Harry J. Hagen, The Life

My grandfather’s gamble to dry out his Tuberculosis in the Arizona desert paid off with the promise of a new future. Grandpa was an amazing civil engineer. Arizona became the last contiguous state to achieve statehood in 1912. Arizona is 113,000 sprawling square miles of immense rugged beauty. Opportunity was as wide and wild as America itself. Grandpa went to work for the state of Arizona surveying mapping and measuring this immense land. My childhood was entertained with stories of my grandfather lighting signal fires to survey straight lines over great distances. Grandpa set some of the original boundaries for the initial counties of this new state.
My grandpa was a fabulous story teller. For the last decade of his life my grandfather’s whole left side was paralyzed with a major stroke. Grandpa had a sharp wit, and a great sense of humor. Every word was a struggle of a sharp mind fighting against a feeble body. One of his great stories from this timeframe was that while he was surveying in the desert he met a Mexican woman. She suggested that they go skinny dipping in a local river. Grandpa said that he didn’t because he was too scared. He would look up with a twinkle in his eye and say in a strained voice, “That was the worst mistake I ever made.” It makes me wonder if he was a little braver if I might have an anonymous third cousin, name Jorge Hagen.
It was during this time that he met a young school teacher, the daughter of a local rancher. Grandma describes their honeymoon as driving in a car sleeping on the road and taking baths in a ditch. From their wedding day Grandpa was always in a big adventure or gamble. Grandma was always along for the ride.
Somewhere around this time Grandpa persuaded an investor to take a gamble on him. He bid on a road job in Idaho. Grandpa bought five rock trucks and a steam shovel and put in a section of a new road at Cougar Creek, Idaho. Idaho has steep canyons, and through much of the year the clouds hang over the mountain tops. I have experienced this phenomenon in Alaska. The feeling is like you are in some massive tunnel where the sun never shines. This job was indicative of much of their future life. They would be camping for months at a time in harsh weather. It was always a push to get my dad to take us camping. Dad would say that he was forced to camp for much of his childhood, and it wasn’t something he cared to do. Grandma used to tell about the Cougar Creek job with tears in her eyes. My uncle was about a year and a half old when the sun managed to peek through the clouds, and shine a sunbeam through a crack in the tent. Uncle Hal reached down to pick up the sunbeam, and Grandma said, “I cried and cried because he was a year and a half old and he had never seen the sun.” Grandpa finished the job and paid off his investor. A year later he bid the next section of the road with a clear title on his equipment.
Grandpa and Grandma went back to Arizona, somewhere near Safford, Arizona my dad was born in 1930. Grandpa survived in a business that drove most into bankruptcy at some time or another. The nature of the business is that you would bid on work with incredible unknowns. You had to be the lowest bidder to get the job. You could overlook the density of the rock that you had to dynamite out of a cut, or miscalculate the volume of an area you had to fill, and work for months only to be deep in debt. Grandpa actually bid work and made money during the Great Depression. I still remember as a kid being able to go out to a road job and watch the clouds of rock flying out of a dynamite shot. Every year we would go back to Arizona after we moved away, I would go into the office of the construction company and get a new hard hat. I would get a Dymo label maker, and put my name along with the company logo stickers. It was great to be in the third generation of the Hagen Construction Company.
Grandpa was a master at finding a good trick to do a job quickly. On one of his big jobs in Salt River Canyon, he had to build a switchback road with several cuts and fill up the side of the hill. Grandpa made a plywood chute from cut sites up the hill and washed the fill down with a pump from the river. He saved several days of work with rock trucks and steam shovels on the job, and turned a handsome profit. In my business I often look for a Harry J. Hagen trick to give me an edge. I see this in my sons as well.
A quick synopsis of some of Grandpa’s accomplishments other than being my grandfather includes the following achievements. He built the Arizona approach road to the Hoover Dam. He put in access roads and fencing around 100 miles of a munitions dump during World War II. He paved the city streets in Flagstaff Arizona. He built several bridges and roads including one bridge that won an award for the most beautiful steel structure for that year. He owned a ranch for years that was 64 square miles big.
In 2009 I was able to drive my family through Arizona. I am gradually losing my contact with Grandpa’s generation. My dad can’t remember many of the stories. My uncle is hard of hearing and I am not able to sit down and visit about the good old days with him. Grandpa has been gone for 30 years, and his footprints were still on the land and adversity he conquered.
It is my hope that my children will connect with the honor and privilege to be a descendant of a man that embodied the American dream. I tip my hat to a grandparent I deeply loved, Harry J. Hagen.


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