The Building of Route 66: The Tijeras Canyon Job
by Nate Skousen, Jr.
In 1950, the Tijeras Canyon job was the largest road project ever let in
the State of New Mexico. It also carried the honor of being the first U.
S. Route 66 four-lane divided highway built in New Mexico. Skousen, Isbell
& Johnston Contracting Company was awarded the contract. The job reached
completion in 1951.
The project extended from Albuquerque's eastern city limits to roughly a
mile east of Tijeras. We had no other jobs in progress at the time, so all
partners worked on this job.
As usual, Andy Isbell was named Project Superintendent, but Dad was on the
job each day, rain or shine, directing operations. During the grading phase
of construction, Andy supervised the rock work and
I, with my LeTourenau Super-C rubber-tired scrapers, cats and carryalls,
took care of the dirt work. Phil Johnston looked after structures and the
This big rock job required the drilling and shooting (dynamiting) of an
unusual variety of rock, including granite, shale and limestone. This required
the services of an expert powderman--and we had one--his name was Arron
Bruce. Arron had worked with Dad for over 24 years. His son Charlie and
I were born on the same day (September 8, 1928) on a road job in southern
Arizona. Dad and Arron surprised each other when both of them began passing
out cigars in the cookshack.
As the job got into high gear, our largest shovel, called "01 Ironsides,"
operated by Johnny Dury, was working on the largest rock cut of the job--the
one leading to the infamous
"Dead Man's Curve." Another shovel, operated by Joe Knight,
was working on other rock cuts with the Koring Dumpsters. Arron Bruce kept
ahead of both shovels, drilling and shooting the rock. Concrete boxes were
being poured, culvert pipe was being set as the crusher ground away. I was
"movin'dirt" with my two spreads and everything was going fine.
Until...a caravan of 10 to 15 cars full of hired union men, commonly known
as hired "Goons," unexpectedly showed up on the job proclaiming
"Our men are on strike!" In truth, not ONE of our men was on strike,
then or at any time during the job.
Day after day for almost two months, the Goons tried unsuccessfully to delay
our work. They also tried unsuccessfully to intimidate our employees. They
finally gave up and disbanded. We stopped them that summer at Tijeras Canyon,
and the union never succeeded in "organizing" the road hands and
the road contractors in New Mexico.
An Unlikely Detour
Contractors like my father had to possess a great deal of nerve and imagination.
This was demonstrated when it came time to construct a two mile section
of new line along and over the old Route 66. This meant that we would have
to delay and/or flag traffic through our work area, which, of course, would
slow our progress and irritate Route 66 travelers. To avoid these problems
Dad came up with a daring, if unnerving solution. He told us to build a
three-mile detour located, of all unlikely places, in the Tijeras Canyon
Arroyo! He then issued orders that every man should watch for rain clouds,
and if there was ANY chance of a flash flood, we were to stop traffic at
ends of the detour. Fortunately, 1951 was a dry year.
On almost every job, there comes a time when you have to fire a man. Usually
you are glad to be rid of him, but sometimes you have to fire a man when
you don't really want to. Such was the case with an old dozer hand called
"Whitey." We were back-filling a concrete box culvert and Whitey
kept mucking-in dirt in about two foot lifts, which prevented. Twice I told
him that we needed to keep it down to one foot lifts in order to get the
loose soil properly compacted. The third time I had not choice but to fire
him. However, I didn't want to for two reasons. First, he was a good dozer
operator, and second, he was a big-boned burley man who had the reputation
of going-off-the-deep-end. With some apprehension, I told Whitey to get
his lunch pail and I would take him to the office to get his time. On the
way, Whitey said, "Aw hell, let's go back; I'll do it your way."
He must have been testing me, but I was greatly relieved. "That suits
me just fine," I answered him.
There are also times that a man quits when you don't want him to. This was
the case when a Super-C rubber-tired scraper operator decided that what
we were doing was too dangerous. We had to widen a high fill section on
the same stretch of the old road, so I had a dozer pioneer a steep narrow
road down the sides of the fill section at both ends and along the bottom,
and we began movin' dirt. A short time later, one of the three Super-C operators
said that he had had enough. It surprised me, because he had been the best
operator I had on a former job. He was young, a little wild, and, I thought,
a little reckless, which is just what you want in a Super-C operator. Nevertheless,
he said he was quitting. So I took him to the field office and Ernest Degeer
paid him off.
Now what was I to do? What if the other two operators decide that they had
had enough? There was only one thing for me to do, and so I did it....recalling
that someone once said, "If you ain't got a choice, be brave."
I cranked up the idled Super-C, got a load, and started down that steep,
narrow pioneer road. I lowered the scraper to the ground and dragged it
all the way down to the bottom. Hell, that wasn't so bad! I may not have
been wheelin'and-dealin', but I was doing it. And the three of us finished
Two months before the Canyon job was completed, we were awarded another
project located between Artesia and Carlsbad. And I was sent down there
to set-up camp--and to start movin' dirt with my cats and carryalls, but
memories of building a four lane Route 66 through Tijeras Canyon still live
with me today.