Soil Testing Companies Background on soil testing companies

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Threadlines of Geotechnical and Engineering Geology firms in the Greater San Francisco Bay-Northern California Area

Compiled by

J. David Rogers and Alan L. Kropp

Posted at

Last edited 4-20-2016
Soil Testing Companies
Background on soil testing companies

Compaction tests using California Test Method 216 had been required for pubic roads since 1929 (see descriptions under “Notable Legislation and Associations that influenced development of the Geotechnical Standard of Practice”), but were not required for private sector work until 1950. Materials and soil testing firms sprang up when California Administrative Code Title 21 (Public Works: Department of Public Works, Architecture, Highways, Toll Bridge Authority) was enacted by the California Legislature in 1950. This required government agencies to mandate materials testing, including soil compaction tests, for public buildings, streets, and trench backfill of buried utilities in public rights-of-way. In the late 1950s several Bay Area agencies also enacted excavation and grading codes, similar to those developed in the Los Angeles Basin (see note on “Adoption of Excavation & Grading ordinances in the Bay Area (1956-65)” below, in section titled “Notable Legislation and Associations that influenced development of the Geotechnical Standard of Practice”).

Pacific Chemical Works (1866-86); Abbot A. Hanks, Inc., Engineers, Assayers, Metallurgists, Chemists, and Soils and Foundations, and Construction Testing (1896-onward): Abbot A. Hanks Testing Laboratory (into the late 1970s)

Abbot A. Hanks, Inc., Engineers, Assayers, Metallurgists, and Chemists, and Soils and Foundations, and Construction Testing was originally founded as the Pacific Chemical Works in 1866 by Henry G. Hanks (1826-1907) in San Francisco. Hanks then served as State Mineralogist, directing the California State Mining Bureau in San Francisco from its establishment in 1880 until 1886, when he re-opened his assaying business. His son Abbot A. Hanks (1869-1939) assumed ownership of the operations in 1896, and changed the firm’s name to Abbot A. Hanks, Chemist, Assayer, and Metallurgist, based at 531 California Street in SF. The company prospered under his guidance, expanding into allied markets, such as materials testing, and in the early 1950s, grew to include soils and foundation testing. During the post-war years the firm was based at 1142 Howard Street in San Francisco. Leonard O. Long, PE (1917-2010) supervising the firm’s soils and foundations work from about 1949 until his departure in 1964 (described under Berlogar-Long, in the Dames & Moore Threadline). John de Becker, PE (1914-2007) joined the firm in 1957, assisting Long in the soil mechanics and testing group, where he remained until affiliating with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in San Bruno in 1969.

Smith-Emery Co. (1904-present); Smith-Emery GeoServices (1972-present)

Smith-Emery Co. was originally founded in 1904 in San Francisco, and began performing inspection and testing of commercial structures, following the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906. The firm gradually developed into a materials testing and construction inspection services operation, with graduate engineers supervising most of the overall activities. The firm now includes three subsidiaries: Smith-Emery-Laboratories, Positive Lab Service, and Smith-Emery GeoServices, established in 1972. The GeoServices arm provides environmental and geotechnical testing and inspection services, employing geotechnical engineers, engineering geologists, and environmental specialists.

In the 1990s Keith Gilliam (formerly of Lee & Praszker) supervised the geotechnical lab in San Francisco. Patrick Morris, PE, Anthony Argyriou, PE, and Miles Grant, CEG (BS Geol ’86 USC) also worked for the San Francisco office in the 1990s. Lutz “Yogi” Kunze, GE was the firm’s principal geotechnical engineer in Los Angeles, who directed the operations of Smith-Emery Geoservices between 1994-2001. James E. Partridge, PE is the current President and Owner, while Partick Morrison, PG is the GeoServices Division Manager.

O.J. Porter & Co. (1942-55); Porter, Urquhart, McCreary & O’Brien (1955-60); Porter, O’Brien & Armstrong (1962-65); Porter, Armstrong, Ripa & Associates (1962-67)

In addition to the original office in Sacramento, branch firms/offices were established in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as overseas field offices, mostly associated with defense contracts. A separate firm, Porter & O’Brien, was incorporated in New Jersey and California in 1952, between Porter and civil engineer Kenneth O’Brien. O’Brien later moved to Los Angeles to manage the branch office of Porter, Urquhart, McCreary & O’Brien in 1952, which became Porter, O’Brien & Armstrong in 1962, and continued operating through 1968.

In the fall of 1955 Porter formed another partnership with Bruce D. McCreary and Ken O’Brien called Porter, Urquhart, McCreary & O’Brien (PUMO), operating offices in Newark, New Jersey, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The Sacramento, LA, and SF offices engaged primarily in west coast public works projects (transportation and water resources). In 1962 Porter brought in Ellis Leroy Armstrong, PE as a partner in Porter, O’Brien & Armstrong incorporated in California, with Porter listed as “managing partner.”

The San Francisco office operated as Porter, O’Brien and Armstrong (POA) between 1962-68. Their work focused primarily on highways, and this office continued operating in San Francisco until about 1965. The Sacramento office operated under the name Porter, O'Brien, Consulting Engineers until February 1966.  That year the name of the Sacramento operation was changed to Porter, Armstrong, Ripa & Associates. Pappy Porter's son, James Porter (1928-1987), was the Vice President of the firm and managed the Sacramento office. On December 18, 1967 Pappy Porter died in Madison, New Jersey. A few months later Jim Kleinfelder purchased the assets of Porter, Armstrong & Ripa’s office in Sacramento. These firms are described in more detail in the Caltrans Threadline, below.

Hersey Inspection Bureau (1946-64)

Around 1946 James H. Dunn, PE established the Hersey Inspection Bureau in Oakland, offering inspection and testing services, mostly in soil and subgrade compaction, pavement and materials testing. One of their first engineers was Barney Vallerga, PE. The business grew to include basic soils and foundation engineering and pavement design.

In April 1958, William F. Jones, PE, along with were Al Gribaldo (BSCE ’49 Berkeley), Alvin Rathbun, and George R. Thenn, Jr., purchased Hersey Inspection Bureau to establish themselves in the East Bay market. Rathbun oversaw the business side of the various testing firms. Shortly afterward, they established a branch office in Concord, managed by Gery Anderson.
Testing & Controls (1954-75)

Around 1954 Testing and Controls of Mountain View was founded by L. Cedric Macabee, PE (1903-83), who owned Macabee Engineering in Palo Alto, a firm that specialized in water resources and sanitary engineering in northern California. He hired Albert C. Gribaldo, PE from the California Division of Highways to run this office. Al was a 1949 graduate of Cal Berkeley in civil engineering, who had been working on the construction of the Nimitz Freeway (State Route 17) in the East Bay, and was an expert engineering draftsman. He was assisted by Chuck Sillkock, a surveyor from Macabee Engineering, who supervised the testing lab. The lab included a moist curing room for stoarage of concrete cylinders before testing. The on-call engineers who worked part-time for the firm were Myron Jacobs at Santa Clara University and Jorge Barringa at San Jose State. The soils technicians were John P. Nielsen and Loren Saliday. Nielson was a CE student at San Jose State who departed for graduate school in the fall of 1957, earning his MS at Wyoming and PhD in geotechnical engineering at Colorado before returning to the peninsula in 1961 to work for Al Gribaldo.

Testing and Controls rented space in the building on San Antonio Road in Mountain View owned by Peninsula Laboratories, a full service commercial assay (minerals and petroleum) and testing firm, which also provided medical, chemical, botanical, and pharmacutical testing. In February 1958 William F. Jones, PE (MSCE ‘50 Caltech) resigned his position with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and became a principal at Testing & Controls. In 1959 Alvin A. Rathbun (MBA ’57 Stanford) joined the firm as its business manager and the company moved to larger quarters in a building near Moffett Field.

In 1971, Dan Rhoades, PE was a principal of GJA when he was also named President of Testing & Controls and a branch office was opened in Concord to serve the Contra Costa County market. The other principals were Robert D. Dewell, PE as Vice President and Chief Engineer, Richard L. McKillip as Manager of Business Development, and Donald Peard Kay, PE as Staff Engineer. In 1975 Rhoades departed to start Purcell-Rhoades & Associates in Pleasant Hill, and the Concord office of Testing & Controls was closed.

Peninsula Testing & Controls (1959-69)

Peninsula Testing & Controls was founded by Albert C. Gribaldo and Alvin A. Rathbun, (1922-2011) around 1959. Rathbun had undergraduate degrees from Middlebury College in Vermont and Stanford (Class of 1950). After earning his MBA from Stanford he assumed the role of Secretary-Treasurer of Testing & Controls, Peninsula Testing & Controls, GJJ, and later, the Earth Systems firms. David M. Wilson was the senior engineering geologist with Peninsula Testing & Controls in 1962.

In July 1966 Peninsula Testing and Controls opened up a branch office in Pajaro to oversee the construction observation and testing work they were performing for Cabrillo Community College. This office was managed by Jo K. Crosby, PE and was the first business offering soil mechanics and foundation engineering services in Monterey County.

Stockton Testing & Controls (1961-66)

James H. Kleinfelder, GE received his BSCE degree from U.C. Berkeley in 1954, and worked for the California Division of Highways and the City of Stockton. While working in Stockton as a public works engineer, he experienced difficulty hiring of soils and testing firms based out of Sacramento, who were so busy they weren’t easily available for the testing required by Title 21 in a timely manner. In 1961 Jim and his brother Ed started Stockton Testing & Controls to serve the growing market in San Joaquin County. In 1963 he bought out his brother’s share and established the firm’s first branch office in Merced. Jim also returned to Berkeley to secure a master’s degree in soil mechanics in 1963-64. In 1966 he changed the name of the firm to J.H. Kleinfelder & Associates. In 1968 they purchased the assets of Porter, Armstrong & Ripa in Sacramento, and opend their second branch office. The firm’s history and development is described in more detail below, under the Kleinfelder Threadline.
Geo-Testing, Inc. (1967-77); Earl B. Hall, Inc (1977-93)

Geo-Testing of San Rafael was founded by Dennis Long, PE, who served as Chief Engineer, and Herbert J. Dix, PE (BSCE ‘56; MS ‘59 Northwestern) as a principal engineer, between 1967-77. Dix had been a graduate student of Jorj Osterberg at Northwestern in the late 1950s, where he learned about geotechnical instrumentation. Dix had previously worked for Woodward Clyde and Porter, O’Brien & Armstrong. From June 1977 onward Dix continued geotechnical instrumentation work through Earl B. Hall, Inc. of San Rafael while also working for VHS Associates, Construction Management Services (profiled below). In 1988 Charles C. Swensen, PE (profiled below) assumed ownership of Earl B. Hall., Inc., who provided geotechnical instrumentation services until the firm was dissolved in 1993.

Geolabs-California, Inc. (1968-73); Geolabs-Northern California (1973-80): Geolabs, Inc. (1999 - present)

This branch office evolved from the Geolabs office founded by engineering geologist Sheldon Medall in 1965, in the Los Angeles area. Delmar D. Yoakum, PE (BSCE ’62 Washington; MS ’63 Harvard) was their Principal Engineer who ran the branch office in Palo Alto from 1968 through September 1971, when he went down to Los Angeles to become one of the founding partners of Geosoils in Van Nuys. Frank Berlogar, PE (BSCE ’67 Berkeley) succeeded him as manager of Geolabs office in Palo Alto, until he left to start up Berlogar-Long in 1973. He was succeeded by Peter S.C. Chan, PE, who managed the office, called Geolabs-Northern California, in the 1970s. Chan formed PSC Associates in 1976 (profiled elsewhere).

Soil Services (1972-82); Construction Materials & Testing (CMT) (1982-present)

Soil Services, a materials testing firm, was spun off of Gribaldo, Jacobs & Jones when that firm broke up, around 1972. They operated from an office in San Ramon in the early 1970s, run by Max Gahrahmat, PE (BSCE ’69; MS ’76 SJSU), with their senior soils tech Don Rose.

This operation later moved to Concord and changed its name to Construction Materials & Testing, or CMT. Their largest competitor was Testing Engineers of Oakland, a similar spinoff from Woodward-Clyde, managed by Merlyn Isaak, PE in the early 1970s. Don Rose continued as the principal soils technician.

Soil Foundation Systems, Inc (1972-2002); Geotechnical Testing (1983-2000); Soil Testing (2000-unkn)

Firm founded by Kacey “K. C.” Chong Sohn, GE (1935-2000) in May 1972 and based in Mountain View. In 1983 he founded Geotechnical Testing, based in Santa Clara. In 2000 he appears to have also established Soil Testing, based out of his home in Los Altos, not long before he passed away.

VHS Associates (1974-present)

Firm founded in January 1974 as a civil engineering and construction management company specializing in assessing insurance claims, designing repairs, and managing construction of repairs, as a licensed contractor. They were originally based in San Rafael, and later moving to Novato. Charles C. Swensen, Jr., PE (BSCE ‘76 Cornell) joined the firm in 1980 after serving as a naval officer, and became the firm’s President in January 1999. Herbert J. Dix, GE joined the firm in 1982 and served as Vice President for many years thereafter. VHS provided engineering assessment of damage claims, engineered suitable repairs, and offered construction management serviced for insurance companies. Herb retired and moved to Sunriver, and then Bend, Oregon. Walter K. Weibezahn, PE (BSCE ‘57 Berkeley) joined the firm in 1987 and served as an associate.

Applied Geomechanics (1983-2007; 2011-present)

Founded by Gary R. Holzhausen, PG (BA Geol ’71 UCSC; MS ’73 and PhD ‘77 Stanford) in 1983 and based in Santa Cruz. They specialized in the installation and interpretation of precise tiltmeters, for which Holzhausen holds nine patents. These devices were used to instrument oil wells, nuclear power plants, dams, and slopes. In 2007 the firm was acquired by Pinnacle Technologies and its headquarters moved to San Francisco, and Holzhausen became Senior Advisor. In Feb 2011 the firm was purchased by Carbo Ceramics and Holzhausen returned to AGI as the General Manager, at their SFO office, where he remained until Jan 2013, when he became an independent consultant. The firm maintains branch offices in Denver, Chicago, and Boston.

Insitu Tech (1983-87); VBI Insitu Testing (1987-98)

Founded in April 1983 by D. Michael Holloway, PhD, GE (BSCE ’68; MS ’69, PhD ’75 Duke) and Virgil A. Baker (BSCE ’76 Berkeley) of Woodward-Clyde’s Oakland office, when they purchased a Hogentogler digital cone penetrometer and had it mounted on Bob Lantz’s (RNL Enterprises) CME 750 All Terrain drill rig with balloon tires. They were the first firm to offer CPT services in the San Francisco Bay region. Baker bought Holloway out in late 1987 and operated VBI Insitu Testing for 11 years, out of Oakland, before joining Taber Consultants in Nov 1998. In 2003 he joined Fugro, and since 2011 has served as Director of CPT Services for Fugro Consultants in Oakland.

John Sarmiento & Associates (1990-2001); JSA Cone Petetration Testing (2001-present)

A firm specializing in insitu subsurface testing and sampling, using a Hogentogler digital Cone Penetrometer rig. Founded as an MBE/SBE firm in May 1990 by John Sarmiento, PE (BA Geol SJSU; MSCE Stanford) in Menlo Park, and moving to Orinda, around 2001. Sarmiento formerly worked for the USGS in Menlo Park, where he supervised much of their subsurface site assessment work for the earthquake hazards group, working with Tom Fumal.

Geolabs, Inc. (1996-present)

Geolabs-Hawaii funded the establishment of a separate California Corporation and office in Oakland around 1996, which was incorporated as a separate entity in February 1999. The Oakland office is managed by K. Francis Chan, GE. In the mid-1990s Joseph I-Hung Sun, GE (PhD Civil Eng ’89 Berkeley) operated another branch office in Taipei, Taiwan before accepting a position with PG&E Geosciences Department in San Francisco. The parent firm is based in Honolulu, originally founded by “Bob” Y. K. Wong, PE in 1975, and reorganized in 1991, with Wong retiring in 1997. It is now owned by Clayton S. Mimura, PE.

Reese & Associates (2009-present)

Reese & Associates was founded in June 2009 by Jeffrey K. Reese, PE and Dan J. Figoni (AA CE Tech ’84 Santa Rosa CC) and is based in Santa Rosa. Figoni supervises field operations and laboratory testing services. Their lab is under the direction of Carlos Espana, GE. Their clients have included the City of Santa Rosa, County of Sonoma, University of California, Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College, as well as other municipalities and school districts.

Stanford University Threadline
The Leland Stanford, Jr. University was established in Palo Alto in 1891 by former California Governor and Central Pacific Railroad tycoon Leland Stanford (1824-93) and his wife Jane Lathrop Stanford (1828-1905) in memory of their only son, Leland, Jr., who died of typhoid fever at the age of 15. The university was established as a coeducational and nondenominational institution, and was a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900. This was the organization that championed academic freedom and promoted the concept of faculty tenure. The university was heavily damaged by the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but tuition remained free to all students until the 1930s.

The university is currently organized into seven schools: Humanities, Sciences, and Earth Sciences, as well as professional schools of Business, Education, Engineering, Law, and Medicine. Stanford has always been much smaller and considerably more pastoral than its cross-bay rival, the University of California, Berkeley. The current enrollment is about 7,000 undergraduate and 8,400 graduate students.

Prof. John C. Branner (Stanford faculty 1891-1922)

The geology program at Stanford University dates to the school’s opening in 1891, when John Casper Branner (1850-1922) arrived in Palo Alto to begin teaching. Branner had graduated from Cornell in 1882 and received his Ph.D. in geology from Indiana University in 1885. He taught at the University of Indiana, and then served as Arkansas State Geologist before coming to Stanford.

Upon his arrival in 1891 Branner oversaw the development of the university’s Department of Geology and Mining. He sought to institute a geology curriculum emphasizing the practical application of geology in mining, petroleum, and construction engineering. In 1892 his first faculty appointment was James Perrin Smith (PhD Geol 1892 Gottingen) of the US Geological Survey as a Professor of Paleontology. In the wake of the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake he was appointed to the California Earthquake Investigation Commission. One of Branner’s earliest additions was Austin Flint Rogers (PhD 1902 Columbia) as a professor of mineralogy and petrology in 1905. Branner’s emphasis on practical application led to his selections of C. F. Tolman in 1912 and Bailey Willis in 1915 as key members of the geology faculty (described below). These appointments assured Stanford’s assertive role in developing one of the nation’s finest programs in applied geology, which had an enormous influence on the burgeoning mining and petroleum industries of the early 20th Century in the western United States.

Branner’s technical expertise was sought after more than any other geologist in California during his lifetime, which really predated the era of boards of consultants, which began in the 1920s, after Branner had passed away. His first consultations in engineering geology were as an ad hoc consultant to Los Angeles engineer William Mulholland on the Los Angeles Aqueduct while it was under construction, between 1907-13. He also served as a consultant on a number of major dams, such as the Gibraltar Dam near Santa Barbara in 1915, and to the Spring Valley Water Company of San Francisco, during its decade-long efforts to design the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct and storage system. In 1916 Branner was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and President Woodrow Wilson appointed him as a member of the National Academy panel charged with investigating the enormous landslides affecting the Panama Canal (that panel did not issue their report until 1924). Branner also served as a consultant on the 1918 Calaveras Dam slope failure, dispatching his protégée Hyde Forbes to work on the forensic assessment of the liquefaction failure of the dam’s upstream shell when it was close to being completed.

Professor Branner served as Stanford University’s vice-president from 1898 to 1913, whereupon he became that university’s second president, retiring three years later, in 1916. He died in March 1922. Some of his more notable students included: President Herbert Hoover (BA geology and mining, 1895), Lou Henry (Mrs. Herbert Hoover) (BA geology 1898), UCLA geology Professor William J. Miller (graduate study 1900-02), Stanford Engineering Professor Theodore J. Hoover (BA geology and mining, 1901), pioneer petroleum geologist Harry R. Johnson (BA 1909), Stanford Mining Professor Waldemar F. Dietrich (BA Geology & Mining 1913; EM 1914), California State Geologist Olaf P. Jenkins (BA 1913, MA 1915), California’s first engineering geologist J. Hyde Forbes (BA 1913), and Wayne Loel (BA 1916, MA 1917), a consulting geologist in Los Angeles throughout the 1920s and 30s, who later served as president of Burnoel Petroleum, Winston Copper, and Winston Minerals Corp.

Prof. C. F. Tolman (Stanford faculty 1912-42) economic geologist, hydrologist, and engineering geologist

Cyrus Fisher Tolman (1873-1942) was born in Chicago in June 1873 and attended the University of Chicago, completing his BS in geology in 1896, and completing 2-1/2 years of graduate work and teaching. In 1899 he took a position in the mines of Butte, Montana until 1905, when he joined the University of Arizona as a Professor of Geology and Mining, replacing William P. Blake (who had made the first geological map of southeastern California with the Williamson Survey in 1853-55). He also served as territorial geologist from 1910-12.

In 1912 Tolman joined the faculty at Stanford, where he initially developed a respected program in economic geology. His tenure in Arizona led to a long-term relationship with ASARCO as one of their preeminent consultants, and in 1921 they hired Tolman to supervise teams of geologists who pioneered the use of depositional ore models to search out porphyry copper deposits in Arizona and Mexico. This technique was so successful it became the industry standard for exploration of strategic minerals for the next 75 years.

California’s dependence on water for its economic development led Professor Tolman to become one of the premier figures in the development of hydrogeology. This led to the publication of his authoritative textbook “Ground Water” by McGraw-Hill in 1937. With 593 pages and 189 illustrations, it quickly emerged, in the words of reviewer O.E. Meinzer, as “the most comprehensive textbook on this subject in English” for several decades thereafter, and established Stanford as a leading school for the study of hydrogeology.

Officially a Professor of Economic Geology, Tolman was known as the “Chief” by all the Stanford geology students because of his broad expertise. He taught students in the geology curriculum, those in economic geology, petroleum geology, structural geology, hydrogeology and even in engineering hydrology.

Tolman’s pioneering work included the recognition of “hidden faults,” revealed across California as linear groundwater barriers (the first book he published was “Graphical solutions of fault problems,” published in 1911). Some of the faults discovered in this manner included: the Concord-Green Valley fault systems and the Niles-Irvington [Hayward-Mission] faults in the San Francisco East Bay area. Of particular note was his early work on recognizing the impact of “pressure relief” from overdrafting of water wells with observed ground subsidence, and the hydrologic regimes typical of stratified alluvial fans, mostly in California.

His technical expertise in engineering geology was much sought after in the 1920s and 30s, when he was appointed to numerous consulting and expert review panels, for such projects as the March 1928 St. Francis Dam failure, the 1929 San Gabriel Forks Dam, and the Board of Consulting Engineers to the Los Angeles County Flood Control District (1931-38). Tolman retired from Stanford in June 1938 and died of a heart attack while working on a consulting project under construction in Spokane, Washington during the Second World War, in October 1942. Tolman mixed with many giant figures of his day, including the “father of groundwater hydrology” O.E. Meinzer of the USGS in Washington, DC, USGS geologist Myron L. Fuller, (who wrote the 1908 article “Summary of the controlling factors of artesian flows,” USGS Bulletin 319), consulting hydrologist Charles H. Lee of San Francisco, engineering geology Professor Allen E. Sedgwick at USC, consulting engineer Louis C. Hill of Los Angeles, and Rollin Eckis of Richfield Oil Co. Some of Professor Tolman’s more notable hydrology students included Malcolm B. “Mike” Kildale (BA Geol 1921; MA ‘24, PhD ’38 Stanford), who joined the Stanford faculty, Cecil C. Killingsworth, Benjamin C. Hyde, and Joseph F. Poland (who wrote two chapters of Tolman’s Ground Water text).

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