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Thank you, Charley Vail

It’s that time of year when those of us on the Western Slope of Colorado take bets about reaching Denver due to weather conditions, accidents and traffic on I-70.  While these considerations are valid, especially given the large number of travelers every day on I-70, the route to Denver was even longer in 1936.  At that time, “…the most popular road from Denver to Grand Junction is through Fairplay, Buena Vista and Leadville,” according to Colorado Highway Engineer Charles D. Vail [Eagle Valley Enterprise June 19, 1936 p.1].   It then continued over Tennessee Pass and through Minturn. The search to shorten that route and find one less difficult to manage during winter conditions began with Charley Vail.  He had proposed a cutoff that passed through a saddle 1,000 feet lower than Shrine Pass, following Gore Creek down to Minturn.  In 1936, it was called a pipe dream.

Top of Vail Pass looking east toward Summit County with Squaw Peak in the background.

By 1960, however, the Colorado Highway Commission had approved an interstate routed through the Eagle River valley.  The route would go through Dillon, Dowd and Vail Pass and include a tunnel along straight Creek near Dillon.  The next few years saw the plan developed and explained to the public in many meetings and presentations. One of the last decisions to be made was whether to route traffic over Vail Pass or to construct a twin-tunnel, 4-lane highway through Red Buffalo Pass, basically going through a segment of the Gore Range-Eagle’s Nest primitive area.  Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman had placed over 2 million acres of land into Wilderness Areas during his tenure, “…so you can be sure that I will be alert and concerned lest Wilderness lands be unnecessarily invaded.” [Eagle Valley Enterprise, Jan. 11, 1968 p.1]

Gore Creek valley

The decision came to route traffic over Vail Pass, much to the credit of Secretary Freeman and fulfilling the vision of Charley Vail.  As I-70 across Colorado was being built, that segment over Vail Pass was funded at $5,208.425 for a mile and one- tenth in April 1975.  Resident engineer appointed to oversee the completion was Jim Nimon of Eagle, one of the major supporters of the Eagle County Historical Society.

Stabilizing hillsides during construction.

“Much of the structural work is to protect Vail’s water supply, which originates in Black Gore Creek in a narrow valley where elaborate precautions must be taken to prevent the intrusion of fill material into the stream.  This will be done by means of reinforced earth construction.”  [Eagle Valley Enterprise April 3, 1975 p.2]

Reinforced earth construction.

Concrete supports.

Elevating the road bed.

During construction, the drive over Vail Pass was not improved by detours at Gore Creek where the grade was 10 percent and the very short construction season left detours in place for months at a time.   It was a happy day when I-70 over Vail was complete.  The complaints in 1978, after a winter of driving the new Interstate, relate primarily to drivers going too fast for conditions.  At least that part hasn’t changed.

Main Vail exit.

Near the bottom on the west side of Vail Pass, going into Vail.

  Photos from the 1970s with permission from the Colorado Department of Transportation.


fascinating, as usual. thanks Anne L

Jaci - you ALWAYS find interesting topics of the area. What a difference the highway made, and what an influx of people came with it!!!

What a fascinating post! I did not know Jim Nimon was involved with this.

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