As early as the 1920s,it was becoming apparent that America's love affair with the automobile would give rise to a demand for a new class of roadway, one that could accommodate a constantly growing volume of vehicles and our desire to travel ever farther and faster. In the following two decades, the superhighway was born. The success of its early incarnations, including the parkways of greater New York and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, led planners to envision a national network of four-lane, divided highways to whisk motorists from coast to coast.

World War II put plans for a national highway system on hold, but the return of GI's from overseas and the colossal spending spree that followed put even more cars and trucks on the road and exerted an even greater strain on the nation's aging roadways. In addition, the beginning of the Cold War placed a new focus on the need for rapid military deployment. A network of high-volume, limited access highways, it was believed, would be an ideal way to move men and equipment quickly from place to place in times of national crisis.

In 1944, Congress approved the establishment of the Interstate Highway System, though it would be another 12 years before work on the system began. On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which called for the construction of 41,000 miles of modern highways across the country (later legislation increased that total to 42,500, and further additions brought the actual total built to 42,700). The system, eventually known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, would encompass every state but Alaska and take nearly three decades to complete (a few segments have yet to be built). About 90 percent of the cost of the system would come from federal user fees (gasoline taxes), with the balance coming from state coffers.

Encouraged by the ready availability of federal funds, states embarked upon an unprecedented period of road building beginning in the 1950s. Massachusetts was no exception. Working in the state's Department of Public Works, the Massachusetts Highway Department and other agencies, a number of WPI graduates helped plan, build and maintain the ribbons of asphalt, concrete and steel that today constitute the state's modern and indispensable ground transportation network. Here are the stories of four of those master road builders.

The interstate system is one of the great engineering marvels of modern day civilization," Dean Amidon says. During the early 1960s, he was directly involved in the construction of one component of that marvel, Interstate 91, which traverses three New England states. Amidon was in charge of three projects on the portion of I-91 that passes through Springfield, Mass. "I found the projects challenging, but enjoyable," he says. "Building, making changes and seeing the results of our work made my I-91 assignment one of the high points of my career."

Amidon says construction of I-91 was fraught with obstacles. At one point, after the bridges for the project were nearly finished, the federal government forwarded new national defense requirements stipulating that bridge clearances be raised from 14 1/2 feet to 16 feet. Other change orders required that drainage and utilities and partially finished roadwork at a complicated interchange be redesigned and rebuilt. "We handled change orders right on the job as we received them," Amidon says. "There was very little delay."

Today, Amidon looks at I-91 and the rest of the interstate system with a feeling of accomplishment. "As I drive interstate highways throughout the country," he says, "I realize what a tremendous change the system has brought to people's lives, not only in terms of driving safety, but in terms of freedom of movement and choice of lifestyle. I'm pleased to have played a part in bringing those changes about."

Dean P. Amidon '49

More than a decade before he helped build I-91, Amidon joined the Massachusetts Department of Public Works as a junior civil engineer in Berkshire County. One of his earliest assignments was helping restore bridges wiped out during a flood in 1949. He worked on highway and bridge construction projects in the Connecticut Valley briefly, beginning in 1955, before returning to the Berkshires, where his assignments included the construction of State Route 116 from Amherst to North Adams. For a time, he worked in Boston as the DPW's locations and survey engineer and also developed Massachusetts' implementation of TOPICS (Traffic Operations Program to Improve Capacity and Safety), a federal initiative aimed at increasing the use of traffic engineering techniques to improve the efficiency of urban highway systems.

In 1969, Amidon was named district highway engineer in the Lenox office, where he was responsible for all facets of public works in the district, including design, structures, environment, traffic engineering, maintenance, construction, administration and public relations. He was named DPW commissioner a decade later, overseeing a department with 4,100 employees and an annual operating budget of $100 million. After a three-year term as commissioner, he returned to his District One post in Lenox.

One highway project overshadowed Amidon's career in the Berkshires. Called the Route 7 or Pittsfield Bypass, the proposed limited-access highway would have relieved traffic congestion on State Route 7 between Lenox and Pittsfield. Amidon remains a champion of the project.

"New highways and bypasses are the same as jails, dumps and incinerators," he told the Berkshire Eagle in 1987. "We know we have to have them. Someone has to have the guts to make a decision-to say, 'Yes, it's going to hurt some people, but it's going to help more people, so let's do it.'" A final decision on the bypass project is still pending.

Highly regarded in his field, Amidon was recognized in 1975 for his engineering and administrative abilities when he received the Engineer of the Year Award from the Berkshire Chapter of the Massachusetts Society of Professional Engineers. In 1980 the American Public Works Association named him one of the Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year in the U.S. and Canada.

Two years later, he was elected president of the Northeast Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which covers the six New England States, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and five provinces in Canada. Its mission is to set standards for transportation design and construction nationally and to foster development, operation and maintenance of an integrated national transportation system. Most recently, he received the annual Outstanding Highway Official Award from the Massachusetts Highway Association.

Amidon can look back with pride at a career in which he has supervised a lengthy list of construction projects, from new bridges to road improvements to new highways. But he says his greatest thrill is seeing the products of his labor fulfilling their intended functions. "I look at a bridge or a road I've built, and I tell myself, 'That's real.' That stays with you forever."

It's almost impossible to drive on a major highway or cross a bridge in Central Massachusetts that doesn't bear the stamp of approval of Jack Gallagher. After graduating from WPI in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, Gallagher accepted a post as construction engineer with the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, and went on to serve as assistant district traffic engineer and assistant project engineer in the Massachusetts Highway Department. In the latter post, he was placed on special assignment to work on the design and rebuilding of 100 bridges damaged or destroyed in flooding during Hurricane Diane in August 1955.

John F. Gallagher '50

From 1956 to 1964, he was assistant construction engineer and a part-time project design engineer. During that time he designed Lake Avenue in Worcester and Route 122 from Tatnuck Square in Worcester to the Paxton town line. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the road building boom had created a need for young engineers skilled in highway design and construction. To help fill the need, Gallagher and several other WPI alumni taught courses in highway engineering, fluid mechanics, reinforced concrete design and related topics at the former Worcester Junior College.

In February 1968, Gallagher, having risen to the post of assistant chief engineer, found himself speaking before citizens' groups about Interstate 190, a new route designed to reduce travel time from Worcester to Leominster and other points north. "There was some concern in West Boylston," he recalls. "People were afraid that the new superhighway would seriously divide the town, though it didn't."

Ultimately, I-190 became part of what is sometimes called the North-South Freeway, one of the state's most important traffic arteries. Also consisting of portions of I-290 and I-395, the freeway joins Fitchburg in the north and Webster in the south.

The I-290 project, also called the Worcester Expressway, was the site of a major construction accident in 1968, Gallagher remembers. In April, a bridge being built over a section of Southbridge Street in Worcester collapsed, killing three construction workers and injuring eight. Media reports noted that only one end of the steel girders had been fastened to the concrete abutment, but Gallagher told reporters the technique is standard practice to prevent expansion and contraction of the beams from ripping out the bolts. A general inquiry into the collapse ruled out negligence, but was unable to pinpoint a specific cause, Gallagher says. Just five months after the bridge disaster, the southern leg of the expressway, from Brosnihan Square to Route 20 in Auburn, was opened.

Beginning in 1970, Gallagher took a three-year post as assistant director of the newly established Massachusetts Bureau of Solid Waste before returning to the Highway Department as project development engineer. In that capacity, he worked with officials in towns along the route for the proposed I-395. In Webster, he helped win approval for a ramp to connect the town to the highway. In Auburn, he discussed possible routes the road might take through town and made sure residents had a voice in planning for landscaping and sound-reducing barriers. A former chairman of the Auburn Planning Board, Gallagher also urged the town to use zoning as a tool for planning for the growth the new highway would bring.

Promoted to deputy chief engineer of highway maintenance in 1987, Gallagher supervised a staff of more than 250, as well as another 1,000 workers who completed work for the department. For the next five years, until his retirement, he was responsible for the upkeep of 13,000 lane miles of highway and more than 2,800 bridges. "Fighting for maintenance funding was my biggest concern," he says.

"In my present consulting work, I haven't lost contact with the state highway department," he adds. "I still enjoy meeting with city and town officials to advise them on transportation problems. I'm proud to have been part of building and maintaining the interstate highway system, a part of my career for which my WPI education and the excellent WPI professors prepared me quite well."

Norman L. Diegoli '48

Back in 1953, a reporter for the Boston Sunday Globe took a jeep ride with Norm Diegoli through the wilds of Cape Cod near Provincetown, where the state was building a section of the Mid-Cape Highway. Noting that Diegoli steered the vehicle deftly "through this wilderness of near-rootless scrub pines, stunted bushes and pure sand," the writer observed that Diegoli could make the jeep do everything but wait on tables. That's also a good summary of his varied career with the Massachusetts Department of Public Works and the state Highway Department.

After earning his degree in mechanical engineering (he would later graduate from Stanford University under the U.S. Army's Specialized Training Program for Advanced Engineering), he started out working on the design, construction and maintenance of the state highway/interstate highway network. His initial assignments included the construction of several sections of State Route 6 from the Cape Cod Canal to Provincetown, State Route 24 from Taunton to Fall River, and State Route 3 from Duxbury to Hanover.

During the early years of his career he was also "on loan" to the U.S. Navy for bridge construction at the Hingham Navy Yard and to the State Division of Beaches for the construction of Scusset Beach Reservation at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal. In 1968 he was transferred to the Bureau of Transportation Planning and Development, where the corridors for Interstates 495, 190, 391 and 392 were worked out.

Promoted to deputy chief engineer of the Division of Waterways in 1974, he oversaw the rebuilding of state piers in Plymouth, Fall River, New Bedford and Gloucester. During his watch, the canopy that encloses Plymouth Rock was extensively refurbished and a number of state harbors and waterways were dredged.

Diegoli was the last deputy chief engineer for the Division of Waterways, as the division became part of the Office of Environmental Affairs in a 1977 reorganization. He transferred to the state Highway Department as deputy chief engineer in the Division of Maintenance and Equipment, and had barely settled into his chair when state employees launched what would become a three-day strike. From his command post in the Communications Office, he saw to it that drawbridges continued to operate, traffic lights were in working order, and emergency highway repairs were performed, despite the walkout. "We were grateful," he says, "for the help given us during the crisis by sympathetic contractors, municipal electricians and faithful state employees who used their own vehicles to render services after dark."

Another, more daunting crisis arrived the following year. On Feb. 6, 1978, New England was hit by one of the worst blizzards of the century. Diegoli says the day took on a note of tragedy even before the storm hit when a passing motorist on Route 1 in Dedham struck and killed a state maintenance worker. That afternoon, the snow started and conditions on the state's roads quickly deteriorated. For the next two days, most highways were impassable.

Diegoli says 2,800 vehicles were stranded on just one stretch of Route 128, between Route 9 in Wellesley and Route 138 in Canton. With crews from Vermont, New Hampshire and the U.S. Army assisting, clean-up operations continued around the clock until Feb. 11, when the last section of Route 138 in Stoughton opened to traffic once again.

The snowy winter of 1978 was followed by a long, hot summer that found Diegoli in Cape Canaveral, Fla., overseeing the completion and testing of a high-speed hovercraft commuter boat. "That fall, the hovercraft was put into service between Hingham and Boston," he says. "But soon, service had to be curtailed because the craft kept running into floating debris, causing accidents."

Ellsworth M. Sammet '49

Late in his career, Diegoli put his skills as a first-rate problem-solver to work on yet another challenge: cutting red tape in his own department. "I designed a program in which insurance companies pay for repairing damage to state highway property caused by motor vehicles," he says. "The program ensures that repairs are made quickly even during times of severe budget cuts and resource restrictions."

During a career spanning 40 years, there is bound to be at least one assignment that stands head and shoulders above the rest. For Sam Sammet, that special assignment was working on the construction of Interstate 91, a highway that now carries motorists from New Haven, Conn., to the Canadian border in Vermont. As assistant district construction engineer in District 2 in Northampton from 1965 to 1970, Sammet supervised resident engineers working on sections of I-91 from Greenfield, Mass., south to Chicopee and Springfield, including the link between I-91 and Interstate 291 in Springfield.

"Construction of I-91 along the Connecticut River Valley was especially challenging because many sections required construction in two phases," he says. The unusual technique, he notes, was necessary because of the thick layers of clay and silt along the river. In the first phase, embankments were built several feet above their final grade and allowed to settle for 18 to 24 months while the elevation of the road was monitored using settlement platforms and piezometers (instruments that measure pressure and compressibility).

To add to the complexity of the project, construction of drainage culverts had to reflect the anticipated settlement and bridges could not be constructed until the roadways had reached their final grades. "Building I-91 was one challenge after another," Sammet says. "But in the end, it was worth it."

Sammet joined the DPW in 1950 as resident engineer on highway and bridge projects in District 3, which encompasses Worcester County. He remained in that post for 15 years, working principally on sections of State Route 2 in Westminster, Gardner, Phillipston and Athol. After I-91 was completed in 1970, he was promoted to District 2 maintenance engineer in charge of all district highways and bridges.

At the time, plans were being made for the $90 million Route 7 Bypass project in Pittsfield. Expecting that construction would start in 1972, Sammet accepted the post of District One construction engineer and moved to Pittsfield in 1971. But the project never got off the drawing board. Sammet says he believes the price tag for the project has grown so high that it is unlikely to be built any time soon, especially since the "Big Dig" in Boston is siphoning off most new construction funds.

One of the factors that helped sidetrack the bypass, Sammet says, was the opposition of hundreds of homeowners in its path, who would, of necessity, have had to give up their houses. The District One construction engineer found himself caught in the crossfire between irate homeowners and the administration of Governor Michael Dukakis, which had pushed for the funding for the bypass and wanted it built. While he sympathized with the homeowners, the proposal had been on the table for 40 years and he felt it was time to build it to improve the regional transportation system.

As district chief, Sammet also monitored millions of dollars allocated by the state for highway building and maintenance in Berkshire County and eight contiguous towns, an assignment that entailed coordinating with 38 diverse boards of selectmen and two mayors. Commenting on the even temperament Sammet needed to do his job, one local reporter wrote that he was "a chief engineer with a bedside manner."

When Dean Amidon '49 was named commissioner of the State Department of Public Works in 1979, Sammet assumed the post of district highway engineer, a position he held until Amidon returned to the district in 1981. For the next six years, Sammet served once again as district construction engineer, taking on the additional duties of assistant district highway engineer. With Amidon's retirement in 1987, Sammet returned to the district highway engineer's chair until his own retirement in 1989. At his retirement luncheon, it was noted that Sammet was responsible for the substantial progress that had been made in updating, reconstructing and rehabilitating the state and town transportation system in his district.

As he looks back over a "very satisfying career in civil engineering that was launched at WPI," Sammet says he is particularly proud of the many miles of highways and the more than 100 bridges that exist today, in large part, because of his supervision. "Although highways and bridges often bear the names of politicians who helped fund them," he says, "the real imprint is that of the engineers and contractors who designed and built them."

-Trask, former alumni news editor for WPI, is now a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Journal and The Wire.
Last Updated: 11/19/98 23:22:06 EST

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