A California trucker looks back on 60 years in the business as he works to preserve its history
The year was 1948. America was years away from what we now know as the interstate system.
Route 66 was the closest thing the nation had to a superhighway, and two-lane routes ruled the land. Some towns were served by so-called highways that were little more than dirt paths with a sign on them.
Trucking was a far different industry as well. In an article he wrote for Land Line Magazine in 2003, OOIDA board member Frank Owen described what it was like:
“I think I remember Dad getting up to 50 mph; maybe a couple of times a day. The seat was like an orange crate, wrapped in leather on both sides. You could feel every bump, rock or gravel you hit.
“No music on the FM or AM. In fact, all you could hear was the engine and transmission noise. We got to West Virginia and the roads really got good – a one-lane road over and around mountains.”
It’s an experience many old timers wish younger drivers had – a piece of knowledge they think needs to be preserved, and that they enjoy talking about.
And in that sense, Frank Owen isn’t alone. There are still plenty of truckers around who remember those days. And one of those is Jim Dobbas.
A 60-year veteran of the road, Dobbas runs his own carrier – a pretty diverse operation for a small outfit, with 10 trucks ranging from cattle haulers, low-beds, flatbeds to various dumps, and some water trucks.
Dobbas remembers what it was like in what some people so easily call “the good old days.”
“When I started uh hauling lumber, we used to go to Los Angeles, and the speed limit was 40 miles an hour down in the Sacramento valley,” he said. “That was a long ways to LA at 40 miles per hour.”
Dobbas lives near Sattley in northern California – a small town in Sierra County, which itself only claims a little more than 3,400 human souls.
It’s a scant 40 miles from a landmark many truckers know well - Donner Pass, the infamous route through the Sierra Madre that claimed the lives of so many in the wagon train for which it’s named.
Lots of truckers have said they’re glad those old, twisty roads in Donner Pass were replaced by I-80. But Dobbas remembers what hauling through that pass was like in the old days – and while he says it’s quicker, he’s not so sure it’s better.
“At one time I drove a LJ Mack with a 200 Cummins in it; it would take us six 6 hours from a line plant in Auburn, CA, to Reno, NV,” he said. “Now, our trucks will go up there with a D8 Cat in two and a half hours.”
As far as the roads – Dobbas says they were actually better.
“They were just narrow, and actually, probably smoother than some of them today,” he said. “Eighty’s almost impassable right now for the chuckholes.”
Like many truckers who started in that era, Jim Dobbas learned from the truckers who were already out on the road – a kind of unofficial apprenticeship. He particularly remembers how he learned to drive from several lumber haulers.
“One of them had a ’48 International, a West Coaster,” he said. “I was fortunate enough he let me drive it once in a while when it was empty. And so I kind of got into it there.”
The first truck he ever drove for hire was a 1949 LJ Mack.
“It was brand new when I got on it,” Dobbas said. “I was pretty lucky. I didn’t wreck it, I didn’t have any trouble.”
The truck had a “five-speed transmission, three-speed auxiliaries, and it was a single drive; I had pulled a set of doubles with it.”
A lot of trucke