September 12, 1889
George T. McCoy, whose legacy includes service as both a state highway engineer of California and the 42nd president of AASHO (now known as AASHTO), was born at a stock ranch in Milton, Oregon. Along with helping to herd cattle and horses on that ranch during his youth, McCoy also found time to pursue his studies in nearby Walla Walla, Washington — first at the secondary-school level at Pearson’s Academy and then at Whitman College.
While pursuing a liberal arts education and initially aspiring to become an attorney, McCoy ultimately found himself drawn to an engineering career. His summertime breaks during his college years, for example, included engineering work for the U.S. General Land Office and the Washington State Highway Department (the present-day Washington State Department of Transportation).
After graduating from Whitman College summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in 1913, McCoy made his way out east to study engineering at Columbia University in the City of New York. After earning his degree there in 1915, McCoy eventually returned to the Northwest and began employment on a regular basis at the Washington State Highway Department.
McCoy worked on a variety of engineering projects throughout the Evergreen State. He left the Washington State Highway Department after a couple of years to work as a bridge engineer in North Dakota and then on road projects in Montana and Idaho for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (a predecessor to the Federal Highway Administration). McCoy then returned to the Washington State Highway Department, where he worked in the agency’s headquarters office in Olympia and steadily rose through the ranks to assistant state highway engineer.
In 1927, McCoy made his way to Sacramento and began working for the California Division of Highways. (The agency is now part of the California Department of Transportation). McCoy started out as an assistant office engineer and soon became administrative assistant to State Highway Engineer Charles H. Purcell.
When Purcell became increasingly focused on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project during the 1930s, McCoy took on more and more of the responsibilities for administering the remainder of California’s state highway program. McCoy was promoted to assistant state highway engineer in 1933. When Purcell was appointed by Governor Earl Warren in 1943 to serve as state director of public works, McCoy became state highway engineer.
California’s major highway achievements during McCoy’s tenure included the widespread development of multilane highways that encompassed a variety of full freeways and expressways. McCoy helped set a high standard for the state when it came to not only road-building but long-range planning efforts.
McCoy also achieved near-legendary status for being able to deal with a wide range of people in high-profile, high-pressure situations. A key example of this took place one time in Mexico City when he met there with one of that country’s senior transportation officials. It quickly became evident that there was a formidable language barrier between the two of them; McCoy did not speak any Spanish, and that official did not know English. They tried at first to communicate fast and furiously with each other via sign language before stumbling on the fact that they both knew how to speak classical Greek. The remainder of their conference was spent talking to each other in that language.
Even as he made a notable impact both within California and south of the border, McCoy also found time to immerse himself in AASHO’s activities. “For the past few years Mr. McCoy’s major interest apart from — and yet related to — his job of administering the vast California highway program has been the American Association of State Highway Officials,” reported the association’s American Highways magazine at the time he was elected president. “He is devoted to the ideals of AASHO and convinced of its importance of a medium through which the nation’s highway transportation system can best attain the standards of adequacy necessary to serve its growing economy.”
McCoy’s work on behalf of AASHO included serving as chairman of its Committee on Finance. He also served in what was then the association’s office of first vice-president. McCoy’s time as AASHO president would be largely defined by the unsuccessful efforts to push through Congress a bill authorizing the Interstate System. Those stalled legislative efforts, however, helped lay the groundwork for a more successful initiative the following year. This initiative resulted in the enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that finally made the Interstate System a full-fledged reality.
McCoy’s tenure as president also witnessed the early stages for launching the AASHO Road Test. One of these initial efforts was the opening of a field office in Ottawa, Illinois, for what became landmark scientific studies of the performance of highway pavements.
McCoy received many awards for his public service, including the Thomas H. MacDonald Award that was presented to him by AASHO in 1958. McCoy would remain California’s state highway engineer until retiring in 1959 due to age requirements. He died in Monterey, California, on December 24, 1965, at the age of 76.
Photo Credit: American Highways magazine (January 1955)
Additional information on the history of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and its predecessors is available at https://archive.org/details/caltrans?tab=about