Remembering Dick Prosence: the great influencer behind Glenwood Canyon I-70 design
It would be hard to drive through Glenwood Canyon and not find the fingerprints of Dick Prosence around just about every bend and through every tunnel of Interstate 70.
Prosence was largely considered the “Father of Glenwood Canyon’s I-70 Project” following his time with what was then called the Colorado Department of Highways from the 1960s until the early 1980s when construction began on what to this day is considered an engineering marvel.
Prosence continued his engineering career in the Phoenix area before later retiring to Meeker. He died at his home there on March 21 at age 95. His obituary was published March 31.
Floyd Diemoz of Glenwood Springs first met Prosence in the late 1960s, just after the first four-lane section of highway pushed east from Glenwood and through the new No Name Tunnels.
“Objections to the design of that highway began to build, since it represented a considerable disruption of the river and the canyon walls,” Diemoz wrote in a letter to the editor remembering Prosence and his influence on the project.
The solution to the controversy was the formation of the first of two citizen advisory committees. That first committee was fired when it recommended the state Highway Commission “look elsewhere” to build I-70, such as over the Flat Tops or Cottonwood Pass.
With the official directive then to proceed with building the highway through Glenwood Canyon, it was Prosence who recommended a second committee to help make sure it was done right.
Diemoz ended up serving on that committee.
“The neat thing about our committee is that we wielded a lot of power, and essentially had control over the Highway Commission,” Diemoz said.
When efforts were made to cut project costs by eliminating the Hanging Lake Tunnels — meant to preserve the pristine nature of the Hanging Lake trail area — Prosence and the citizens committee stood pat.
“We truly had the power,” Diemoz said.
“Dick never wavered in his support of our advisory committee and their task to help reach a public consensus of the highway’s final design,” Diemoz wrote in his letter. “He absolutely understood the care and respect the canyon deserved.”
Prosence penned the introduction to the 1994 book by John L. Haley, “Wooing a Harsh Mistress: Glenwood Canyon’s Highway Odyssey,” and is featured prominently in the text.
In it, he wrote, “Challenges faced by the builders of this segment of the interstate system rank among the most difficult in the nation. Hard work enhanced by ingenuity produced what deserves to be called the crown jewel of the interstate highway system.”
Prosence also reflected on his involvement with the project in an Oct. 9, 1992 Glenwood Post article, right before the official ribbon-cutting just inside the eastern bore of the Hanging Lake Tunnels.
“Glenwood Canyon was not the first project where the environment had a strong position in how it was to be designed and constructed … in many eyes it’s the evolution of those original concepts into what’s now regarded as, not only an engineering marvel, but one that’s in tune with its natural environment.”
Before the Glenwood Canyon roadway was built, Prosence also helped oversee the construction of the four-lane section of I-70 west of Glenwood Springs toward Rifle and Parachute.
It was during that phase of construction that a young engineer by the name of Ralph Trapani was first hired to oversee the construction of the Rifle interchange and the new spur road north into downtown Rifle.
“I inherited a design that didn’t really work all that well, and it’s safe to say people were agitated by it,” said Trapani, who still lives and consults from his home in Glenwood Springs.
“I spent a lot of time with the citizens there, and Dick always supported me through that,” he said. “I think it ended up being a nice entrance.”
After working on projects including Vail Pass and the No Name pedestrian overpass, Trapani was tapped in late 1979 to become the Glenwood Canyon project manager.
“I was still pretty young, but Dick had a lot of confidence in me, and himself had built a lot of trust and credibility to move these kinds of projects forward,” Trapani said. “He showed a lot of courage and bravery, and advocated for and stuck to whatever he thought was right.”
Trapani said he was able to employ that same model of working directly with the public to achieve positive outcomes when he later oversaw the completion of the Colorado Highway 82 four-lane project between Carbondale and Aspen.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but it was Dick who also worked really hard to get that project going,” Trapani said of the long-delayed four-lane project, which ended up incorporating some of the same design elements as Glenwood Canyon.