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Glenwood Canyon by Conrad F. Schader

Review by Ed Quillen

Transportation – March 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

Glenwood Canyon – From Origin to Interstate
by Conrad F. Schader
Published in 1996 by Regio Alta Publications
ISBN 0-9634479-1-2

EVERY SO OFTEN, the state of Colorado does something right. For instance, there is the Colorado Library Card, a free sticker which lets you check out and return books at almost every library in the state. There is also the GOCO fund, which provides the trails and open space that we were supposed to get from the lottery money in the first place, except that our legislature decided to spend it on new and improved prisons.

And there is Glenwood Canyon, a marvelous 12½ miles of highway engineering. To be sure, the best way to enjoy the canyon scenery is still the bar car of the California Zephyr, but the road is a dandy. It handles traffic safely and smoothly while providing superlative views of a majestic canyon and offering numerous opportunities to pull over for a picnic, a hike, or some fishing.

This did not occur by accident, and Conrad F. Schader devotes much of his Glenwood Canyon to explaining how a bitter conflict produced such an exquisite resolution.

On one side were the highway advocates, who wanted four lanes jammed through the narrow canyon, come what may.

Opponents attacked the route — if a divided highway was necessary at all, why not bypass the canyon? And the need for four lanes — couldn’t this be an exception to interstate standards, since the canyon was so narrow and presumably fragile.

Advocates countered that Glenwood Canyon was hardly virgin wilderness — it held a hydroelectric plant that often dried the river, as well as the main line of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, and an overcrowded, dangerous, twisting two-lane highway.

There were court battles, public-hearing battles, and public-opinion battles featuring John Denver attempting to throw a silver dollar across the river. Eventually, compromises were hammered out. At nearly $500 million, Glenwood Canyon is the most expensive stretch of rural interstate in America — and it’s probably worth every penny.

That important part of the canyon’s story is well told in this book. The rest seems more like a collection of anecdotes — mostly interesting and well told, though — than like a coherent narrative. It includes a brief history of Glenwood Springs, including Doc Holliday’s death, along with reminisces from the railroaders who nurse trains through the tunnels and rock-slide zones.

I’d have enjoyed more context, since the Glenwood Canyon route had competitors.

For instance, why did the rail route to Grand Junction through Glenwood Canyon survive to this day, while the Marshall Pass route to Grand Junction was abandoned more than 40 years ago?

If the idea of I-70 was a direct highway route from Denver to Salt Lake City, why not take the shortest route, approximately U.S. 40, rather than wending through these canyons? Was it politics or engineering that made these decisions?

So there’s a lot of what I’d like to read about Glenwood Canyon that does not appear between these covers.

However, the book offers quite a bit of information, and the major story to date — the design and construction of I-70 through the canyon — is told thoroughly and well.

— Ed Quillen