Operation Highball: Felling Trees With a Giant Bowling Ball

This+ball+and+chainPhoto: Old Sarge

In May 1950, Wixson and Crowe, Inc. and J.H. Trisdale (“Wixson and Trisdale”), contracting companies from Redding, California, brought a new method of clearing previously-logged or burned areas to Hungry Horse, Montana. The companies had already wiped clean nearly 7,000 acres (about 2,800 hectares) in the same area by dragging a two-inch thick steel cable strung between two diesel tractors through the forest, snapping or uprooting any trees caught in its path.

This worked very well in areas which had been burned, where the ground between the trees was relatively clear. However, in areas where loggers had already come through to cut “merchantable timber,” the cable, which could be as much as 200 feet long, tended to snag on stumps. The solution? A hollow steel ball eight feet in diameter and weighing four and a half tons, attached to the cable halfway between the two tractors. The ball not only held the cable above those perilous stumps, it also kept it from slipping off of the thinner, more flexible trees that the cable alone might not be able to fell.

The new method, nicknamed “Operation Highball,” worked so well that two tractors, 100 feet apart, could clear an average of 100 acres in eight hours. By adding winches to the tractors, and extending the cables to 900 feet, Wixson and Trisdale made it possible to loop 1,800 feet of a one and a quarter inch cable around a large stand of timber, then tighten the noose and drag the cable and ball through the trees trapped inside the circle. The downed trees were then scraped off the ground and stacked into burn piles by DC-8 tractors fitted with huge steel rakes. Trisdale, apparently never satisfied with off-the-shelf technology, even welded two of the DC-8s together and attached a 21-foot rake to his new “DC-16.” By September 1952, the firms had cleared a total of 14,695 acres (nearly 6,000 hectares).

Wixson and Trisdale were not doing this just for fun – they’d been hired by the United States Bureau of Reclamation to strip thousands of acres (much of it owned by the United States Forest Service) in preparation for the construction of Hungry Horse Dam. Wooded areas have to be cleared before they can be transformed into reservoirs, lest dead branches and rotting trees float to the surface and clog the dam intakes. While Wixson, Trisdale and other contractors busied themselves clearing the forest, others were pouring concrete and digging out tunnels. General-Shea-Morrison, the Seattle-based company chosen to build the dam, set up a construction camp with houses, dormitories, stores, a hospital and a schoolhouse. They also bridged the canyon and supplied the dam site with a blacksmith shop, machine shop, compressor house, and string of floodlights, so that they could work throughout the night.

President Harry S. Truman himself threw the switch that started power generation in the Hungry Horse Powerplant on October 1, 1952. The dam still supplies flood control and electrical power to the Flathead Lake area of Montana, and regulates the release of water into the Columbia River, so that Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams can focus on producing power. Hungry Horse Reservoir is a prime recreational area, and provides habitat for mountain whitefish, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. Before the dam was constructed, these fish migrated from the South Fork of the Flathead River into Lake Flathead to spawn. Since the dam was not constructed with any thought to fish migration, they now live and breed entirely in the reservoir, where they may well swim through the rusted remains of Operation Highball.