Still Inspecting Bridges at 102

Russell Ellsworth still pays his union dues, forty years since the last day he worked for the State of New Hampshire in the Department of Highway and Public Works. Ellsworth, a former project engineer is 102 years old. He still drives a car, lives alone, cooks his meals and enjoys pizza on Friday nights with his family. He’s a man who believes in a strong work ethic.

Russell Ellsworth began working for the state in the 1930s as a “time keeper,” on a culvert project under a highway going through Monroe, N.H. Because there weren’t any time clocks to punch, it was his job to keep track of the workers’ hours and to make sure the job got done.

Ellsworth advanced quickly, becoming an inspector during the building of the first seawall at Hampton Beach and then moved up the ranks to project engineer working on bridges being built around the state.  His first bridge was across the Connecticut River in Lebanon.

“My boss sent me and another engineer (who was an elderly chunky man) and we worked on that project. He couldn’t get out and I had to inspect the ledges. I tested every rivet on that bridge,” he laughs.

Ellsworth began working for $18 a week, working a nine-hour day, six days a week. “We worked on a bridge in Gorham, day and night and I asked the boss if we were going to get any more money for working nights and he said, ‘we hired you for 24 hours a day.’”

When the war came, Ellsworth and others were laid off.

“They fired us all, told us to get a job, because they couldn’t get steel. We had all the abutments built, but no work.”

It was then that Ellsworth was convinced to go into the family business making wooden boxes for ammunition and supplies during the war. He ran Ela Box Co. in Warner for seventeen years before selling and returning back to work for the state in the 1960s.

“The second day back, I joined the union,” Ellsworth said.

Sadly, he didn’t receive any credit for the time he had already spent with the state prior to the war.

“The only thing that disappointed me was that I didn’t get the time I put in for the 12 years, because I had gone to work for myself,” he said

If he had to name one or two projects that stuck out in his career one would be a stretch of Interstate 89 in Lebanon.

“This section was, at the time, the single most expensive highway project in the state,” he said.

The project included a pedestrian bridge, a railroad bridge, two miles of highway, a rest area and two weigh stations.
After the interstate project he was ready to climb mountains.

“I oversaw the installation of the first snow-making equipment on Cannon Mountain and the building of the base camp,” he said. “That was a great project.”

By the start of the 1970s, Ellsworth was beginning to think about retirement. His last project was the McKee Square intersection in Concord.

“When they remodeled that – and made it a ‘round-about,’ I said they’ll have some trouble there,” he said, laughing. “Someone is going to swear.”

In 1972, after 25 years with the state, Ellsworth retired at the age of 62. Today, he collects $483 a month from the state. He’s not complaining, though.

“At the time I retired, I was making $12,000 a year for engineer pay and I was on the top of the list,” he said.

Ellsworth takes pride in making a dollar stretch, admits to being a frugal Yankee and revels in telling stories. Just ask him about his honeymoon.

“Well, I started out with $65 for the week. We went to Burlington, Vt., the lake, Niagara Falls, Lake Placid – we stayed a whole week on the road and returned back,” he said. “I had $15 left in my pocket.”

Today at 102, Ellsworth enjoys spending time on Blaisdell Lake in the log cabin he made by hand from trees he personally dropped and floated to shore. He also likes taking an occasional road trip with his family to check out his work.

“We can’t go through a town between here and Berlin without Dad saying, ‘Oh I built that one, I worked on that bridge, I did this highway,’” said his son, Bruce Ellsworth who worked for the Public Utilities Commission from 1972 to 1986 before being appointed Commissioner of the PUC until 1998. “It’s a history lesson every time we head out.”

So what, you might ask, is the key to a long life?

“I’ve always worked reasonably hard and eaten everything possible that I shouldn’t – fried pork, lots of salt and cream,” he laughs. “Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t pay to be old, maybe I shouldn’t have been born so early.

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