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Highway History


Eisenhower Memorial Bore

The Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel in Colorado was originally going to be called the Straight Creek Tunnel, the name stemming from the valley where the west portal is located. However, in September 1969, Governor John Love proposed to rename it after former President Dwight E. Eisenhower, who had died on April 4, 1969. In 1972, the Colorado State Legislature officially designated it the Eisenhower Memorial Bore.

The name reflected the President's connections to Colorado. Mamie Eisenhower, the President's wife, grew up in Denver. In fact, the Eisenhowers were married in the gladioli-filled music room of the Douds' Denver house on July 1, 1916, and were frequent visitors to the State while he was President.

Governor Love signed a design contract for the 1.6-mile tunnel on February 23, 1966, with Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton and Chief Engineer Frank Turner among those in attendance. The signing took place at the Denver Hilton Hotel, site of the American Road Builders Association convention that year.

A Woman on the Job

Everyone anticipated engineering challenges. But no one expected the tunnel project to be a flashpoint in the women's liberation movement.

The story began in November 1970 when Miss Janet Bonnema contacted the Colorado Highway Department about several job openings. She met the qualifications (e.g., applicants had to be under the age of 68) and passed the required tests. She then received a letter from the Department advising that "Mr." Janet P. Bonnema would be employed at the Straight Creek Tunnel if "he" wanted the job.

Checking on the offer, Miss Bonnema was advised by a State employment officer not to take the position. "Women are taboo in the mines and tunnels of Colorado." He added, "Those workers would flat walk out of that there tunnel and they'd never come back."

She took the job, but after 18 months as an engineering technician, Ms. Bonnema had never been inside the tunnel. "I am not allowed to do the same work as the male engineering technicians, "she told a reporter, "even though I am physically able, in better condition and have more stamina than many of the male engineering technicians." Miss Bonnema, who rode her motorcycle to the job each day, had been captain of the University of Colorado ski team and regularly climbed mountains for sport. She also was a pilot.

The State acknowledged that Miss Bonnema was "smart as a whip" and was "doing a great job up there" but said the contractor wouldn't let any women, not even female reporters, in the tunnel.

Finally, on November 9, 1972, after Colorado's voters agreed to amend the State constitution to guarantee equal rights for women, Miss Bonnema made her first stroll into the tunnel. She was accompanied by several reporters, including a woman reporter. "Get those women out of here, "a worker shouted before 70 of 100 workmen walked off the job. At least one quit outright. He said, "They had a woman in the tunnel, and I will not work there for that reason. It's a jinx. I've seen too many die after a woman was in the tunnel."

Miss Bonnema paid no attention as she slogged through the mud. Of the walkout, she said, "They're making $8 to $10 an hour. What's the matter with them?"

The State estimated that the walkout cost about $10,000, but as expected the men returned the next day to complete the job.

The Opening

The Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel opened on March 8, 1973, following a ceremony that was held inside the tunnel's east portal because of the 34-degree temperature and occasional snow flurries. Members of the Eisenhower family had been invited but did not attend. However, Mamie wrote to Governor Love, saying, "How proud Ike would have been with this honor, for he loved Denver and Colorado."

Governor Love called the tunnel "a tremendous accomplishment for Colorado." He said:

Historically, the people of Colorado have since the beginning sought transportation access to the West, by tracks and trails over the mountains, by railroads crawling their way over deep passes, by the Moffat [railroad] Tunnel, and by improved, modern highways.

This tunnel, as part of the interstate system, represents the most recent, and possibly the most effective, answer to tying east and west Colorado together and opening the way West.

Nearly 6,000 people were employed on the tunnel project at various times over 5 years. They worked about 4.9 million "manhours"(the sexist term is appropriate in this case) and blasted and drilled through 7,789 feet of rock and earth under the Continental Divide. Three men lost their life working on the project.

The first driver through the tunnel received a summons-for trespassing. The historic moment occurred in late 1972, when a driver who had been drinking decided that he, not Governor Love, should have the honor of being the first person to drive through the tunnel. He had to drive past the signs prohibiting traffic and through foot-deep mining "muck" and mud. When he emerged, his car was covered with the "goofy stuff," according to a construction spokesman. But Marion Wooldridge was first, as he explained to Judge George Gaubatz of Clear Creek County Court. The judge dismissed the charge on the grounds that the signs prohibiting traffic at the tunnel entrance weren't adequate.

The Johnson Tunnel

Although the two-lane Eisenhower tunnel carried traffic in both directions, more than 1 million vehicles had passed through it by July 1973. The contract for the second bore, named after former Governor and U.S. Senator Edwin C. Johnson, was signed in August 1975. The second bore opened on December 21, 1979.

At 9,000 feet, the Eisenhower/Johnson memorial tunnels are the longest tunnel built with Interstate funds. They are located at the highest point of elevation on the Interstate System. For more information, see the Colorado Department of Transportation's website at: http://www.coloradodot.info/travel/eisenhower-tunnel/eisenhower-memorial-bore.html

Updated: 03/15/2023
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