The Engineer

Week 36: #52 Ancestors – Labor

By Eilene Lyon

My grandfather, Laurence M. Smith, has made many appearances on this blog. I’ve shared a couple stories he wrote about his work in A Short Load and A Secret Mission. Laurence was a 1931 graduate of the University of Idaho with a degree in electrical engineering.

Starting a career during the Great Depression must have been challenging. He started out as a lineman for the Washington Water Power Co. (WWP). His work involved surveying lines and substations.

Clare Davis Smith at Glacier National Park 1934 (Family collection)

Around the time Laurence married Clare Ransom Davis in 1934, he got a job for the federal Bureau of Public Roads working in Montana, at Glacier National Park and surrounding areas.

“There he recalls working 12 hours a day making sure that the contractor’s men worked no more than eight hours a day. However, the pay was a satisfactory $105 a month, and the scenery was magnificent.”

He still didn’t have the opportunity to use his degree in a meaningful way.

After a year or so, he went back to work for WWP, which he did until 1941, living in Spokane. They didn’t have any electrical engineering work for him at first, so he started drafting surveys for a transmission line, a temporary assignment.

Laurence and Clare’s photo albums have many pictures of electric substations. It’s difficult to determine what years they were taken and which job(s) they are associated with. (Family collection)

They kept saying they would have to let him go, but they never did. He had a variety of other assignments over the next five years, which helped him get back into electrical work. But he needed new challenges. So, he moved the family to Portland and took a brief job with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

He had this to say about his time with WWP: “I could have stayed there and worked all the years of my career, as some of my contemporaries did. No doubt it would have been a very good and safe course to pursue. I seemed to be always looking ahead to more interesting challenges. Actually it worked out for the best. There were however, some very distressing difficulties along the way which I have no intention of looking back at.”

Because he was married with children, he did not get drafted in World War II, but did work for the Civil Defense. The family returned to Spokane and he worked at Fairfield Air Base, then under construction. According to my mother, “My dad’s biggest job was electrical design for opening & shutting aircraft hangars.”

This revelation came about long after her dementia set in, and I haven’t been able to verify this, but given he worked on an air base, it is plausible.

It’s unclear if this building under construction dates from the air base days or Laurence’s time with Daugherty Engineering. (Family collection)

After the war, he and two others formed an engineering firm. Since the company name was Daugherty Engineering, I assume Daugherty financed the enterprise. The company succeeded, but the Korean War created a shortage of construction supplies, so back to Portland and the BPA. At last, Laurence had found his dream job.

Laurence’s partners in the Daugherty Engineering firm. (Family collection)
Laurence M. Smith (far right) with his co-workers at the Bonneville Power Administration c. early 1950s. (Family collection)

When the war ended, returning veterans reclaimed their old positions. Laurence was out of work again, but not for long. The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had a position in Little Rock, Arkansas. In some respects, living in Arkansas was difficult for Laurence and Clare, but they stuck with it until retirement. Then they moved back to Portland, which truly felt like home.

 

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Family collection)
Laurence (second from left) inspecting a piece of work, probably related to water-control on the Mississippi River. (Family collection)
Images related to the weirs on the Mississippi River. (Family collection)

My recollection is that his job in Arkansas involved electrical control of weirs on the Mississippi River. I hope to get his service records from the National Archives at some point to learn more about his work for the USACE.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in Little Rock, 1969. (Family collection)
Clare Davis Smith also worked while they lived in Little Rock. She had a position with the Internal Revenue Service. She is in the white blouse in the center of photo. (Family collection)

(Note: Laurence’s memoirs never mention working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, but family stories and photos suggest that he did. I have further research to do!)

Featured image: Laurence M. Smith, second from right in rear, at a dinner for the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. (Family collection)

Sources:

Smith, Laurence M. unpublished memoirs.

Letter from my mother.

Family stories.

31 thoughts on “The Engineer

Add yours

  1. As a searcher of records related to the our industrial region (mining and power generation) I appreciate the photos that were taken when your grandfather worked at these assorted facilities – and thank you for writing up the story that makes these valuable documents available.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know what you mean about labelling photos. I never really understood what my father did for a living after coming to Canada. I knew he was an inspector and wore a white hard hat! lol He never talked about work. There are some pictures but no labels.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My mother also worked, and I knew a lot more about her job than I ever did my father’s job. But then she worked in the bank and it was a much more visible and accessible job. However, they both modelled a solid work ethic.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I got a big kick out of your post because my maternal grandfather was also an electrical engineer. He worked for New England Bell for his entire career after graduating from MIT. The group photos you posted look just like the ones in our family archives! My grandfather took great care to label the photos. (He was like that. He also labeled the hand towel and the dish towel at their summer cottage, which blew my dad’s mind.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a bit odd, but he did keep some secrets. He never mentioned his stepmother or much about that period of his life, either. Yesterday I found a few photos of photo posters my mom and aunt made for their parents’ 50th anniversary. It labeled some items, like those substation pictures – from his BPA work. I keep hoping my aunt will shed some light on things, but I have to be pretty persistent to get answers from her.

      Liked by 1 person

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