“W. A.”. . .“Beck”. . . “Warren.” W. A. Bechtel responded to a number of nick-names over the years. But the one that really stuck was “Dad.” His wife, Clara, bestowed the name on him when their first child, Warren Jr., was born in 1898. Soon fellow workers at construction sites began calling him Dad, too. The name was appropriate. Dad was a natural leader, a reliable father figure who was known even in construction camps as a good provider.
Warren A. Bechtel was born on September 12, 1872, the first of Elizabeth and John Moyer Bechtel’s six children. He was raised on the edge of the frontier in Freeport, Illinois, on a farm 25 miles east of the Mississippi. When he was 12, the family moved to Peabody, Kansas, where they ran another farm as well as a grocery store.
Warren was a restless, energetic teenager who found time for school, farm and store chores, and the slide trombone. After graduation, he had a brief fling as a traveling musician, but realized that he couldn’t make a living with his trombone.
In the spring of 1898, Warren was 25, Clara was pregnant, and his cattle ranch was nearly bankrupt. He heard that the railroads in Oklahoma would pay a man with his own team $2.75 a day to grade track beds. The man who would break new ground in construction techniques was for the moment content to break the prairie to put bread on the table. Warren and his wife left Kansas for the open, undeveloped plains of what was called Oklahoma Territory with only a pair of mules, the last assets from the ranch.
In Oklahoma, he found his life’s work. The stint on the railroad led to every kind of construction project, from snowsheds to pipelines to Hoover Dam, and to the global company that bears his name. Yet the essence of Warren Bechtel was that he loved the physical labor of construction, and long after he had to, he would take a turn with a scraper. “He used to climb up on a steam shovel and load a couple cars, enjoying every minute of it,” recalled a coworker. “W. A. came right up from the grass.” A self-taught student of engineering and business, he never stopped learning. “I’ve always thought good engineers are born, not made,” said A. J. Barkley, one of his early supervisors. “They must have a knack for it. Beck is what I’ve always thought an engineer should be—a man who understands what is to be done, knows how to do it, and finishes the job economically.”
From 1898 to 1906, Dad chased the railroads west, working on the network of branch lines threading through the region. At each job—gang foreman, estimator, gravel pit manager, superintendent—Dad would add to his growing collection of skills.
As the wife of an itinerant construction manager, Clara Bechtel developed her own skills. In the early days, Dad’s jobs sometimes took them to the ends of civilization. Although raised in a well-to-do family, she delighted in discovering that she could fashion a home just about anywhere, even in a railroad camp tent or a converted boxcar.
The family was quite comfortably ensconced in Oakland, California, in 1906 when Dad made his first venture toward independence. With a partner, George S. Colley Sr.—a coworker and friend—and a rented steam shovel, he took a subcontract on a Western Pacific Railroad project. The job made only a small profit, but Dad made two important resolutions. The first was that he would always use the most modern equipment and techniques available, a decision of critical importance. The second was that, whenever possible, he would collaborate with others; he would find and work with many partners over the years.
By 1912, Bechtel had assembled a team that included his brother, Art, and George Colley Sr. Together, they completed three small subcontracts and then their first big job, a 106-mile link for the Northwestern Pacific Railroad through the Eel River Canyon, which was completed in 1914.
Dad wanted Bechtel to be a family company and relished the prospect of handing the company over to his sons. Warren Jr., Steve, and Ken (along with sister Alice) grew up watching their father build railroads from 1906 through 1917. All three boys attended the University of California at Berkeley, but each left before graduating to join their father, because, as Steve put it, “Dad needed us in the business.”
In the 1920s, construction became a different business because of the postwar boom fed by increases in electric capacity and automobile ownership. Bechtel shifted with the times. In 1919, Dad received his first federal highway contract, and it was quickly followed by other highway jobs. In 1921, he built the Caribou Water Tunnel in the Sierra Nevada, his first work for a power utility. The Bechtel boys played an increasing role in managing these and other projects, to the point that when Dad formally incorporated W. A. Bechtel Co. in 1925, he made his sons and his brother ,Art, officers in the corporation. The next year would mark another first: construction of Bowman Dam, at the time the world’s second-largest rock-filled dam.
Although successful, Dad had longed to make the company a player on the national scene. In 1931, he got his chance; as part of Six Companies, Inc., a consortium of contractors, Bechtel was involved in the largest civil engineering project in history, Hoover Dam.
Early in 1933, Bechtel participated in the creation of Bridge Builders, Inc., constructors of the piers supporting the eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Later that year, with construction of Hoover Dam moving along at a brisk pace, Dad and Clara accepted an invitation from the Soviets to visit their country. Dad died suddenly on August 28, while in Moscow. He left behind a portfolio of awe-inspiring work. But the most enduring monument Dad Bechtel built was not a dam or a railroad; it was the ideals embodied in the family firm that would bear his name into the next century.