Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel featured in local documentary | VailDaily.com

Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel featured in local documentary

The Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel is the highest and longest tunnel in the world. Construction started in 1968. It's the subject of a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Thursday on Rocky Mountain PBS.

DENVER — With the possible exception of rebuilding Andrew Weiner's political career or the Denver Nuggets' playoff prospects, the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel is one of the nation's biggest construction projects.

The tunnel is part of daily life in Vail and Summit counties. Yet most of us don't know much about it.

Rocky Mountain PBS wants to enlighten you and is broadcasting a documentary as part of its Colorado Experience series.

Sure, it's the artery that brings all those wonderful visitors to the Western Slope, and it's a landmark by which people can describe traffic congestion, as in, "Traffic was backed up all the way to the tunnel!"

But most of us don't know much about it, except that we can't see from end to end.

PBS is taking a look at tunnel history, which is fraught with wonders and worries, triumphs and tragedies.

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"We were going by the book, but the damned tunnel couldn't read," one of the construction workers said in the documentary.

Tunnel fever was gripping the state. The idea was to breach the Continental Divide. So that's what they did. There's a sign you pass as you drive under the divide.

When construction began in 1968, the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel was a massive engineering achievement, as the highest vehicular tunnel in the world with an elevation of 11,155 feet. It served to breach the Continental Divide.

The tunnel is equipped with 150 security cameras and serves more than 30,000 motorists per day, 365 day per year. As much as we bemoan winter weekend evening traffic, the Fourth of July holiday traditionally sees the heaviest traffic of the year.

CHALLENGES

The construction faced more than geological challenges. This project was beset with financial, political and social troubles.

A promising engineering student from the University of Colorado applied for a position working on the tunnel and was accepted. However, a misprint on her application made it appear that Janet Bonnema was James Bonnema.

The supervisors had accidentally hired a woman, which was considered bad luck. This caused an upset with the other workers. When she showed up, dozens of workers walked off the job.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Watch the show

What: “Colorado Experience: Gateway to the High Country,” a documentary about the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 26.

Where: Rocky Mountain PBS, Comcast channel 12.

More information: Visit http://www.rmpbs.org.

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