• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Jack Belyea’s truck company became world famous for hauling gargantuan objects. In 1930, he and his brothers transported a 110-foot, 115-ton kiln 26 miles, then lowered it down a 20-percent grade with winches. They moved yachts, 148-foot girders, even lifted a small locomotive out of a canyon. Ads boasted they would “tackle anything, from a building to a whale” (true: they shipped an orca, beached near Malibu, to a landfill). Unlike his advertising, Belyea downplayed bravado. He’d look disbelieving clients in the eye and ask, “Where you want it?”

In November 1947, Belyea signed for the most fragile package he would ever handle. The over-width load required a police escort and an intense, foot-by-foot inspection of the 160-mile route. Engineers stress-tested and shored up bridges. Workers filled in embankments over culverts. San Diego County built a road, S6, specifically for the event. Belyea warned his crew, “The eyes of the world are on us for this job. There can be no mistakes.”

Belyea Truck Company/Pacific Crane and Rigging, Inc. would transport the “Giant Eye” — a 200-inch Pyrex mirror — from Caltech in Pasadena to Palomar Observatory, where it would open up the heavens as part of the world’s largest telescope. His would be the last, crucial leg in a journey decades in the making.

In 1928, George Ellery Hale, the great astronomer and one of the 20th Century’s most effective administrators, wrote of a telescope twice the size of any in existence. The 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mt. Wilson had been in service for nine years. A 200-inch, Hale promised, “would give us four times as much light” and could explore unknown “island universes.” Advances in heat-resistant glass, combined with the latest discoveries in astrophysics, made the time right.

But the immense scope daunted even the daring. To cast a huge blank of glass without a single air bubble, grind it to two-millionths of an inch, build an observatory, and transport the mirror to its home all sounded too visionary at the time. Everyone involved had to perform at their very best with no weak links and, writes Ronald Florence, the project required “an unprecedented cooperation between academics, industry, and government.”

Sunday, November 16, 1947
Owing to bad weather, the journey began not on November 12, as scheduled, but four days later. Belyea’s company rolled a Fruehauf “jeep” — a dolly trailer with 16 balloon-tires — into the optical shop at Caltech. The jeep was the company’s bread and butter. Pulled by a 10-wheel, diesel tractor-truck, and joined to a double goose-neck semi-trailer with another 16 wheels, the unit had 42 wheels. This was the automotive flatcar, which could distribute a load over 79 feet of pavement, that had earlier hauled the whale to a landfill — and a high-tension power-line tower, without shutting off the voltage.

Belyea had welded five red, 12-inch I-beams to the trailer, making it almost 20 feet wide. Since entering the optical shop required an awkward, 90-degree turn, Belyea’s men disconnected the trailer from the tractor and rolled it through a 24-foot opening.

Inside, the optical shop gleamed like sunshine. Near-blinding Kleig lights had been a constant since the mirror arrived by train from the Corning Glass Works, in upstate New York, on April 10, 1936. The light was so intense because the disk, writes David O. Woodbury, had to be “anatomically clean.” The 120-square-foot space became one of the world’s most compulsively scrubbed shops.

Across from the large door, a 20-foot circle wrapped in plain brown paper stood vertically: the mirror and the cell, underneath, that would join it to the telescope. Cushions of asbestos and foam rubber protected the mirror from the metallic casing. A layer of aluminum foil, added later, would protect it from heat.

When unwrapped, the mirror could pass for a flying saucer with a hole in the center. The top side, a milky yellow-green, shone bright. The underside looked like a giant bagel made of Swiss cheese. Ribbing, connected for structural strength, honeycombed the bottom.

Starlight, a billion light years from earth, would pass through the hole in the center.

Calling the disk a “Giant Eye” was a misnomer. It was neither an eye nor a lens, writes Ronald Florence. It reflected light, like a looking glass. Workers at the optical shop ground and polished the mirror from 1936 to the beginning of World War II. The process was so painstaking, to many it seemed infinite. They resumed again in 1946. On October 3, 1947, Caltech announced that “The most daring optical job ever attempted by man was finished today — polishing the giant 200-inch telescope mirror for the Palomar Mountain Observatory.”

The announcement was premature. When the movers arrived at Caltech, the disk had yet to reach its exact parabolic surface.

But Belyea’s crew knew none of this. In fact, outside the Caltech staff, very few people involved in the move ever saw the actual disk. They just knew that if they broke this mirror, seven years of bad luck would be a gift. As an engineer whispered to an L.A. Times reporter, “What will happen to anyone upsetting this little applecart should have happened to Hitler.”

The first step: a worker, dressed in white, pulled levers, and a giant crane slowly lifted the mirror and its cell, which weighed almost 40 tons. The large circle floated across the room — like a UFO in a paper bag — in extreme slow motion. The crane set it down, almost imperceptibly, on the trailer bed. For the next 45 minutes, workers adjusted the disk, gave it sponge-rubber supports, and bolted everything tight.

The crane lowered a five-ton packing crate — 20 feet square, eight feet deep — over the mirror. Painted battleship gray, the thin plywood box took an hour to fasten in place. The combined weight of the mirror, cell, crate, and trailer was 60 tons.

Bruce Rule, the project engineer, had placed “acceleration pickup” instruments inside. Made of radio crystal, these would measure the slightest bump. During the estimated two-day trek to Palomar, which would begin on Tuesday, Rule would ride shotgun in the tractor-truck, monitoring the vibration gauges and telling the driver when to adjust the speed. If at any point the jostling became too great, Rule would order the caravan to turn back.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Forgottenhighway June 18, 2010 @ 1 a.m.

Hello, I am enjoying the story but I must correct you on the name of the Belyea driver.His name was Lloyd Green not Floyd Green.Lloyd was killed two years after this move when a crane collapsed during the building of an overpass on HWY 71 near the Prado dam. Cheers,Pat


lmcrook Sept. 25, 2012 @ 12:54 p.m.

I am Lloyd Green's Granddaughter! I have been trying to research him for years! Would you mind contacting me at [email protected]? I have so many questions, and would love to hear what you know! Thanks, Leslie Crook


Jeff Smith June 18, 2010 @ 9:10 a.m.

Pat you're right. My error. Some newspaper accounts call him "Floyd." But Belyea's memoir calls him "Lloyd."


Forgottenhighway Dec. 2, 2012 @ 6:20 p.m.

Leslie, I have some personal items belonging to your grandfather. I will try to contact you via email. Cheers,Pat


Sign in to comment

Get $5 off any Reader event

Sign up for our email list to get your promo code