Editor’s note: The following feature was submitted to the Laramie Boomerang in recognition of the 50th anniversary on Oct. 3 of the completion of the Laramie-Walcott section of Interstate 80.
It was a beautiful autumn morning in Arlington on Saturday, Oct. 3, 1970.
A perfect day for a late-season ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the last major section of Interstate 80 to be completed across the state (only a short section east of Cheyenne remained).
Known as the Laramie-Walcott stretch, this 77-mile section of highway between Laramie and Rawlins has the distinction of being the longest section of Interstate to be open at one time in the United States.
There is a simple reason why this was the longest section of Interstate to open at one time; there was no adjacent highway to route traffic. In the era of the construction of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, new Interstates were constructed adjacent to or near an existing highway.
Motorists of the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, encountered a giant construction zone where drivers would travel about 10 miles on a newly completed stretch of highway before being diverted back onto the existing adjacent highway. For drivers of this era, it was back and forth between the old two-lane road and the new four-lane Interstate highway. The Laramie-Walcott project had no such road to divert traffic. The 77-mile section had to be constructed in its entirety as one long stretch.
The anomaly of a long stretch of major Interstate highway like the coast-to-coast I-80 being constructed in a remote area away from an existing highway was confusing to Wyomingites. The remaining sections of I-80 were constructed adjacent to or very near existing U.S. Highway 30 — the highway, originally known as the Lincoln Highway, that I-80 essentially replaced.
The origin of the confusion begins with a Federal Bureau of Public Roads (predecessor of the Federal Highway Administration that was established in 1967) report that was released on May 1, 1956. The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) began examining a new route for U.S. 30 late in 1955. The focus of the BPR report centered on the section of the Federal-Aid Highway Act that states that routes should be as direct as possible.
The bureau recognized in its report that, “The only opportunity for shortening U.S. 30 an appreciable amount is between Laramie and Walcott Junction.”
The Wyoming Highway Commission opposed the shorter route and, two weeks after the release of the federal report, responded to the BPR stating that it “hereby expresses its opposition to any major changes in the existing location of the interstate highway, U.S. 30, between Laramie and Walcott Junction.” The commission opposed the direct route because of the economic impact the bypass would have on the U.S. 30 communities between Laramie and Walcott, and it opposed the route because of dangerous weather conditions that are common near Elk Mountain.
The state’s requests to locate I-80 near U.S. 30 were denied repeatedly.
The highway department conducted a series of origin and destination studies in the late 1950s. Motorists were asked during a roadside interview if they would use a new route that saves 19 miles between Laramie and Walcott. Nearly 90% of drivers, mostly out-of-state travelers, said they would utilize the shorter route. Those same motorists said they had no plans to stop in the towns the new highway would bypass — Rock River, Medicine Bow and Hanna.
After three years of being denied its request to locate I-80 along U.S. 30, and much to the displeasure of many Wyomingites, during its May 15, 1959, meeting, the Wyoming Highway Commission voted to accept the federally proposed direct route for I-80. At that same meeting, the Commission voted to delay construction on the Laramie-Walcott stretch to help protect the economies of the U.S. 30 communities. Construction was delayed seven years.
Before construction had even begun on this section in the summer of 1966, I-80 already was opened to traffic from Walcott Junction in a westerly direction to Rawlins, and from Laramie in an easterly direction to Cheyenne (only a short section near the summit remained under construction.)
The clock ticked for another four years before the road was completed and opened to traffic. From the time the routing debate began in May 1956 to the time it opened to traffic on Oct. 3, 1970, more than 14 years had passed. During this time, the 77-mile gap grew into something of a mystery and obscurity for Wyomingites and I-80 travelers.
Myths began to spread around the state about the origin of the route. Some said Lady Bird Johnson was responsible for the location of I-80. Rumor had it that the first lady flew over the debate zone, and, upon seeing the landscape, said something to the effect of, “Put it there,” referring to locating the road near the scenic mountains versus keeping it on the wind-swept plains along Highway 30.
This myth is steeped in the so-called Lady Bird Laws, which dealt with highway beautification. The Highway Beautification Act happened to be implemented by the federal government just prior to construction beginning on the Laramie-Walcott section. At the time of the passing of the law, the first lady happened to be in Wyoming. She was in Green River for the dedication of Flaming Gorge Dam and Reservoir. The coincidence of the occurrence of unrelated events led to this rumor-turned-myth.
It did not take long for the Laramie-Walcott section to take on a new and unfortunate title. Just four days after Gov. Stan Hathaway cut the ribbon to open I-80, a winter storm shut down the highway.
The Snow Chi Minh Trail was born.
Conventional winter-maintenance techniques were no match for the new highway. This 77-mile stretch of road became a testing ground for the highway department. An all-new and much larger snow fence was designed to replace the recurve fence the department relied on for many decades.
The first snow fences were installed in 1971. In the early years of the highway, the Wyoming Highway Department had no way of closing I-80. By 1973, it installed road closure gates at Laramie and Walcott — perhaps the first use of gates on a major U.S. highway.
The use of variable message signs also was ushered in, when, in 1976, overhead signs were placed at the Curtis Street Exit in Laramie and at Walcott Junction. The department, which was later renamed Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) in 1991, also initiated the variable speed limit (VSL) on this section of road.
In the fall 2008, the department announced the new program. Then director John Cox said of the VSL, “What we’re trying to do is create new driving habits on this section of highway particularly prone to extreme weather conditions that can change quickly. Our goals are to reduce crashes, save lives and decrease crash-related highway closures.”
The Snow Chi Minh Trail is a story about a major transcontinental highway that was constructed in a do-not-enter zone. The fact that the infamous title is no longer commonly used is the result of the WYDOT’s unending efforts to improve road and travel conditions, highway safety and information technology.
Some places have lots of wind. Some places have lots of snow, and some places have busy transcontinental highways. Few locations have all three.
Together, the three create a collision course — 90 mph winds, frequent winter blizzards and thousands and thousands of cars and trucks passing through the area each day — coming together in a dangerous mix.
Although the highway conditions have been tamed through decades of innovative safety improvements, this stretch of road continues to demand the highest level of attention and resources from the Wyoming Department of Transportation.