Shasta Dam Conveyor Belt - A Mix of Marvel and Mettle
By Brandi Barnett
Moving MountainsNovember 2015
By Laura Christman
A 36-inch-wide, six-ply band of rubbery material spanned nearly 10 miles of Shasta County in the 1940s. It hummed along for four years, bringing sand and gravel to build Shasta Dam.
“The world’s largest conveyor belt,” boasted signs at road crossings.
It was a mix of marvel and mettle. Columbia Construction Company’s curious contraption went from Redding to Coram, an old mining town about a mile away from where Shasta Dam now stands. The beltline crossed Sacramento River twice and spanned Highway 99.
The rubber railroad, as Goodyear Rubber Company called it, left its mark on local history and landscape. Spilled river rock, chip-sealed chunks of road and rusty footings remain along the 75-year-old route. Piers for the bridge that lifted it over the river can be spotted from the Sundial Bridge. Beltline Road carries its name. And the Monolith at Turtle Bay Exploration Park is the skeletal remnants of the aggregate plant that fed it.
Tami Corn, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation tour supervisor at Shasta Dam, says some visitors are surprised to learn of the conveyor belt. “They are often amazed when they look at the terrain to think of a 9.6-mile belt coming over the hillside like that.”
The old route transects the Flanagan Road property of Shasta Lake Mayor Greg Watkins. As a teen, he rode his motorized Whizzer bicycle along sections. He and a friend hiked most of the route in 1962 while working on a Boy Scout badge. Watkins, 70, continues to explore the beltline’s rutted roads and paths.
“I think everybody sort of knows about it, but I don’t think they’ve spent much time to acquaint themselves with it,” Watkins says. “It was an engineering feat we couldn’t do today because of environmental regulations and nonsense. Back then, men could move mountains.”
The audacity of industrialist Henry Kaiser made the beltline a reality. Kaiser had the contract to provide aggregate for the dam. The Kutras tract on a cobble-rich bend of the Sacramento River in central Redding was selected as the extraction/processing location. It was 10
miles south of the construction site and Southern Pacific Railroad expected to do the hauling. The railroad began outfitting cars and hiring men.
“They thought it was a given,” Corn says.
Kaiser, however, didn’t like SP’s price. He opted to go the distance with a band of belt. The proposition was challenging and far from cheap. A 1940 story in the Redding Record reported the system’s price at $1.5 million.
But it worked out for Kaiser. When the beltline’s work was done, it was dismantled and sold (reportedly to Kimberley Diamond Company in South Africa).
“He made money on the belt,” Corn says.
The beltline was actually 26 individual conveyor belts. Called flights, the longest was two-thirds of a mile. A transfer station at the end of a flight dropped aggregate onto the next. A 200-horsepower motor powered each flight, except for three downhill sections where slope and weight of materials moved the belts. Support was a wooden trestle ranging from 4 feet to 90 feet in height. A smaller 14-flight system was built by Pacific Constructors to take materials about a mile from the Coram stockpiles to the concrete plant at the construction site.
The big belt’s first day of duty was May 6, 1940. A load of pea gravel left Redding shortly before 8:30 am and arrived in Coram an hour and 40 minutes later.
“Noise of gravel dropping echoes in canyon,” reported the Redding Record.
Within a couple weeks, spongy material was being installed in chutes to keep larger rocks from breaking as they tumbled from one belt to the next, the newspaper reported. Uniformity in materials was important for the dam builders. The belt transported four sizes of rock plus sand. At times it ran through the night.
Jack Powell, 86, of Summit City, remembers the belt well. It moved along on rollers, outside ones angled to curve the belt and help prevent materials from spilling.
“They were like rolling pins, one angled on each side and a big one across the bottom,” he says. “It made a lot of noise. Kind of a coarse hum.”
Signs warned: “Danger. No trespassing.” That didn’t stop Powell from taking a few rides on sand loads as a kid. “It ran rather slow,” Powell says. “There was a little walkway. I’d stand on that, grab the crossbar and lie down … It was fun.”
Also dangerous. He stopped riding after his father learned what he was doing.
The late Jack Trapp’s childhood memories of riding the belt are in Shasta Lake Heritage and Historical Society’s 2014 book, “Those Dam Kids.”
“We would have to get on and off at transfer stations, and usually got off at Flanagan Ranch before the beltline crossed the Sacramento River,” Trapp recalled.
The belt transported 12.2 million tons of materials. Final delivery was summer 1944. A Goodyear advertisement bragged of the line’s accomplishments, quoting Kaiser: “It handled greater tonnage than anticipated, yet we had no trouble, and not a single belt had to
Additional sources: “Shasta Dam and its Builders,” by Pacific Constructors; California Highway and Public Works journal, February 1940; Record Searchlight and Courier-Free Press, March 10, 1940