Building the Battle Mountain bridge
Traffic started flowing over the Red Cliff bridge again on July 3 following a three-month-refurbishing effort, and no doubt the commuters who regularly use that route were grateful. Sixty-one years and one month ago, when the bridge was first opened to traffic, travelers who regularly used the highway to traverse from eastern to western Colorado were ecstatic. An estimated 2,000 people came to the dedication ceremony, where Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr was the keynote speaker, along with Colorado state highway engineer Charlie Vail and various local politicians and steel company officials. The bridge, which took two years to construct, was part of a six-mile improvement project on Battle Mountain that, upon completion, was the final hard-surface road link in 1,700 miles of U.S. Highway 24, the major east-west route across the state.Additionally, the completion of the project improved a particularly dangerous stretch of Highway 24 by reducing the grade and eliminating blind curves. It generally made a much safer, easier road that could legitimately be called a “modern mountain highway.” Writer Harold Dwyer, who in the 1940s penned a column for several newspapers titled “Along Highway 24,” summed it up in a memorable paragraph:”The new road over Battle Mountain over behind Red Cliff, Colo. is another marvel of engineering skill and road building which abound in that area, but the old road had certain thrills for the tourist which were not to be sneezed at. With the new road, one will never be able to tell his grandchildren how he drove for miles hanging onto the side of the mountain by his eyelashes and gazed straight down into a chasm dang near a mile deep.” Eagle Valley Enterprise
Feb. 21, 1941The highest bridgeNews of the pending road improvement project first started hitting the local newspapers in 1939. A Red Cliff-based newspaper, the Holy Cross Trail, reported on April 28, 1939 that the Bureau of Public Roads had at last given complete approval on state highway department plans for construction of a new road over Battle Mountain, between Red Cliff and Minturn. The total project was expected to cost $600,000. The new, streamlined highway would include a high arch bridge high over the Eagle River. The bridge garnered the most attention. “Bad Road Being Eliminated By ‘Arch’ Bridge” declared the front page headline of the Trail on May 21, 1940. The new bridge would cut out a twisting 1.8 mile section of Highway 24 that dropped from Battle Mountain into Red Cliff. The structure would carry highway traffic above the Eagle River, the Rio Grande Railroad tracks, and the existing highway bridge. “The bridge will be 470 feet long, with a 318-foot central arch span and a 30-foot roadway. It will be exceeded in height in Colorado only by the privately owned suspension bridge over the Royal Gorge.” Holy Cross TrailMay 24, 1940
The old Highway 24 crossed the river and railroad on the lower bridge, veered through the center of Red Cliff, then turned back on itself to climb the side of Battle Mountain. The bridge would shorten that particular stretch by 1.8 miles, allowing traffic to bypass Red Cliff. The new road line would enter the canyon well upon the hillside and extend to the high bridge, crossing and meeting Battle Mountain at a nearly vertical cliff that the locals called “Lover’s Leap.” The road designers noted that the chosen bridge site offered a solid rock foundation and considerable vertical height, ideal conditions for the long-span arch bridge. Engineers decided a steel arch was the most economical and practical approach. “The bridge will have two curved, box-girder ribs acting as a two-hinged arch, with steel bents supporting the roadway. Careful analysis was made for the stresses caused by temperature change, wind pressure, and tractive force as well as the dead and live road stresses, so considerable computation was required.”Holy Cross TrailMay 31, 1940By June of 1940, large crews of highway construction workers swarmed into Red Cliff. For weeks, all available living quarters in the town had been rented out. Many workers were living in trailer houses. “There is no unemployment this summer,” reported the Trail.
600 tons of steelBy October of 1940, steel work on the new bridge had started. The single span bridge was to be 318 feet long, with a grade 209 feet above stream level. The arch rise was 86 feet. Some 600 tons of structural steel would go into the bridge, which was to be built for a total cost of $139,627.50. The bridge was designed and planned by King Burkhardt, under the direction of Paul S. Bailey, bridge engineer for the highway department. The Minneapolis Steel Construction company did the initial work with the Frank Kenny Construction Company out of Denver completing the bridge. By April, 1941, half of the 18,000 rivets that were to hold the structure together had been completed. The bridge was designed to move with temperature changes.The bridge builders faced some enormous challenges. Ingenious plans were devised by contractors and their engineers to facilitate erection of the structure.During early stages of steel arch construction in winter, one group of workmen carried out their daily operations on a platform suspended high in the canyon by cables. Each morning, the workmen took their lunches with them for the all-day tasks they were to undertake while suspended in mid-air. They were hoisted to their work by cable buckets and were brought down again only at the close of the day’s work.One report indicated that at times, construction workers had to be let down by sky hooks, and were kept suspended while working all day in temperatures as low as 25 below zero.Life-long Red Cliff resident Buster Beck, 79, can remember the excitement of watching the bridge construction when he was a teenager. He recalls that all of the iron was brought in by railroad car to a siding in Red Cliff. An overhead cable and lower cable were strung across the canyon and used to hoist beams into place. The local kids would watch as the workers put the rivets in place. Sometimes, he remembers, when the work crews left, the local kids did some climbing on the in-progress bridge.Cold winds blew throughout the canyon. Storms were frequent. Daily temperatures sometimes dropped well below zero, but workers stayed at their posts putting steel pieces in place and riveting them together.
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Structurally, the Battle Mountain bridge was considered the most unique bridge in Colorado’s entire highway system. The bridge itself remains a monument to the skills of the workers and the ingenuity of the engineers.Workers used 225 gallons of aluminum paint on the structure, which was originally a silver-gray color, rather than the dark green it is now.Dedication ceremoniesFinally, the work was done, and Aug. 3, 1941 was selected as the official dedication day. An estimated 650 to 1,000 cars lined Highway 24 from the Homestake campground to Bell’s Camp, located just above Gilman. The Red Cliff High School marching band, decked out in full uniform, provided the music. Gov. Carr, and Vail both gave speeches. Vail declared the bridge would bring “absolute safety” to motorists driving the Battle Mountain highway.The governor performed the ceremonial cutting of a dainty red, white, and blue ribbon stretched across the bridge. A community picnic followed.”It is doubtful that anyone present realized the full importance to the road, and all it will mean to hundreds of thousands of motorists on down through the years. With the completion of this project, ’24’ becomes a hard surfaced road from one end to the other. Not a spoonful of dust may be found in the entire 1,700 miles,” wrote Dwyer in the Aug. 8, 1941 edition of the Eagle Valley Enterprise. The writer added that no longer would it be necessary to drive with one hand while passing smelling salts among frightened passengers.
“Never again may one look straight down to where he had been a while ago – then try and think of some way to explain to the others that it wasn’t fear which caused him to swallow a lighted cigarette. Them days is gone forever.”From here on out, Battle Mountain will be taken in stride over a wide, smooth road on a six percent grade. Any kind of an old carte will go right on over now with head up and tail over the dashboard, and come down smiling from ear to ear.Eagle Valley EnterpriseAug. 8, 1941Red Cliff BridgeOriginal construction, 1941Here’s what went in to the bridge when it was first built, over 60 years ago:o 1,189,000 pounds of structural steel
o 106,000 pounds of reinforcing steelo 707 cubic yards of concreteo 225 gallons of aluminum paint (silver-gray finish)o Huge span conducted without a single accident.o 470 feet longo 209 feet above the river.o Two years to buildo Cost of bridge: $153,590o Cost of six miles of new highway over Battle Mountain $428,815• Cost of this year’s repair and upgrade of the bridge: $3.6 million
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As shock and outrage over George Floyd’s killing swept the nation over the weekend, even the luxurious streets of Vail Village were not insulated from pressure boiling over in the form of demonstrations.