On Oregon’s Mount Hood, the ski shelter originally envisioned at the timberline had become a far grander project. Now it embodied almost every aspect of the WPA’s sweeping approach to job creation. This new vision had emerged back in September, when Hopkins had visited the lodge as part of an inspection tour of WPA activities. By then the design had evolved into a wide V, with a long west wing and a shorter east wing joined by a six-sided “head house” that would rise above the wings as a visual hub and incorporate the building’s entrance and main lounge. Stonemasons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and laborers were all hard at work as Max Lorenz, the Portland contractor overseeing the construction, pushed to get the lodge enclosed before the first snows of winter.
When he reached the lodge on September 14, arriving in a party of thirty-five that included Oregon WPA chief E. J. Griffith, Hopkins circulated among the workers, clambering on piles of lumber and mounting ladders as he surveyed the project and the sights. The weather alternated between sunshine and snow flurries. “He was a nice guy; he talked to most everybody, and everybody took to him,” recalled William Wechner, the project supervisor, in an interview much later. William L. Turner, one of the Forest Service architects, recorded the event in stilted language: “The plans were explained briefly to Mr. Hopkins and he in turn expressed himself as being enthusiastic relative to the development.”
The plans now included a vision for the lodge’s interior, and it was here that the Timberline Lodge would depart from a building that was merely architecturally impressive to a living example of all that workers for the WPA could do. The vision was Margery Hoffman Smith’s, a Portland interior designer who was being paid as a consultant on the project, and she shared it with Hopkins during his inspection trip. Such a majestic building should have an interior to match, she said. Already, plans had been laid to include pioneer and Indian motifs, murals and framed pictures, wood carvings and wrought iron work, but Smith wanted to go further. She wanted to commission rugs, draperies, bedspreads, and furniture. All this could be done with the skills at the WPA’s disposal; she wanted to have weavers make the drapery and furniture upholstery fabrics out of Oregon linen and Oregon wool and Oregon rawhide. She wanted hooked rugs made from the upholstery scraps. She wanted hand-crafted chandeliers and lamps of wrought iron, and lampshades of animal hides. All this, she told Hopkins, not only would employ countless WPA art and craft workers but would make paying guests want to visit Timberline.
Hopkins was impressed with Hoffman Smith’s ideas, and he agreed to fund them. In October, when he was back in Washington, the WPA sent word that it had expanded the Timberline budget by $39,000 for furnishings, accessories, and additional decorations. Hoffman Smith, who was soon to be named assistant director of Oregon’s WPA art program, started setting up weaving and other craft workshops in Portland, and contacted blacksmiths to discuss metalwork designs.
Now, in late November, the push to enclose the lodge before the snows was picking up pace. Among the workers toiling to get the job done was a small, unassuming laborer named Henry Moar. He had been assigned to the project on Mount Hood five months earlier, and by then he was already a veteran of the WPA.
He had been a single man living with his mother and trying to support them both without much luck when the agency first started hiring in Portland. Once he qualified, he shuttled among various WPA projects around the city, working on one until it closed and then being directed to the next. By late 1935, more than 7,000 workers were spread out among sites marked by the now familiar WPA signs. Most, like Moar, were doing road or street work, landscaping in the city parks, or making improvements at the commercial harbor along the Willamette River north of downtown. Hundreds more were working out of camps west of the city on the Wilson and Wolf Creek highways, clearing timber and blasting rock for two new roads mapped through the Tillamook Burn, a 240,000-acre swath of Douglas fir, spruce, cedar, and hemlock forest that had been burned by wildfire three years earlier. The roads would take Portlanders to Tillamook on the Pacific coast and save them hours of travel. There were even twenty women learning to make furniture in a WPA adult education class that Moar read about one Sunday in the Oregonian. Given all this work going on all over the Portland area, he was surprised to be assigned to Mount Hood.
Moar was twenty-seven years old at the time, and he had just gotten married. Unlike the day jobs in and around Portland, working on the mountain meant that he’d be gone at least a week at a time. This pained him as a newlywed, but one of the conditions of working for the WPA was that you took the job you were assigned. So when the time came, he reported to a pickup point, a cardboard suitcase stuffed with work clothes in hand, and boarded a bus headed to the camp at Summit Meadow.
The camp was fully functioning by the time of Moar’s arrival. It was a civilian version of an army camp, with sleeping tents laid out in a grid, a central mustering area, a large mess tent, latrines, and showers. Each of the sleeping tents, set off the ground on timber pallets, had cots for eight men, a woodstove for warmth, and a barrel filled with firewood to feed the stove. A flagpole rose over the mustering area where the men assembled for their work assignments, and the flag was raised each morning and lowered every night. Doctors and male nurses formed a medical staff, guards and watchmen acted as a police force, engineers kept the heating, water, and cooking systems running, and a full kitchen was staffed with cooks, dishwashers, waiters, butchers, and a produce man. Forest Service and construction supervisors lived at the camp along with the workers.
There were several potential work assignments. Not every person on the mountain was working on the lodge. There was an all-weather road to be built from Government Camp to the lodge site, so men were grading, piling rock abutments into place, and building stone retaining walls. Others were dispatched to cut firewood and timber, which was loaded aboard trucks and hauled to lots for storage or to an on-site sawmill for ripping into boards and beams and finishing. Some cleared trails, worked in nearby gravel pits, or assembled machinery. Still others hewed great stones for the lodge exterior from a quarry above Government Camp. Moar, however, was sent up the mountain to work as a helper on the lodge.
Being a helper meant doing whatever he was told. Sometimes it meant pouring concrete. Sometimes it meant packing lumber, carrying two-by-fours from a storage lot to the carpenters framing the lodge. Moar was barely five feet tall, but if he tried to get by carrying one bundle, the construction boss told him to carry two. He and the other workers quickly learned that the building would have to be roofed and enclosed before the snow fell.
The first weekend came, and with it, a break in the work schedule. Some of the men stayed in camp, using the break for hunting and fishing, or hiking on the mountain. Moar had always wanted to climb Mount Hood, but instead he went home to his young wife. At the end of the second week, Moar and his crew of laborers and tradesmen boarded buses for home while a new group of workers arrived. They would put in two weeks; then the first crew, with Moar, would return for another two-week shift. Rotating the crews was a way of limiting the men to eighty-hour months, the WPA’s practice since the union strikes of the year before. It increased the number of jobs provided and took a bigger bite out of the relief rolls.
Albert Altorfer, the chef, saw to it that the men ate well when they were on the mountain. “Three times a day the men were fed, and they were fed real good,” he recalled later. The menu was typical of WPA construction camps, chosen to fuel a hard day’s work: for breakfast, hot or cold cereal, fried ham, bacon or sausage, potatoes, eggs or omelets, and hotcakes or French toast, plus a selection of fresh or canned fruit; for supper, a salad, a main course of beef or fish, with mashed or fried potatoes and two vegetables, usually beans or peas or corn, and for dessert bread pudding or Jell-O plus cake and cookies. They had their choice of milk, coffee, or tea, and there were always jelly and peanut butter and garnishes such as pickles and radishes on the tables. The food was served homestyle, and it kept coming as long as the men called for it. “There was no such thing as, ‘There ain’t no more,’” said Altorfer. When the evening meal was over, the kitchen crew formed a production line to make sandwiches for the next day. One man laid out slices of bread, the next brushed them with butter, the next put on a piece of lettuce, the next added cheese or ham. A fifth man added another piece of lettuce and the top piece of bread, then wrapped the completed sandwich and stuffed it in a lunch sack. Each sack contained two sandwiches, plus an apple or a pear. Crews in the field also carried the day’s soup in farmers’ milk cans. All this cost the workers 21 cents a meal. The money was deducted from their pay.
As fall deepened, the temperature kept dropping but the snow held off. By the end of November, the two wings had been roofed but the headhouse roof was incomplete. It had to incorporate the huge stone chimney rising from the central fireplace below, and the stonemasons were behind schedule. A huge gin pole—so tall that a man on the floor had to use a megaphone to talk to a man working on the top—held up the roof until massive ponderosa pine logs were lodged into notches at the support points. Finally, carpenters built a wood shelter over the apex of the roof so the chimney could be completed after the snow fell.
Henry Moar had moved inside and shifted jobs. From a wood hauler, he now became a helper in the team working under chief blacksmith Orion B. Dawson. The man he worked for handed him a ten-pound hammer. It wasn’t the easy job he had hoped for, but it was inside and out of the cold, and soon he was shaping white-hot iron train rails into andirons for the headhouse fireplaces. The andirons matched the heroic scale of the rest of the lodge’s furnishings, so as not to be dwarfed by their oversized surroundings. The fireplace openings yawned five feet wide and six feet high at their peak. The andirons—rails stripped of their flanges and hammered into spirals for the upright portions, with the intact rails forming the firelog supports—measured twenty inches high by five and a half and six feet deep. Moving them was just about impossible, since the rails weighed ninety pounds for every foot of length.
The same visual trick had been applied by the architects when they designed the lodge’s exterior: to reduce the appearance of mass amid the small, slow-growing firs and rock outcroppings at the timberline, they had made the building’s components larger, calling for massive foundation stones and doubling the distance between the vertical battens above. The style was known as “Cascadian,” denoting an American version of European alpine architecture that blended with the natural beauty of the site without overwhelming it.
By December, every day was a race against the deteriorating weather. Two concrete reservoirs fed by the Salmon River formed the lodge’s water supply system. Concrete for the second reservoir was poured in subfreezing weather, and Ward Gano, a Forest Service structural engineer, manned a fire all night long to keep it from freezing and cracking before it could set. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds drove grainy “tapioca” snow into a worker’s face until he choked and almost died before William Wechner, the project supervisor, dragged him into a shed and covered his face with a sweater so he could draw a breath. Diesel generators supplied heat to keep the pipes between the reservoirs and lodge from freezing and bursting. Two diesel engines fired steam boilers to heat the lodge itself. The stonemasons got the worst of the increasing cold as they fit stones into the outside walls and the snow-protected arch leading to the main entrance, a job that required the constant adjustment of a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces weighed hundreds of pounds each. Eventually the masons set up around small stoves to keep their hands from freezing while they worked.
Down at Summit Meadow, Chef Altorfer began to plan his Christmas meal. The men raised wood roofs over the tents against the weight of the coming snow. The cookhouse crew created decorations, toilet paper streamers and puffs made out of colored-tissue fruit wrappings, all glued together with flour paste. They assembled a cardboard fireplace and placed real wood inside. They set up a Christmas tree, strung with garlands of popcorn and cranberries and ornamented with knives and forks and spoons. A group of children arrived from Portland to sing Christmas carols. A young woman accompanied them on the violin. She played wonderfully, and in her skill revealed yet another of those twists of the depression—lessons paid for by a wealthy father who lost everything after the crash and who now was one of the WPA laborers working on the lodge, living at the camp and, at that moment, listening to his daughter play. Altorfer watched him and saw tears coursing down his face. “Mine, too,” he would recall much later. “It was really beautiful.”
By then the snow was falling steadily, but the lodge was safely roofed. The workers moved into its shelter as the drifts rose against the outside walls, and attention turned to the interior art and craftsmanship that would make Timberline a virtual catalogue of the WPA’s own wide-ranging virtuosity.