Jack Belyea’s truck company became world famous for hauling gargantuan objects. In 1930, he and his brothers transported a 110-foot, 115-ton kiln 26 miles, then lowered it down a 20-percent grade with winches. They moved yachts, 148-foot girders, even lifted a small locomotive out of a canyon. Ads boasted they would “tackle anything, from a building to a whale” (true: they shipped an orca, beached near Malibu, to a landfill). Unlike his advertising, Belyea downplayed bravado. He’d look disbelieving clients in the eye and ask, “Where you want it?”
In November 1947, Belyea signed for the most fragile package he would ever handle. The over-width load required a police escort and an intense, foot-by-foot inspection of the 160-mile route. Engineers stress-tested and shored up bridges. Workers filled in embankments over culverts. San Diego County built a road, S6, specifically for the event. Belyea warned his crew, “The eyes of the world are on us for this job. There can be no mistakes.”
Belyea Truck Company/Pacific Crane and Rigging, Inc. would transport the “Giant Eye” — a 200-inch Pyrex mirror — from Caltech in Pasadena to Palomar Observatory, where it would open up the heavens as part of the world’s largest telescope. His would be the last, crucial leg in a journey decades in the making.
In 1928, George Ellery Hale, the great astronomer and one of the 20th Century’s most effective administrators, wrote of a telescope twice the size of any in existence. The 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mt. Wilson had been in service for nine years. A 200-inch, Hale promised, “would give us four times as much light” and could explore unknown “island universes.” Advances in heat-resistant glass, combined with the latest discoveries in astrophysics, made the time right.
But the immense scope daunted even the daring. To cast a huge blank of glass without a single air bubble, grind it to two-millionths of an inch, build an observatory, and transport the mirror to its home all sounded too visionary at the time. Everyone involved had to perform at their very best with no weak links and, writes Ronald Florence, the project required “an unprecedented cooperation between academics, industry, and government.”
Sunday, November 16, 1947
Owing to bad weather, the journey began not on November 12, as scheduled, but four days later. Belyea’s company rolled a Fruehauf “jeep” — a dolly trailer with 16 balloon-tires — into the optical shop at Caltech. The jeep was the company’s bread and butter. Pulled by a 10-wheel, diesel tractor-truck, and joined to a double goose-neck semi-trailer with another 16 wheels, the unit had 42 wheels. This was the automotive flatcar, which could distribute a load over 79 feet of pavement, that had earlier hauled the whale to a landfill — and a high-tension power-line tower, without shutting off the voltage.
Belyea had welded five red, 12-inch I-beams to the trailer, making it almost 20 feet wide. Since entering the optical shop required an awkward, 90-degree turn, Belyea’s men disconnected the trailer from the tractor and rolled it through a 24-foot opening.
Inside, the optical shop gleamed like sunshine. Near-blinding Kleig lights had been a constant since the mirror arrived by train from the Corning Glass Works, in upstate New York, on April 10, 1936. The light was so intense because the disk, writes David O. Woodbury, had to be “anatomically clean.” The 120-square-foot space became one of the world’s most compulsively scrubbed shops.
Across from the large door, a 20-foot circle wrapped in plain brown paper stood vertically: the mirror and the cell, underneath, that would join it to the telescope. Cushions of asbestos and foam rubber protected the mirror from the metallic casing. A layer of aluminum foil, added later, would protect it from heat.
When unwrapped, the mirror could pass for a flying saucer with a hole in the center. The top side, a milky yellow-green, shone bright. The underside looked like a giant bagel made of Swiss cheese. Ribbing, connected for structural strength, honeycombed the bottom.
Starlight, a billion light years from earth, would pass through the hole in the center.
Calling the disk a “Giant Eye” was a misnomer. It was neither an eye nor a lens, writes Ronald Florence. It reflected light, like a looking glass. Workers at the optical shop ground and polished the mirror from 1936 to the beginning of World War II. The process was so painstaking, to many it seemed infinite. They resumed again in 1946. On October 3, 1947, Caltech announced that “The most daring optical job ever attempted by man was finished today — polishing the giant 200-inch telescope mirror for the Palomar Mountain Observatory.”
The announcement was premature. When the movers arrived at Caltech, the disk had yet to reach its exact parabolic surface.
But Belyea’s crew knew none of this. In fact, outside the Caltech staff, very few people involved in the move ever saw the actual disk. They just knew that if they broke this mirror, seven years of bad luck would be a gift. As an engineer whispered to an L.A. Times reporter, “What will happen to anyone upsetting this little applecart should have happened to Hitler.”
The first step: a worker, dressed in white, pulled levers, and a giant crane slowly lifted the mirror and its cell, which weighed almost 40 tons. The large circle floated across the room — like a UFO in a paper bag — in extreme slow motion. The crane set it down, almost imperceptibly, on the trailer bed. For the next 45 minutes, workers adjusted the disk, gave it sponge-rubber supports, and bolted everything tight.
The crane lowered a five-ton packing crate — 20 feet square, eight feet deep — over the mirror. Painted battleship gray, the thin plywood box took an hour to fasten in place. The combined weight of the mirror, cell, crate, and trailer was 60 tons.
Bruce Rule, the project engineer, had placed “acceleration pickup” instruments inside. Made of radio crystal, these would measure the slightest bump. During the estimated two-day trek to Palomar, which would begin on Tuesday, Rule would ride shotgun in the tractor-truck, monitoring the vibration gauges and telling the driver when to adjust the speed. If at any point the jostling became too great, Rule would order the caravan to turn back.
Monday, November 17, 1947
On Sunday, the giant looking glass moved 45 feet, from one side of the shop to the other. On Monday, it moved a little over 100, which took several hours and required one of the most difficult maneuvers of all: exit the shop.
Belyea’s crew had some trouble rolling the trailer under a 25-foot arch, off California Street, and making a 90-degree right turn through the door and into the shop. But moving the packing case back outside, with the “world’s most expensive mirror,” was another matter.
The load was now 20 feet wide, the opening 24 feet. Jutting it through at a 90-degree angle gave the movers only ¾ of an inch clearance on each side.
They began in the morning. Bruce Rule and Marcus Brown, head of the optical shop, tested the vibration gauges. During the move, they monitored them so closely they rarely looked up.
Twelve riggers operated pneumatic jacks and wooden rollers. Others fixed steel cables, linked to a huge, black power crane, to the trailer. Shouts and hand signals were constants: a miniscule finger-wave, creep a hair forward; open palm, stop; reverse wave, angle a fraction of an inch back; open palm. The intricate squeeze — which looked to one observer like “trying to take a ship out of a bottle” — took over three hours, the eyes of Caltech engineers and students inspecting every step.
Once outside, the crew jockeyed the trailer down a ramp. Then Lloyd Green, Belyea’s master driver for the last 25 years, maneuvered his huge truck, wrote the L.A. Times, “as if it were a baby carriage.” He backed into a “perfect coupling with the dolly.” The process concluded at 2:30 p.m.
Armed guards, standing at attention around the unit, kept sightseers across the street. As in so many other areas, the project’s planners took no chances. When Corning Glass Works poured the original — on Sunday, March 25, 1934 — a preacher said it would fail because “God will not approve such a use of the Sabbath” (the first casting did fail; but Corning’s second attempt in December succeeded). In the 13 years after the pouring, Caltech received letters and crank phone calls threatening to sabotage the “Satanic” project: the telescope would reveal the mysteries of God’s universe. Religious protestors posed more of a threat than economic strikers, writes Ronald Florence, because “police couldn’t be expected to show the same eagerness for scuffles with men and women of the cloth that they demonstrated against the unions.”
Later that afternoon, Jack Belyea met with Sergeant Martin of the Highway Patrol and John A. Anderson, the overall head, and unsung hero, of the project. The 71-year-old, soft-spoken Anderson became chairman of the construction committee and executive officer of the observatory council when George Ellery Hale died in 1938. He had an astronomer’s eye for the details inside of details.
The three men went over the revised route to Palomar. They had rejected the shortest way — 130 miles from Pasadena through Lake Elsinore to the mountain — because it had too many bridges and congested thoroughfares. The chosen route, down Highway 101 to Carlsbad, then east on State Route 78 to Escondido, added 30 miles but had fewer snags and better paved, more level roads.
Since the crate was twice as wide as a 10-foot highway lane, Belyea obtained permits from every town and city along the way. To eliminate inevitable traffic hazards — and potential saboteurs — Caltech asked newspapers, radio stations, and wire services not to announce the date of the move. In return, Bruce Rule issued 75 windshield pass cards to the media.
Anderson timed the trek down to the minute: leave at 3:30 a.m. After moving 1.8 miles from California Street (via Santa Anita and Lombardy Road, between 2 and 12 miles an hour) to San Gabriel Boulevard, they would perform load tests. Four miles from San Gabriel to Valley Boulevard at 8 mph, and so on. If all went well, the caravan would travel 126.7 miles — at 9 mph — and arrive in Escondido at 6:00 p.m. for an overnight stop. Officials would rope off a city block at the Charlotte Inn. where the crew would spend the night, if all went according to plan.
For the second day, Anderson’s timetable reads: “Escondido via Valley Center Road to Rincon, Rincon to Palomar Junction, Palomar Junction to Palomar Mountain.” They would arrive at the Junction at 10:00 a.m., wind up S6 (called the “Highway to the Stars”), and reach the Crest Line by 1:00 p.m. Anderson gave them another 90 minutes to travel the next 4.8 miles to the observatory.
For the last leg, a second Sterling tractor, identical to the first, would follow behind the “jeep” and push it up the seven percent grades. A third truck, also a Cummins-powered Sterling, would trail behind, hauling supplies, rigging, tools, and large black cans of diesel, since the trucks averaged three miles to a gallon and had to be refueled on the move. The third truck would also aid in pushing.
Lloyd Green would drive the lead truck. Since the caravan had to be in constant motion, when he took a break, Green would open the cab door and “Pony Express” with Earl Winston. A Belyea veteran like Green, Winston would slide over him and take the controls.
Along with the worry that any stark bump could abort the mission, Anderson and Belyea paid special attention to the last 12 miles. Originally called the Trujillo Trail, the road was constructed in the mid-’30s especially for the move. Since workers were hard to find for such a task, even in the Depression, the county ordered a gang of convicts to widen and pave the road.
“It was a strange crew,” writes David O. Woodbury, “for the convicts had come from an alimony jail. Some of them had never seen a shovel.”
When they completed the job, Byron Hill, onsite director of construction at the observatory and admitted perfectionist, hired his own crew and shored up the “highway.” Even so, the new road had 72 curves. Unlike today, it was about half as wide and had no barriers protecting motorists from 1000-foot drops. On some horseshoe turns, moving the mirror would resemble inching out of the optical shop.
Weather permitting, that is. ■
Next time: The Slow Adventure.
— Jeff Smith
- Ronald Florence: “From our vantage point,  years later, it is hard to imagine the challenge the undertaking represented.”
- David O. Woodbury: “It began as one man’s dream, but it finishes as the culmination of a thousand arts and inventions and the finest instrument that science and engineering can devise.”
- Jack Belyea: “Everybody seemed to be interested in this movement.”
Belyea, Jack, “Wheels of Progress,” interoffice communication, Belyea Truck Co., November 20, 1947, ms. Palomar Observatory archives.
Bolton, Nancy R., “Press Pilgrimage to Palomar,” Sky and Telescope (Jan., 1948).
Florence, Ronald, The Perfect Machine, New York, 1994.
Hale, George Ellery, “The Possibilities of Large Telescopes,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, April, 1928.
Leonard, A. S., “Cummins Dependable Diesels Haul The 200 Inch Mirror to Palomar Observatory,” ms. Palomar Observatory archives.
Richardson, Robert S., “The 200-Inch Mirror Goes to Palomar Mountain,” unpublished ms, Astrophysics Library, California Institute of Technology.
Wood, Catherine M., Palomar: From Teepee to Telescope, San Diego, 2008.
Woodbury, David O., The Giant Glass of Palomar, New York, 1939.
Articles in various newspapers.