A birth vision for Glenwood Canyon Interstate 70 route
The Post Independent this year is celebrating local institutions’ anniversaries — including our own — with a special feature many Sundays through the year. The PI traces its roots back 127 years, but our publication volume number is 125, while the White River National Forest looks back on 125 years and Colorado Mountain College marks 50 years.
Today we offer the ninth installment of Post Independent history and the events it chronicled locally in the 1970s.
The 1970s were years of major change locally, from the idea of an interstate through Glenwood Canyon to the beginnings of an oil shale boom in western Garfield county.
Much of the decade in Glenwood was dominated by the idea of connecting Interstate 70 from Gypsum to Glenwood Springs through Glenwood Canyon. At the time, there were fierce public campaigns for and against the massive project, which would end up spanning three decades.
The Glenwood Canyon route of I-70 would be the final link of the interstate highway system running east and west through Colorado — part of an overall instate highway system proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the early ’70s, the campaign for public support of the canyon route was in full swing. A pair of filmmakers produced a film for the chamber of commerce in support of the canyon route, and they screened their film far and wide, going as far as Washington, D.C., to show the film to the Federal Highway Administration and many other federal agencies.
Two other routes were considered as alternative possibilities: Cottonwood Pass and a route over the Flat Tops. But both were eventually rejected due to their higher elevations and costs.
Story of John Denver
The proposed project saw plenty of opposition from environmental groups and from those concerned about the design and cost of the Glenwood Canyon construction.
“The eruption of opposition that began in the 1960s intensified and persisted through the first half of the 1970s,” wrote Conrad Schader in “Glenwood Canyon: From Origin to Interstate.” “Protests ranged from fiery letters to newspaper editors to demonstrations within the canyon. There were lawsuits, hearings, additional surveys and the time-consuming involvement of scores of government agencies.”
John Denver even joined the opposition camp, at one point attempting to prove a point about the canyon’s narrowness by throwing a rock across the Colorado River in the canyon — though it apparently took him several tries.
“As of the end of 1975, over ($1 million) had been spent over a nine-year period in studies and design concepts for the stretch of interstate highway which might, or might not, be built through the canyon,” wrote Jim Nelson in “Glenwood Springs: The History of a Rocky Mountain Resort.”
The Federal Highway Administration recommended the canyon route in 1975, and the next year the U.S. Department of Transportation finalized the route. The Colorado Highway Commission approved construction of the interstate in 1977.
In 1980, “construction began on the interstate through Glenwood Canyon at No Name,” Nelson wrote. “The project cost was estimated at close to $300 million. The plan was to begin the construction at both ends of the canyon, working toward the more difficult center sections. The construction of the canyon highway bolstered the economy of Glenwood Springs for the next 10 years or so.”
Interest in Oil Shale
Later in the decade western Garfield County saw a development boom in oil shale extraction.
This success had long been promised, and its delay had apparently led many locals to believe it would never come. To reassure the impatient locals who had been hearing such promises for decades, Sen. Peter Dominick reported in 1971 that a newly announced program to develop 11 million acres of oil shale land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming was indeed promising.
The senator wrote that “It is a concrete plan with specific steps from exploration and feasibility studies to prototype and full scale operations,” according to the Glenwood Post. “Bids for informational core drilling are being received now. Experimental operations to determine economically feasible methods of obtaining oil from the mined product are underway currently and further studies of various methods will be undertaken.”
“In the late 1970s, a great deal of interest began to be shown in the development of the vast oil shale deposits in the western part of Garfield County,” including from the federal government and lots of major energy companies, according to Nelson. “Estimated budgets for some of the proposed shale projects ranged up to ($5 billion). As the projects progressed, a lot of new people and new money flowed into the area. Housing costs and expectations for businessmen soared throughout the Garfield County section of the Colorado River Valley.”
At this time the energy giant Exxon formed Battlement Mesa south of Parachute. “It was to be a company town, holding a projected 25,000 people by the 1990s,” Nelson wrote. “Parachute, population 200, was expected to swell to some 40,000, and the other towns up and down the Colorado River were to experience growth, economic benefits and skyrocketing real estate prices.”