Museum event focuses on ‘Snow Chi Minh Trail’


EVANSTON — “I was born and raised in Green River and attended the University of Wyoming so I have spent a lot of time on Interstate 80; and being stuck in Laramie because of weather conditions.  That 77 miles between Rawlins and Laramie is a nasty stretch of road,” University of Wyoming Archivist John Waggener told the audience at the Uinta County Museum’s brown bag lunch last month.

Waggener was the keynote speaker at the August lunch series to discuss the research in his book, titled “Snow Chi Minh Trail: A History of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction” (50th Anniversary Edition). Waggener said the history behind the development of I-80 became a personal interest due to having traveled that stretch of miles many times. 

In his research, Waggener found that the Wyoming Highway Commission had assumed that the Interstate would just follow U.S. 30 but the Federal government had different plans.  The feds, Waggener said, wanted to cut off approximately 20 miles on the journey by using a different route.  The route the Feds planned would bypass communities and had serious winter conditions.

From 1956 through 1959, the I-80 vs. US 30 debate took place in the U.S. Senate.  It even continued up until 1973.  Senator Gayle McGee fought long and hard with the Federal Bureau of Public Roads but the Wyoming Highway Commission lost the debate.  An interesting fact, Waggener shared, was that during the debate in the 1950s, Wyoming Highway Department set up stations on the highway and asked motorists if they would rather save 20 miles on their journey or be able to stop in towns along the way. Ninety percent responded that they would rather save the 20 miles. 

Since the Interstate highway is federal and motorists from all over the country travel it on their way to somewhere else, the thinking was that saving the mileage was most important, Waggener said, and added that the trucking and bus industries had a powerful lobby with the Senate.  A lot of compromise routes were proposed; one going next to Elk Mountain and another to join I-25 from Casper at Laramie but Waggener said, “The feds had their own plan.”

Waggener said for years there was a myth that Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, had something to do with choosing the route.  Lady Bird had come to Wyoming in 1965 for the dedication of Flaming Gorge Dam and the myth was that she told them to put the highway next to Elk Mountain as part of her highway beautification project. 

“However,” Waggener said, “Lady Bird Johnson was never in that area and the route for I-80 was proposed in 1955, ten years prior to her visit. So we can put that myth to bed.”

Construction began on I-80 the summer of 1966 and it took four years to build the 77 miles between Laramie and Walcott Junction. On Oct. 3, 1970, a dedication ceremony and ribbon cutting was held at Arlington with 400 people in attendance. Motorists traveling from a football game at UW were a captured audience due to the ceremony held in the middle of the highway. 

Four days after the ceremony, I-80 was closed due to winter weather. Waggener said, “The people of Wyoming could have said, ‘We told you so!’”

Waggener used the name “Snow Chi Minh Trail” because Wyomingites called it that. He found a story in the Rawlins Daily Times dated Oct. 12, 1970, referencing the U.S. bomber raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the description of the weather there that matched the weather on I-80 in Wyoming which he thought may have been the origin for people in Wyoming giving the 77 miles of I-80 the name.

When journalist Charles Kuralt traveled I-80 in Wyoming for a feature story in January of 1972, he called it the worse road in the U.S.  In Kuralt’s book “On the Road,” he mentions the Valentine’s Day massacre, a major pile-up of motorists on I-80, where he and his photographer took an injured woman in their car to the hospital in Laramie.

Waggener continued the history of I-80 in Wyoming with a discussion of the creation of snow fences to control the snow drifts in order to maintain travel. Different styles of fences were used and none were sufficient to stop the massive amounts of drifting snow due to excessive wind. There were 24 areas with major problems with drifting snow and wind.

WYDOT had never dealt with anything like this before so they enlisted the help of the Forest Service. Together they researched with scale models to see which style of fence would work.  Finally, in 1971 they came up with what is known and used around the world as the Wyoming fence. That 12-foot-high snow fence is still being used today.

“The Wyoming fence should be our icon, like the cowboy. The Union Pacific was putting up snow fences within weeks of our becoming a territory in 1868,” Waggener said.

The next problem WYDOT faced was how to control traffic when roads needed to be closed.  From 1970 through 1973, hundreds of motorists had been stranded on the highway. WYDOT’s first solution was to have personnel stand out on the highway at the closure point waving a stop sign, which was a waste of manpower and unsafe.

In 1973, WYDOT installed the first gate at Laramie and Walcott Junction. From 1991 through the present day, drop down gates and overhead information signs were installed. Variable speed limit signs were placed on the highway in 2008 and expanded in 2010. WYDOT also placed sand sheds across I-80 and established a mission control center in Cheyenne that manages the signs, electricity, and data.

“History is the present as well as the old history. What will be the future for I-80? Increased traffic? A recent study showed that 60% of all traffic on I-80 is commercial trucks. WYDOT is building more parking lots on I-80 and braking lanes for trucks in order to manage safety,” Waggener said. “A UW professor is currently working on a computer program that could connect communication between all trucks on the highway.”

Waggener wrapped up his presentation, “Thank you for coming. Be safe and enjoy wonderful Wyoming.  By the way, the proceeds from the sale of my book go to the Wyoming Historical Society and to the Uinta County Museum.”

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