“The disk is a whale,” Howard Blakeslee, science editor at Associated Press, wrote to George Ellery Hale in 1934. “Every detail is on a scale so much larger than anything heretofore attempted.”
“And if the mirror proves a success,” Hale replied, it’s “not likely to be repeated very soon.”
The mirror was the Giant Eye, a 200-inch Pyrex glass destined for the world’s largest telescope at Palomar Observatory. The tasks took 13 years and became so formidable that Hale, the visionary behind the project, didn’t live to see them completed. If he did, he would have nail-bit every foot of its final journey from Pasadena to Palomar: 160 miles of potential hazards and a reverse-slalom up the mountain the day winter arrived.
Tuesday, November 17, 1947
On Monday, Jack Belyea’s trucking company moved the mirror, packed in a 20-foot plywood box on a dolly trailer, onto California Street in Pasadena. As if accepting a dare, Belyea put eight-foot signs on the sides and the rear: “Moved by Belyea Truck Co./Pacific Crane & Rigging Inc.” His firm relished “screwball” jobs. They had shipped 54-ton girders through downtown Los Angeles, with inches to spare, and the 65-ton Founders Rock from the desert to UCLA. But a gigantic mirror, twice the size of the largest one in use? Asked how it felt to attempt such a task, Belyea replied, “Whether the load is worth $6 or $600,000, the job is to make the delivery.”
Overnight, armed men guarded the fragile cargo. Around 3:00 a.m., project engineer Bruce Rule phoned Byron Hill, the observatory’s director of construction, for the final weather check. Hill reported a sky full of stars over Escondido.
At 3:15, Rule gave Belyea’s master driver, Lloyd Green, the okay. Then Rule climbed into the cab on the shotgun side, where he would monitor vibrations with a meter linked to the mirror. Green turned the engine over and black smoke puffed from a silver smokestack. Popping flashbulbs strobed the historic scene like winter lightning. Rule may not have noticed or heard spectators roaring with excitement. His eyes remained fixed on the meter and would for the next two days. A single, abrupt jolt could shatter the glass disk. A mere threat, the convoy would turn around.
By today’s standards, the roads were primitive. Originally, Highway 101 was composed of single concrete slabs. In the 1930s, workers added a second, “twin slab” over the first. Connections were uneven, often with considerable overlays. Belyea’s truck, with the whole world watching, would be lucky to reach 12 miles an hour.
When Green hit the ignition, ten Highway Patrol motorcycles revved up as well. Magnesium flares signaled the cars in the caravan — 53 had windshield passes — the trek had begun. Headlights blinked on, engines came alive, and sleepy Pasadena sounded like the Indianapolis 500.
Then the truck and trailer crept through town at half the speed of the Rose Parade.
Motorcycles led the way, red lights flashing. They blocked off several intersections in a row, halting wee-hours traffic. Caltech didn’t announce the date in advance. When people saw the tractor-truck, its long trailer and 20-foot-wide box on top, followed by a half-mile queue of cars and newsreel crews filming every second, they wondered what could merit such precaution.
“A new atom bomb?” a motorist asked a patrolman.
Sergeant Clarence Martin, who led the police escort, said the procession “moved like a slow patrol through enemy territory.”
Green became even more careful when making a turn. The maneuver required a languid, sweeping jackknife, the truck inching toward the far curb, then hooking back to the center line. During one turn, the tires bumped over a crown in the road. Although the truck and trailer almost bellied, Green thumbs-up’d a nervous Bruce Rule that all was copasetic.
Riding in a press car at tortoise speed, Los Angeles Times reporter James Bassett observed: “The creeping caravan seemed an almost ridiculous paradox: the eye that can span 1,000,000,000 light years [in an instant] poked along from 5 to 15 miles an hour.”
On Highway 101, CHP officers cleared the road for two miles ahead. At the rear of the entourage, patrol cars blocked both lanes, so angry motorists late for work couldn’t slip past.
At 11:00 a.m., an hour ahead of schedule, the caravan reached the day’s major obstacle: the Galivan Overhead. Five miles north of San Juan Capistrano (just south of Oso Parkway), Highway 101 angled east, 50 feet above the Santa Fe railroad tracks. Engineers had pretested the bridge with stress gauges and didn’t like what they found. The structure sagged, and its stilt-like trestle would cost too much to reinforce.
“The bridge is rated safe for 60 tons,” Belyea told reporters, “and we have 60. So you can’t fool around.”
Riggers jacked up the load and bolted special dollies on each side — 16 more wheels — to widen the weight distribution. On a signal, Green turned over the Cummins engine. Rule eyed the meter while others monitored the overhead. Green shifted from “granny” gear to first, and the truck lugged the mirror up the incline like an old man with an aching back.
When all the weight was on the bridge, it sagged three-eighths of an inch. Ronald Florence: “Reporters wondered why…the engineers were smiling when the dollies were unbolted on the other side.”
Even Belyea, who loved to snub difficulties, admitted that crossing the overhead was a “brow-mopping session.”
By the time the caravan passed through San Juan Capistrano, the secret was out: the “Palomar Parade” was underway. Crowds flanked both sides of the street. CHP motorcycles and black coupes, with trademark white doors, became extra-wary of spectators. In Capistrano, San Clemente, and Oceanside, many observers doffed their hats as the vehicles trudged past, bright sunshine glinting off the world-famous crate.
The procession stopped at Carlsbad. State Route 78 to Escondido, where the mirror would stay the night, had much steeper hills than 101. To help push the load when necessary, Belyea hitched a second tractor-truck to the back of the trailer. When the convoy started again, storm clouds stalked it inland.
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.”
As if on cue, sunlight speared though the clouds for almost two minutes. Belyea made Caltech administrators sign for the delivery.
No one chronicled the return trip which, given the weather, must have been another slow-motion saga. At his office the next day, Belyea wrote: “November 20th — the job was completed — trucks were all back in our Los Angeles yards — and the drivers home sleeping.” ■
— Jeff Smith
- U.S. 101 Photo Gallery: Southern Orange County: the old Galivan Overhead “was similar in appearance to the existing overhead in Del Mar and was, in fact, designed by the same engineer.”
- A.S. Leonard: “For this move, the speedometer might as well have been disconnected.”
- In headlines the next day, the upcoming wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lt. Philip Mountbatten upstaged the historic delivery of the Giant Eye.
Belyea, Jack, “Wheels of Progress,” interoffice communication, Belyea Truck Co., November 20, 1947, ms, Palomar Observatory archives.
Bolton, Nancy R., “Press Pilgrimage to Palomar,” Sky and Telescope, January 1948.
Florence, Ronald, The Perfect Machine, New York, 1994; “Palomar, After 50 Years,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 44, Fall 1998.
Leonard, A.S., “Cummins Dependable Diesels Haul the 200 Inch Mirror to Palomar Observatory,” ms, Palomar Observatory archives.
Richardson, Robert S., “The 200-Inch Mirror Goes to Palomar Mountain,” ms, Astrophysics Library, California Institute of Technology.
Woodbury, David O., The Giant Glass of Palomar, New York, 1939.
Wright, Helen, Palomar: The World’s Largest Telescope, New York, 1953.
Articles in various newspapers.