‘Like going to the moon’: Eisenhower Tunnel marks 40 years of innovation
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel.
In October, the CDOT’s Transportation Commission issued the latest in more than 40 years of landmark history at the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel.
Through its Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships program, the Transportation Commission awarded $10 million to the tunnels for the installation of a fire suppression system. The award shored up the final piece of funding for the estimated $25 million project.
The announcement was significant both because of the project’s impact on commuter safety, and because it will be the first retro-fit of a tunnel fire suppression system in U.S. history.
But last week, tunnel maintenance superintendent Michael Salamon and deputy maintenance superintendent David Miller said there’s a lot about the tunnel’s history that is either unknown or told inaccurately.
The story of the tunnels dates back as far as 1867, when W.A. Loveland hosted a railroad charter under the territorial legislature and was the first to propose the construction of a railroad tunnel through the Continental Divide.
Although the project exceeded the capabilities of mid-19th century technology, it never faded into obscurity.
A tunnel through the mountains became a popular topic of statewide conversation and debate several times during the 1930s and ’40s, only to be pushed down to the bottom of the priority list because of the Great Depression and World War II.
The project again picked up steam in the 1950s, a period of both national economic growth and the Cold War’s nuclear menace. It also was a time when Colorado was trying to discover its postwar identity.
Edwin C. Johnson, for whom the south bore is named, understood the vital importance a tunnel through the Continental Divide would play in shaping that identity. As a staunch supporter of a tunnel linking eastern and western Colorado, Johnson was instrumental in fueling the conversation during the 1930s when he served as lieutenant governor and later as governor.
In 1937 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but returned in 1955 to again serve as governor. A year later, Congress passed President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act, which proposed more than 42,000 miles of interconnecting interstate highways, with a federal funding contribution of 90 percent.
Although original plans called for Interstate 70 to bypass Colorado completely, Johnson was instrumental in touting the importance of a route connecting Colorado to Utah, clearing the way for serious conversations about a tunnel to take hold.
Official construction on the north bore began on March 15, 1968, with an estimated cost of about $50 million and a projected time line of about three years. On March 8, 1973, almost exactly five years and $116 million later, 4,660 cars helped celebrate opening day by driving through Eisenhower Tunnel, which then served both east- and westbound traffic.
The project was delayed due to bad rock in the Loveland fault, which not only caused cave-ins making working conditions dangerous, but also bankrupted the first contractor. The geology of the fault was so bad Tunnel District engineer Rube Hopper was quoted in 1973, “We were going by the book, but the damned mountain couldn’t read …”
The state essentially had to take over the project, Salamon said, and guarantee the next contractor brash enough to take it on would leave making a profit.
Construction on the Johnson Memorial Tunnel, to serve eastbound traffic, began in 1975. It was completed on Dec. 23, 1979, at a cost of $144 million.
At the height of activity, more than 1,140 people worked on the tunnels 24 hours a day, six days a week over three, eight-hour shift rotations. When it was all said and done, workers excavated 2.5 million cubic yards of rock, poured 400,000 cubic yards of concrete and installed more than 70,000 tons of steel.
“We’re equal to the Hoover Dam in terms of how much concrete they had to put in here, so we’re literally holding up the mountain,” Salamon said. “This was like going to the moon back then; there was never a project this big anywhere in the country at the time.”
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