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Meet Lou Alta Melton

Pioneer Bridge Engineer

by Richard F. Weingroff / FHWA News 2023

Color illustration of a female construction worker posing in front of newspaper article about Lou Alta Melton

In 1920, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) hired Lou Alta Melton to work in the drafting department of BPR's western headquarters in San Francisco. She would be promoted to Junior Bridge Engineer before being assigned to BPR's office in Missoula, Montana, as Assistant Bridge Engineer.

Newspaper clipping outlining Lou Alta Melton's choice to be a civil engineer
A woman engineer was such a novelty in those days that various newspapers published Lou Alta Melton's picture and story.

A woman engineer was such a novelty in those days that newspapers published a news service picture of her in October 1920 with the caption:

Leave it to a woman! That's what the United States Bureau of Public Roads in Denver did when an assistant bridge engineer's job was open. Miss Lou Alta Melton is filling the place in fine shape. She was the only girl in the civil engineering class which graduated from the University of Colorado last June and she is also the first and only woman engineer of the Colorado Society of Engineers.

A variation appeared:

Miss Lou Alta Melton is the youngest and one of the best looking civil engineers in the country. She is a member of the American Association of Engineers and one of the few women in the United States engaged in designing and building bridges.

In some cases, Miss Melton was a column filler as in this blurb from December 1920 that appeared in a Boston newspaper with other "ODD ITEMS FROM EVERYWHERE":

Miss Lou Alta Melton of Denver was the only girl in the civil engineering class which graduated from the University of Colorado last year. Miss Melton, who is 25 years old, is now employed as assistant bridge engineer for the United States Bureau of Public Roads in Denver.

Even The Shanghai Times picked up on the item. "Miss Lou Alta Melton, in spite of her youth, is as good a civil engineer as any man in the United States." It mentioned that she worked for BPR's San Francisco office and was a member of the American Association of Engineers.

How It Happened

Lou Alta Melton was born on February 8, 1895, in Sherman, Texas. She grew up in Bayfield, Wisconsin, where she was an enthusiastic basketball player in high school. She taught in a primary (or grade) school in Colorado. "On leaving high school," she said in a 1921 news service article (titled "She Builds Bridge" in many newspapers), "I began teaching, thinking it the only profession for women. My brother was taking electrical engineering, and for three years I spent so many evenings studying his problems that I became interested and decided to be an engineer."

In the fall of 1916, she enrolled in the civil engineering program of the University of Colorado-Boulder. She lived at 1920 Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. "During the summer of 1918 I worked for the Midwest Refining Company at Casper, Wyo.; during the next summer for the United States Bureau of Public Roads, Denver."

In 1918, Melton and her classmate, Hilda Counts, decided that women engineers needed a national association of female engineers and architects. They wrote to engineering schools around the country to determine how many women were students. At the time, the Universities of Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio State, and Texas led the way with women engineering students in those five schools totaling in the double digits by academic year 1919-1920. Melton and Counts projected from those totals that about 200 women would be eligible to join the American Society of Women Engineers they had formed.

Many of the responses that universities sent to Melton and Counts were more discouraging. The Carnegie Institute of Technology replied that, "We do not permit women to register in the Engineering School under present regulations." Similarly, the University of North Carolina explained that, "We have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department." The University of Florida stated: "Under our State system of higher education, women are not admissible to the University of Florida, nor men to the Florida State College for Women at Tallahassee. While the State College at Tallahassee does not have any engineering departments, it does offer courses in applied science."

The State University of Iowa questioned the need for the association. "I have only this to say, that I suspect the number of women who have undertaken general engineering courses is so few that you will hardly be able to form an organization." In an optimistic note, the reply added, "However I may be mistaken."

Some other replies also had a note of optimism. Georgia Tech replied, "Dear Lady: Up to the present, women students have not been admitted to Ga Tech. Yesterday, the city of Atlanta conferred suffrage on women, in City affairs, so no knowing what may happen!" The University of Arkansas "never had . . . a woman to register for a serious course in Engineering . . . . I am aware that in the Northern and Eastern Colleges often girls register for Engineering work and make very excellent students."

Stanford University's reply was that "Now as regards the formation of a separate engineering organization which you contemplate, I must confess that I am not in favor of such a move if you can get the young men in your institution to take the proper step which, in my opinion, consists in admitting you to full membership in the existing organization. For years, I have favored the admission of women to membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers, and can see no reason why there should be any discrimination on account of sex."

One of the most helpful letters, however, was from Helen Smith, who explained, "The women students in Engineering and Architecture at the University of Michigan are pleased to hear from women studying the same things in Colorado. In 1914 we ascertained that there was then no society organized for women students in engineering and architecture, and at the time formed a society with the approval of the University authorities. The T-Square Society started with 14 charter members, one alumna resident member, and two honorary members."

In all, Melton and Counts identified 139 women from 23 institutions who had taken engineering or architecture courses in college in 1919 or earlier years, with about 200 women working in the field. Melton and Counts worked with Hazel Quick of the T-Square Society to develop bylaws, membership application forms, and a logo for the American Society of Women Engineers and Architects. The organization was formally organized in February 1919, with Melton as president, Counts as vice president, and Quick as secretary-treasurer. They published announcements in several national technical publications.

Engineering News-Record, in its issue of July 22, 1920, reported on the new association. It explained that, "The primary reason for organization of the society, as explained by Miss Quick to Engineering News-Record's representative, grew out of the fact that the organizers felt the need of a society and were not received into the existing societies organized for and by men in the engineering profession." By then, the association had 11 members in the branches of civil, mechanical, chemical, electrical, and architectural engineering. The goal was that as the group expanded was to establish State societies of women engineers and architects.

Around this time, BPR was experiencing an increasing volume of work in the western States in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service (FS), a companion agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To accommodate this work, BPR changed its western organization in Fiscal Year (FY) 1920 to establish district offices in Portland, OR; San Francisco, CA; Denver, CO; Missoula, MT; Ogden, UT; and Albuquerque, NM. The last three had been suboffices until then. Missoula was the headquarters for BPR's district 11. Each of the district offices was located where FS had the headquarters of a corresponding forest district. As BPR explained in its annual report, "This change has proved advantageous, particularly as it permits the closer supervision of the work which is necessary with the increased activity in highway construction." The BPR district engineer in each office, whose responsibilities covered several States, handled the contracts for the locality where the work occurred.

In FY 1921, BPR took a further step to improve its administration of work in National Forests. It established a regional office in San Francisco to be the center for all operations on FS projects in the western States and the territories of Alaska and Hawaii. Dr. Laurence I. Hewes was the Chief Engineer, with the Deputy Chief Engineer given full authority to expedite the work out of the six western district offices. The annual report explained that:

In each of the district offices an engineer, assigned as assistant to the district engineer, has exclusive charge of the forest road construction within the district. Under him work the chiefs of survey parties and resident engineers on construction projects. A thorough system of cost reports on surveys and construction has been devised, and details reports of all forest road activities are made each month to the regional office, from which summary reports are forwarded to Washington.

Melton was the lone female civil engineering graduate of the University of Colorado in 1920 and the only woman in the Colorado Society of Engineers. In the news service article titled "She Builds Bridges," she explained that after graduation "I was again employed by the same bureau. In September I was transferred to the Missoula office as an assistant bridge engineer" in the district 11 office. She said that among her proudest possessions was her membership card in the American Association of Engineers.

For the American Road Builders' Association's (ARBA) Twelfth American Good Roads Congress and Thirteenth National Good Roads Show, held at the Coliseum in Chicago, on January 17-20, 1922, the association decided to recognize the contribution of women. A news service article explained ARBA's view that "women are beginning to invade another field which heretofore has been exclusively man's estate as shown by the fact that numerous women, actually engaged in highway construction and in the promotion of the good roads movement generally." In recognition of "the feminine invasion of the road building arena," ARBA extended special invitations to numerous women. There was Dr. Jennie C. Murphy, of Yankton, SD, the only woman street commissioner in the world according to ARBA; Mrs. Axel Holm, of South Range, WI, who had just completed a 4½ miles of State highway through Pattison State Park, near Superior; Miss Eva Cressey, president and general manager of the Cressey Contracting Company at Everett, MA, whose road machines were used in many States of the Union for spraying oil, tar and asphalt in road work; and "Katherine F. Butterfield, a high school student at Weiser, Idaho, who won the Firestone good roads essay college scholarship contest last year and received her certificate direct from the hands of President Harding himself." [For information on Miss Butterfield, see "A Moment in Time".]

In addition, "delegates to the congress and visitors to the exposition will greet Dr. Lou Alta Melton, said to be the only woman bridge engineer in the country. Dr. Melton graduated in civil engineering last year at Colorado University and is now connected with one of the district offices of the United States Bureau of Public Roads. She is the only woman engineer in the employ of the Federal government." Whether she attended the congress has not been determined.

On August 26, 1922, she married Dr. Archibald Shepard Merrill, born on August 24, 1887. After graduating from the University of Chicago, Dr. Merrill moved to Missoula where he taught mathematics at the University of Montana for 40 years. Lou Alta and Dr. Merrill had a daughter, Janet Louise, on March 16, 1929. Lou Alta Merrill was active in the university's Mathematics Society and taught mathematics at Montana State University. In 1953 she was on the Montana State Board of Examiners. According to the 1940 census, Dr. and Mrs. Merrill and Janet lived at 545 East Beckwourth.

When Dr. Merrill, then serving as vice president of the university, retired in 1956, he and Lou Alta moved to Tempe, AZ, where he served as a mathematics tutor for the next 15 years. When he finally retired from academics, the couple moved to the Orangewood Estates Retirement Community in Phoenix.

Lou Alta Merrill died on July 26, 1974, in Phoenix at the age of 79. She was buried in the Green Acres Memorial Gardens in Scottsdale. Dr. Merrill, 92, died on April 28, 1980. At the time, they had three grandchildren. Their daughter, Janet Louise Hossack, who had a PhD. in psychology, passed away on May 29, 2022, in Sandpoint, ID, at the age of 93.

The American Society of Engineers and Architects, born before its time, did not survive. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), formed in 1950 and still going strong, acknowledged Lou Alta Melton and her associates as forerunners – as "Women Ahead of Their Time." The SWE Rocky Mountain Scholarships program includes The Pioneer Scholarship for graduating high school students "in memory of three pioneering women engineering graduates of the University of Colorado at Boulder," namely, Hilda Counts Edgecomb (1919), Elsie Eaves (1920), and Lou Alta Melton Merrill (1920)

In 1921, Melton addressed the Missoula branch of the American Association of Engineers, the apparent source of the article published as "She Builds Bridges." She said, "The woman who has taken an engineering course has been grounded thoroughly in reasoning. This is because an engineering course of today is not narrow, as it once was, but trains one in mathematics, chemistry, geology, physics, the principles of industrial management and the political and public problems of the day. It touches every phase of industry and activity."

She added:

"While it is doubtful if ever women will take up engineering as a profession to the extent that men have, it is evident that the highest attainment of the human race will come only when men and women work shoulder to shoulder for the same purposes and ideals."