing from nobody.”
So was Hill. “Things don’t look good on the mountain,” he said. “It’s socked in with fog; visibility near zero.”
The mirror couldn’t stay in Escondido, everyone agreed. For years, Caltech received letters from cranks threatening sabotage, and even a well-meaning public could cause problems.
“My personal opinion,” said Hill, glancing at the sky, “we can make it.”
Belyea suggested they find a wide spot on the road near Rincon and plan the next move from there. The others nodded.
The final 36 miles, wrote A.S. Leonard, “presented every hazard known to highway transportation.” Hill told reporters that if rain fell heavier than a drizzle, they wouldn’t make the climb.
The convoy left Escondido at 5:30 a.m. It sprinkled along the route, Belyea wrote later, “but nothing to get excited about.” Nineteen miles of hilly ups and downs and a rain-slick macadam road apparently didn’t faze him. Nor did the three bridges they had to cross. Though Hill had reinforced each with heavy planking, many considered them still questionable for such a load.
Averaging 6.4 miles an hour, the convoy reached Rincon Junction around 8:20 a.m. The sun broke through.
The observatory was 17.6 miles away, from the base of the mountain to the crest line, 7.5 miles. The “Highway to the Stars,” built solely for moving the mirror, has 12 hairpin turns on a seven-degree grade. To shorten the length of his “automotive freight train” for the curves ahead, Belyea removed one of the double goose-neck jeeps. The change also gave the lead truck more traction, he told reporters.
The crew hitched a third tractor-truck to the second. Both would push the trailer.
Belyea, Rule, and Hill conferred again. They wanted to reach the top before sundown, if possible. Should the weather worsen, they’d bivouac somewhere on the slope. One thing was certain: once they began the ascent, the road was so narrow, the turns so tight, there was no going back.
At Palomar Junction (near today’s Oak Knoll Campground, at the foot of the mountain), children cheered the convoy from school bus windows. Byron Hill climbed onto the big gray box. He would captain the ascent, using hand signals for upcoming turns and changes of speed. The trucks started up again, blue diesel smoke bulging into a light rain.
For most reporters and photographers, wrote the Union, the climb was “the most disappointing part of the trip.” At 2800 feet, the caravan entered a milky cloud. The media rode four miles an hour and missed most of the action.
Until 2800 feet, Belyea wrote later, visibility was fair. “Then the elements threw everything including the book at us.” The wind howled, rain and sleet poured down, marble-sized hail pelted the cavalcade.
At times the sky suddenly cleared. During one clearing, reporter Nancy Bolton, who rode close to the mirror, saw her car “clinging to the mountainside…my heart almost stopped a couple of times when I realized what we had just passed.” She watched the crate “straddle the entire road in places where [cliffs] dropped a sheer 1000 feet.”
Visibility shrunk to nothing in seconds. Two CHP motorcyclists rode ahead, marking each hairpin turn with flashing red lights. Sometimes even those went unseen. Hill, who knew the road by heart, shouted directions to men walking alongside. The chugs of truck engines bouncing off granite cliffs often made him inaudible, his words mere clouds of frosty breath.
The drivers — Green, Earl Winston, and Ralph Taylor — steered with their heads out the windows, the latter two looking for puffs of smoke that signaled shifts of gears.
Since the drivers didn’t want to stop, and the trucks averaged three miles to a gallon of diesel, said Belyea, “we kept pouring fuel to the motor and kept going.”
A little over halfway up, Bruce Rule noticed something strange: according to the vibration meter, the road was so smooth they could actually go faster, from four to eight miles an hour. Green waved a fist round and round out the window: he was speeding up.
After what seemed endless turns, like fending off an irate monster — an attack from the left, now the right, back left! — the convoy reached the crest. Hill raised both hands in triumph. Horns blared. Only 4.8 relatively level miles to go.
Within sight of the stark white observatory dome, which looks like a gigantic scoop of vanilla ice cream, the vibration meter jiggled haywire.
“Stop the caravan!” Rule shouted.
“No — it’s okay, it’s OKAY!” shouted Green. “Just a cattle guard.” The trailer had rumbled over iron bars across the road.
A little after 11:00 a.m., in 29-degree weather, Green delivered the Giant Eye to the observatory. He looked out the window, smiled at Belyea, and said, “We made it.”