Eisenhower Tunnels history recounted in new display boards

Denver — New display boards installed at the Dillon Reservoir Overlook on I-70 in Summit County and at the Georgetown Visitors Center in Clear Creek County will help residents and visitors understand the history of the area and the development of the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels on I-70. “The Eisenhower and Johnson Tunnels are among the most important transportation developments in the history of Colorado,” noted Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) Executive Director Don Hunt.

The displays, which measure 70 inches wide by 30 inches high, were developed by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the History Colorado State Historical Fund with the help of consultant firms Morgan Angel, Inc., and Junda Designs, both of Denver.

“These new displays will help residents and visitors alike understand the historical context of the tunnels and how they have facilitated travel not only between Colorado’s east and west slopes, but between the Midwest and the West, as well,” Hunt said.

First attempts to develop a railroad tunnel beneath the Continental Divide date to the late 1800s, with first dreams of highway tunnels following in the 1920s and 1930s. Planning was complicated and delayed by the Great Depresssion, by World War II, and by funding questions until the project finally got underway at the Straight Creek bore, today’s Eisenhower (westbound) Tunnel, in 1968.

The Eisenhower Tunnel was opened to two-way traffic in March, 1973. Vehicular traffic so greatly exceeded projections that Colorado Department of Highways (CDOH) officials almost immediately began planning the second bore, today’s Edwin C. Johnson Memorial Tunnel (eastbound), which opened in 1979. Combined, the two projects covered nine years of construction and cost $262 million.

More than 28,000 vehicles pass through the tunnels each day on average. The largest monthly totals exceed 1.2 million vehicles; March, at the height of the ski season, and July, at the height of the summer visitor season, tend to be the heaviest travel months. A total of more than 325 million vehicles have traveled through the tunnels since the first bore opened in 1973.

“I’m most proud of the fact we’ve had 41 years of operation here without a fatal accident,” noted Mike Salamon, Tunnels Maintenance Section Superintendent for CDOT.  Salamon, who will retire at the end of June, has worked his entire 37-year CDOH and CDOT career at the tunnels.

“We have operated continuously since our opening in 1973, and through the years we’ve had some very unusual incidents here,” Salamon added. “Our safety record is a testament to the training and response to emergencies by our employees.”

Today’s tunnels operation consists of approximately 50 CDOT employees who work in shifts around the clock every day all year long. Their specialty areas include tunnels maintenance and operation, electrical operations, mechanical and wastewater operations, and emergency response capabilities.  Out of sight of motorists who drive through the tunnels is a complex consisting of a control room, 28 huge ventilation fans each capable of moving one-half million cubic feet of air per minute, and an array of response vehicles and equipment designed to handle nearly any emergency situation which might arise.


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