• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

“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.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Fredc April 12, 2012 @ 11:13 p.m.

Was a chap named Pattee part of the Belyea crew for that trip?


Sign in to comment