Linking Eagle to Gypsum : Work began 40 years ago this week on the I-70 stretch between the two towns
EAGLE — You would think that the news announcing the launch of Interstate 70 construction between Eagle and Gypsum would have rated a front-page status back in February of 1977.
It didn’t. The story was tucked into page 5 of the Feb. 17, 1977, edition of the Eagle Valley Enterprise.
So while the front page stories from that week — including a fire at the Kaibab sawmill site and Eagle County’s launch of a “values survey” — don’t reverberate strongly 40 years later, the presence of I-70 through the valley is vitally important. To prove the point, shut down the highway for a couple of hours and see what happens.
But returning to the Eagle Valley of 1977, the I-70 Eagle to Gypsum connection wasn’t much heralded. Perhaps that was because of construction fatigue. The multi-year Vail Pass project was coming to a close and forces were lining up for the Glenwood Canyon I-70 battle. That looming, massive road-building challenge is foreshadowed in the 1972 Colorado Department of Transportation environmental reassessment for the 5.1 mile stretch of I-70 between Eagle and Gypsum. The document notes that the segment would be needed “regardless of the pending Glenwood Canyon/Cottonwood Pass decision.”
Larry Ferguson, of Gypsum, recalls that time well. As a CDOT construction survey crew chief, Ferguson was working on Vail Pass when he was pulled over to work on the Eagle-to-Gypsum project.
Ferguson said there was no ground-breaking ceremony when the work started or celebration when the road opened. “It was just another stretch in a line of stretches (of I-70 construction),” he said.
But that five miles of highway construction did leave a lasting mark on the valley that extends beyond the presence of a two-lane interstate.
Interstate 70 Debate
The debate concerning the route of a highway through the Colorado Rockies extends back decades. It predates the construction of I-70 and there are reams of newsprint dedicated to the topic.
In a 1978 piece for Colorado and the West, writer Jacqueline Lovelace Choitz wrote “Mountain freeways, some call them Colorado dieways, and there’s an undeniable sadness in the trade-offs that result in their construction.”
Two years before I-70 construction to Gypsum began, Eagle leaders voiced their concern about the pending arrival of the interstate. The June 19, 1975, edition of the Enterprise reported that the Eagle Town Board and Eagle Chamber of Commerce had drafted a letter to the Colorado State Highway Commission about the issue.
The town’s leaders urged the commission to proceed with construction of the highway through Glenwood Canyon before beginning construction from Eagle to Dotsero. They argued that “such an approach will give the town of Eagle an opportunity to re-align its economic base and thus be better prepared for the impact that will result when the highway bypasses the town.”
The letter noted “As you must be aware, a significant portion of our economic base is derived by the motoring public as they stop and pass through town on the present highway. Eagle is situated in an area which is currently enjoying moderate economic growth and it is our firm belief that in a period of several years the town will have grown enough to have overcome the devastating effect of being bypassed by an interstate highway.”
In short, Eagle echoed the concerns voiced by hundreds of other communities nationwide who worried I-70 construction would kill their towns.
“Every town said the interstate would destroy them,” Ferguson said. “When I came here in 1967 in Gypsum we had about 300 people and Eagle had about 500. Look at them now.”
The official I-70 assessment also had an argument that was hard to refute. The document stressed that safety was a prime consideration for the construction plan. “There are a significant amount of accidents between Eagle and Gypsum. Many of the accidents are of the type the interstate highways are designed to alleviate.”
CDOT obviously declined Eagle’s suggestion that it delay I-70 construction to Gypsum and in 1977 began work. The environmental assessment included a small note that described plans to reroute the Eagle River channel just west of Eagle because of an “erodible and unstable gypsiferous cliff.” That reroute is part of the landscape that will be transformed into the Eagle River Park throughout the next two years.
“There wasn’t much choice about that, where else were they going to go?” Ferguson said of the river reroute.
Ferguson said the Eagle-to-Gypsum stretch was a three-year effort that included seven bridges. Two of the bridges were completed that first construction season.
Ferguson’s memories of the project include staking and then re-staking the alignment. He said the survey was done three times, each one refining the route.
His memories of the work are personal. He recalls the day he walked down a hillside and almost stepped on a fawn. “I went back to the truck to get a camera and I had a hard time finding it again,” he said.
Likewise he remembered the day when the crew found a 5-foot bull snake at the site. He knows the size because they took time to measure it.
He recalls working with locals employed for the construction period and the creation of the Gypsum Ponds area. The ponds are gravel pits specifically dug for the I-70 construction. Just before the state filled the pits with water, Ferguson took a Boy Scout troop camping in the area and they brought along some cattails to seed the area.
When I-70 was completed between Eagle and Gypsum, it simply opened.
Ferguson doesn’t recall people talking much about the convenience of traveling between Eagle and Gypsum
“I heard more about how quickly you could get to Denver,” Ferguson said.