Red Cliff Bridge — endangered but not in danger
Venerated Eagle County structure gets special preservation attention with listing as one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places
The distinctive, green deck arch bridge that spans cliff walls above the town of Red Cliff has been one of Eagle County’s most venerated monuments since its dedication in 1941.
As of 2021, it is also one of the state’s Most Endangered Places according to Colorado Preservation Inc.
Lest that announcement cause undue concern, “endangered” does not mean in imminent danger of destruction. In fact, it’s a declaration that the bridge is unique and should be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.
What’s more, the Red Cliff Bridge is not alone — it is one of 20 bridges that made Colorado Preservation Inc.’s Most Endangered Places list this year.
“What we are really trying to do is increase public awareness about the significance of these bridges and the roles they played in our communities,” said Kim Grant, director of Colorado Preservation Inc.’s Endangered Places Program. “I want to assure people there is no plan to replace the bridge. It is a terrific example of the historic bridges of Colorado and why we have to save them. We don’t want the public to take these bridges for granted.”
The bridge effort is a partnership between the preservation group and the Colorado Department of Transportation. Lisa Schoch, CDOT environmental protection specialist and senior historian, submitted the bridge program nomination to the most endangered places program.
“In Colorado, historic bridges reflect the state’s diverse geography of mountains, mesas and plains, and associated challenges with traversing those landscapes,” Schoch stated in her nomination. “Bridge preservation provides an opportunity to tangibly connect the past with the present.”
Over the past 35 years, CDOT has compiled an extensive inventory of bridges in the state. As a result of that work, CDOT identified 46 historic bridges located on federal or state highways. Schock noted that CDOT recently launched Phase II of its historic bridge management plan, which will identify up to 20 on-system bridges that the agency will commit to preserving in place. Those 20 structures are the focus of the Most Endangered Places designation.
Among those 20 structures, the Red Cliff Bride is a shining star.
“It is one of the most iconic bridges on our system,” Schock said.
“It is truly an iconic bridge and an example of the type of bridge that deserves protection and support in Colorado,” Grant agreed.
And, nearly 80 years after it first went into service, the Red Cliff Bridge is still doing its job.
“Bridges are functional transportation infrastructure and they have to work,” Schock noted. “The Red Cliff Bridge is in great shape.”
In 2004, CDOT completed a repair and restoration project on the bridge.
Built to last
In 2015, CDOT collaborated with local author and historian Kathy Heicher for her book “The Bridges of Eagle County.” The book highlights seven local bridges and the impact they had in the settlement of the Eagle Valley. The book culminates with the story of the Red Cliff Bridge.
“Colorado Governor Edwin Johnson, during a campaign visit to Red Cliff in June of 1934, took note of the six miles of danger roads on Battle Mountain and promised immediate attention,” Heicher writes in “The Bridges of Eagle County.”
That campaign promise eventually led to reconstruction of U.S. Highway 24 at Red Cliff and the community’s truss bridge, over the Eagle River and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad tracks, was replaced. That bridge remains in service as the local access into the town via the lower entrance road. But the state’s overall highway safety plan included a larger vision.
A front-page headline of the Holy Cross Trail on May 31, 1940, declared “Bad Road Being Eliminated By ‘Arch’ Bridge.” As Heicher’s book notes, the new bridge would carry traffic over the river, the railroad tracks and the existing highway as it spanned the Eagle River Canyon. State engineers determined that a steel arch would be the most economic and practical approach to the dangerous road conditions.
“By June of 1940, large crews of highway construction workers swarmed into Red Cliff,” Heicher writes. “The challenges of constructing the arch ribs were considerable.”
The work began during a chilly November that saw temperatures hovering around negative 18 degrees some mornings. When riveters began their work, they carried out their operations on a platform suspended high in the canyon by cables.
“Each morning, the men took their lunches with them in anticipation of a full day of work, suspended in mid-air,” Heicher writes. “The winter winds blew continually up the canyon. The men were hoisted to their work in cable buckets and were brought down again only at the close of the day’s work. At times, construction workers had to be let down by sky hooks.”
Almost two years after work began, the Red Cliff Bridge was completed at a cost of $139,627.50. Its official dedication took place on Aug. 3, 1941. Colorado Governor Ralph Carr and State Highway Engineer Charles Vail presided at the ceremony. During the celebration, dignitaries noted that the new arch bridge was built without a single accident.
Pride in their work
Schoch noted that the effort to recognize and preserve historic bridges isn’t just about architecture. It is also about the history that accompanies it.
“There is sense that people were taking pride in what they were building,” she noted. Historic structures, such as the Red Cliff Bridge, reflect a graceful design that is often missing from modern, utilitarian structures.
“Bridges have an astonishing amount of history to them — where they are built and the reasons why they were built in the first place,” Heicher agreed. “The river-spanning structures are physical proof of the ingenuity and ambitions of early-day pioneers, who often lacked formal engineering expertise, yet could figure out how to construct an effective wooden bridge that would support horses and wagons.”
Bridges reflect progress and political fortune, Heicher continued. “Bridges also tell the story of ambitious community leaders fighting hard to ensure that their communities remain relevant by being part of a modern highway system.”
“The magnificent steel arch bridge at Red Cliff, built in 1940, is a story of Depression-era economic recovery programs and significant road safety improvements,” Heicher said.
“We are interested in the stories behind these bridges and the people who built them and brought them to the region. There is some fascinating history there,” Grant said. “We are just trying to foster a greater appreciation for this resource. They really are monumental structures and wonderful to behold.”
As the state works with Colorado Preservation, Inc. to detail the stories of the 20 historic bridges that are part of the Most Endangered Places designation, Schock hopes local communities are likewise inspired.
“My hope is that with this nomination, local communities will look harder at their bridges and their local history,” Schock said.
Since 1998, Colorado Preservation Inc. has been working with communities throughout the state to save endangered historic buildings, landscapes and archaeological sites through its Endangered Places Program.
This year marks the 24th anniversary of Colorado Preservation Inc.’s Most Endangered Places list. The program provides advocacy, awareness and technical assistance to significant historic sites throughout Colorado that are in danger of being lost. Colorado Preservation Inc. devotes staff time and resources to rally concerned citizens and build local capacity so that listed, as well as un-listed sites, can be saved. In 23 years, the Colorado’s Most Endangered Places program has highlighted 127 historic sites throughout the state; 50 sites have been saved and only seven have been lost. The program has a wide reach, with sites located in every region of the state in 49 of the 64 counties.