Ellis Armstrong, public works icon, dies

Public works lost one of its icons on January 26, 2001, with the death of Ellis L. Armstrong.

Armstrong was a key participant in many of the most notable public works projects of the 20th Century, including the Aswan Dam, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Interstate Highway System. As Commissioner of both the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, Armstrong made significant contributions to these and numerous other energy, water, and transportation projects. In recognition of his achievements, Armstrong was among the very few engineers ever to be presented with Honorary Membership in four of the major engineering-based societies: Chi Epsilon, the American Society for Civil Engineering, the American Water Works Association, and the American Public Works Association.

Only one day after graduation from Utah State University in 1936, Armstrong went to work for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. For the next 18 years (until 1953), Armstrong worked on the design and construction of 32 dams, many tunnels, powerhouses and water systems in the western U.S. Among the more notable projects Armstrong worked on were the Deer Creek Dam, the Anderson Ranch Dam and the Trenton Dam.

Given his experience and success with the Bureau of Reclamation, Armstrong came to the attention of key people. In 1953 he was recommended to serve as a member of the Egyptian-American Rural Improvement Commission. During his time in Egypt, Armstrong worked on the preliminary plans for the Aswan Dam. His work there ended as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles withdrew the U.S. support for the project because of concerns over Egypt's relations with the Soviet Union.

Armstrong's field experience with large construction projects brought him to the attention of people with the St. Lawrence Seaway Project. From 1953 to 1957 he served as Project Engineer and Deputy Project Manager for consultants in charge of the planning, design, and construction of the U.S. portion of the St. Lawrence Power and Seaway Project.

In 1957 Armstrong became Director of Highways in Utah, virtually the least prepared of all the states in starting Interstate Highway projects. Armstrong reorganized the department, dealt with many difficult issues, and accelerated Utah's highway construction program in a little more than a year and a half, taking Utah from the bottom to the middle of all the states.

Armstrong's achievements brought him national attention, and he became Commissioner of Public Roads in 1958. Between 1958 and 1961, he dealt with some of the most controversial problems of the Interstate Highway-the location of urban routes. He once said that "almost everyone wanted the Interstate, but they wanted it about a mile and a half away." True to his reputation as someone who could get things done, one year after he became Commissioner, the Bureau was moving 20 million cubic yards of earth and rock every day.

From 1961-1962, Armstrong served as President of the Better Highways Information Foundation. The predecessor of the Transportation Information Program (TRIP), the foundation played a key role in convincing Congress to continue with the funding of the Interstate program.

Armstrong soon started what could have been a major consulting engineering firm; however, in 1968 Armstrong returned to the Bureau of Reclamation, as Assistant Regional Director and fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1969-1973. As Commissioner, he moved the Bureau to become more environmentally sensitive and encouraged improvements in hydropower technology and construction.

He accepted Robert D. Bugher's (APWA Executive Director) offer to serve as Chairman of the Public Works Bicentennial Commission. Armstrong took the challenge to help create for the first time anywhere a history of public works in the United States because he believed it was a story the public needed to hear and understand.

A Congressional resolution directed the American Public Works Association to prepare a history of public works. Although this resolution was unfunded, it directed federal agencies to cooperate with APWA in this endeavor. Using this directive, Armstrong was able to get substantive contributions (of historical materials) from many agencies, states and large cities. With Bob Bugher's help, he also worked tirelessly to help raise funds from various firms and individuals. Following a nationwide search, he selected two young historians, Michael C. Robinson and Suellen M. Hoy, to help organize and write the history. With Armstrong as the spokesman and Hoy and Robinson as the historians, the landmark History of Public Works in the United States, 1776-1976 was produced. The book itself helped define public works as a legitimate subject of historical research and publication and the effort also provided the foundation for creating APWA's Public Works Historical Society, for which Armstrong served as its first president

Armstrong wrote and published well over 100 articles and gave literally thousands of public presentations. He served on many professional organizations, including Chairman of the U.S. National Committee of World Energy Conference and President of the International Water Resources Association. In addition to the four Honorary Memberships noted above, Armstrong was selected by APWA as a Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year in 1971. In 1986 he was presented with Honorary Membership in the Public Works Historical Society.

Armstrong combined technical expertise with outstanding communication skills and had the ability to explain complex engineering issues in terms that most citizens could understand. By combining tremendous persistence and dedication to getting the job done with the skills of a negotiator, he was able to gain the confidence of many different kinds of people. Their confidence in him and his competence on technical issues was the formula for his success.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Florine, five children (including Diane who was married to late Michael C. Robinson), 26 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

Contributed by Howard Rosen, Ph.D., Department of Engineering Professional Development, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He can be reached at 608-262-4341.