Vail Daily column: The story behind the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel
Last weekend, we cruised through one our favorite stretches of Interstate 70. All three kids shouted “tunnel!” as we approached the entrance, and the whoops and hollers continued all the way through. Yeah, you know the one. The Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel system, or EJMT.
What’s the story behind these tunnels? Initially opened in 1973, they’re the highest in the world, whisking 11 million automobiles per year from one side of the Continental Divide to the other. They’re one of Colorado’s most iconic and impactful arteries and have a remarkable history.
Before digging into the tunnels, first a quiz: Who are they named after?
Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson? Actually, the Johnson Tunnel is named after Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson — our former senator and governor, who was the EJMT’s most vociferous advocate.
Big Ed astutely argued that completion of the tunnels would catalyze the biggest boom in mountain towns since the Colorado gold rush. And boy did they. Suddenly meager ski burgs like Breckenridge were connected not just to Denver but to the east. They flourished rather than decaying away like other former mining towns.
The tunnels marked a national turning point in the fight for workplace equality. CDOT (then called the Division of Highways) accidentally hired engineer Janet Bonnema to work on the tunnel, after mis-spelling her name and thinking she was a guy named “Jamet.” First they tried to rescind their offer, telling her “a tunnel was no place for a woman.” But she persisted and began work on the tunnel project. After a year and a half of being relegated to outside-of-the-tunnel work, she was fed up and ready to collect her instrument readings in the tunnel, just like her male counterparts did. After she sued for equal treatment, the courts forced a change to state and national transportation workplace policies. Janet began work in the tunnels on Nov 9, 1972. On the first day, 66 men walked off the job in protest. But she did her job well and paved the way for other women to pursue careers in construction, mining and transportation.
Building the tunnels through the Continental Divide was tough. Seven workers died during construction, and many dozens suffered amputations or other life-changing injuries. In part this was because of poor workplace safety practices, and in part because the mining was challenging — miners had to navigate a horde of geologic problems, ranging from groundwater-soaked schist to fractured and faulted granite.
Compared to the interval of tunnel construction, today’s tunnels are surprisingly safe. Not a single death has occurred in 40 years of operation. In small part this is because most trucks carrying hazardous materials are diverted over Loveland Pass, and because the tunnels have many engineering features to facilitate motorist safety. Like special lighting, which helps alleviate the exit-blinding that happens when motorists leave the tunnel. But the main thing that keeps the tunnels safe is their war room and staff. They help mitigate the hundreds of breakdowns and accidents that occur each year in the tunnels. They also monitor and funnel outward the toxic fumes emitted by cars.
Although there are only a few fires per year in the tunnels, they’re a major concern. For comparison, California’s 2007 Newhall Pass tunnel fire was triggered by a traffic-accident and left three dead, 10 injured, 30 vehicles damaged and the tunnel closed for five weeks. The good news is that an overhead fire suppression system is in the works, to prevent such a disaster in the EJMT.
Unfortunately, not all tunnel emergencies can be resolved by technology. Like when you’re stuck in tunnel traffic and your kid suddenly says “Papa — I have to go to the bathroom really, really bad.” And that’s a bummer about the EJMT; there’s no shoulder nor are there bathrooms there anymore because they were shut down after 9/11.
So what’s next for the tunnels? No doubt they’ll continue to evolve. I hope their future also includes a pit stop or a fun coat of paint.
James Hagadorn, Ph.D., is a scientist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Suggestions and comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.