December 19, 2013
As AASHO approached 15 years of existence, it selected Samuel Eckels of Pennsylvania as the association's 16th president. Eckels, the chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, assumed the presidency of AASHO not long after the onset of what he would characterize as "an economic emergency of national proportions," namely the severe "Black Tuesday" stock market crash that signaled the start of the Great Depression.
Eckels was born on Jan. 22, 1884, in the borough of West Brownsville, Penn., in the Pittsburgh area. In 1905, he graduated from Washington & Jefferson College in that region of the Keystone State with a Bachelor of Science degree. Eckels worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for one year, and then embarked on what would become a lifelong highway engineering career.
That career included a dozen years serving in western Pennsylvania in such capacities as an engineer for the city of Pittsburgh, member of the Allegheny County Authority, and director of that county's department of public works. In addition, he saw military service during World War I and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in the West Indies.
Eckels served as chief engineer for the Pennsylvania Department of Highways from 1927 to 1935, working under a total of three governors. He led the agency's State Highway Engineering Department during a time that encompassed the greatest growth for the Pennsylvania roads system, when 20,167 miles of rural routes were taken over by the state "to get the farmer out of the mud" (in the words of Governor Gifford Pinchot).
Eckels' service with AASHO during that period included serving as a member of the Executive Committee starting in 1928. He was elected the AASHO president at the association's annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in November 1929. As AASHO president, Eckels sought to promote and preserve adequate funding for highway construction and also to work with the administration of President Herbert Hoover in addressing the major economic challenges facing the nation at that time.
As Eckels highlighted at the end of his term as AASHO president, Hoover "relied upon the members of the Association to provide the greatly increased construction programs which were needed to stimulate the failing pulse of business." Eckels added, "And it must be observed, to the everlasting credit of this Association, that the highest expectations were achieved, and that a nation-wide program of highway construction was inaugurated and is being carried out on a scale never before attempted on the face of this earth."
After stepping down as chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, Eckels served in such roles as chief engineer of the Allegheny County Authority. He also stayed engaged and involved with AASHO, serving on the association's Special Radio Committee. Eckels was also part of the group responsible for planning activities to commemorate the association's 25th anniversary in 1939. Unfortunately, he died just before that celebration on Sept. 26, 1939, at his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon after what a few news accounts characterized as an extended illness.
"His administrative qualifications seemed to be unlimited," noted AASHO's American Highways Magazine in an article reporting his death in 1939. "Having a pleasing and striking personality, he was a leader in his profession in whatever capacity he served. We all delighted in calling him our friend."