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Happy Birthday Eisenhower Tunnel

Quentin Scouflaire
Flickr - Creative Commons

The westward bound of the pair at the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel turns 40.

Officially opening on March 8, 1973 the Eisenhower is a familiar sight to anyone headed to Colorado's high country or ski areas. Often a choke point today with the traffic high traffic levels seen on I-70, at the time it was wonder for travelers.

It not only is the highest vehicular tunnel in the world, it also saved drivers the 9.5 mile winding drive over Loveland Pass. Instead, drivers could head to the other side of the Continental Divide via the 1.7 mile tunnel. The tunnels have been surpassed in their record of the highest tunnel in the world by the Fenghuoshan Rail Tunnel in China (16,093 feet) but they remain the longest and highest (11,013 feet at the East Portal and 11,158 feet at the West Portal) tunnels built into the Interstate System.

The Eisenhower Tunnel isn't the only engineering marvel on I-70, the roadway through Glenwood Canyon celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2012. Amazingly though, the Eisenhower tunnel boar was completed for $116.9 million. The Johnson tunnel boar, which opened December 23, 1979, cost $144.9 million. The Colorado Department of Transportation notes that "In today’s dollars, the cost to build one bore would be $1 to $1.5 billion."

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
Objects in the mirror are closer then they appear, heading west through the Eisenhower

The tale of the tunnel isn't just engineering and men removing rock. As the U.S. Department of Transportation recounts in their history of the tunnel, there was controversy over the hiring of woman to work at the tunnel construction site.

The story began in November 1970 when Miss Janet Bonnema contacted the Colorado Highway Department about several job openings. She met the qualifications (e.g., applicants had to be under the age of 68) and passed the required tests. She then received a letter from the Department advising that "Mr." Janet P. Bonnema would be employed at the Straight Creek Tunnel if "he" wanted the job. Checking on the offer, Miss Bonnema was advised by a State employment officer not to take the position. "Women are taboo in the mines and tunnels of Colorado." He added, "Those workers would flat walk out of that there tunnel and they'd never come back."

She took the job, but never entered the tunnel site. That changed later, the passage of an equal rights law in November 1979 gave Miss Janet Bonnema what she needed to enter. Some left, but not everyone and it didn't interfere with the Johnson tunnel opening.

Another great historical note about the tunnel. The first one to drive through wasn't an honored guest, he didn't even wait for the official opening. Again, as the U.S. Department of Transportation writes:

The first driver through the tunnel received a summons-for trespassing. The historic moment occurred in late 1972, when a driver who had been drinking decided that he, not Governor Love, should have the honor of being the first person to drive through the tunnel.

So think fondly of Marion Wooldridge - who managed to get the charges dropped - next time you pass through on your way to the mountains. Just some more history, interest, and engineering found in Colorado.

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