by Elspeth Kuta
The 500-million-year-old Virgin River Gorge, located in the far northwestern corner of the state of Arizona features some of the most stunning displays of both engineering and scenery along the approximately 47,000 miles of interstate highway system. Despite the challenging terrain, the Federal Highway Administration opted to cut a direct path through the Gorge to bypass twelve miles of a more treacherous part of Highway 91 over Utah Hill.
This portion of the freeway was the most expensive highway ever built at the time. The cost of the 29 mile, four lane highway was $10 million per mile for a total of approximately $290 million dollars. The price today would be around $50 million per mile, or a total of approximately $1.45 billion. After eight years of construction, the highway opened in 1973.
From the beginning, the project looked like a civil engineers nightmare. James Van Horn, Arizona state engineer in 1961 said the Gorge was a good place for a road or a river, but not both. Chief Project Supervisor Max Blazzard of District 5 highway Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) undertook the ten-year project, stating it was the highlight of his highway career.
For the construction crews to reach the interior of the Gorge, almost every means of transportation was employed — helicopters, trucks, rubber rafts, and horses. The purchase from Texas of a swamp buggy with balloon tires enabled the work to go forward in the most difficult terrain. Much of the equipment had to be hauled by hand or winched up the steep mountain sides making for very dangerous working conditions.
On one occasion, quicksand swallowed a 40-foot bridge piling. Crews left one evening after driving all but 10 feet of the steel pole into the river bottom. The next morning when they returned to the scene, the piling had vanished.
Flash flooding was another danger. It was not uncommon for a 10-foot wall of debris and water to rush unannounced down the river. So, the contractor established an early warning system upstream to give the workers enough time to evacuate if the river level rose suddenly.
To accommodate the roadway through the twisting canyon, the course of the river was altered 12 times, and seven bridges were built.
There is evidence that prehistoric people lived in the canyon as long as 2,000 years ago. These people probably originated from the great basin of the north and west. They would have been hunter/gatherers using wooden bows, stone tipped arrows, and rudimentary tools for survival.
Later, around 900 A.D., came an agricultural-based people from the east. It is thought they were cousins to the Pueblo people who lived at Mesa Verde. To find artifacts from the Gorge, visit the Museum of Northern Arizona or the Arizona State Museum.
Today, approximately 23,000 cars travel through the Virgin River Gorge every day. It is also part of the CANAMEX trade corridor which transports goods from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada as far south as Mexico City. Back in the day (1914) the early settlers considered 15 cars on the old Arrowhead Highway somewhat of a miracle, and nobody ever visualized a road through The Narrows, the Virgin River Gorge.
There are a couple things that I, personally, look for when going through the Gorge. The first is mile marker 23, Shivwits Arch, and another rock formation that looks like a battleship.
One of the things you will hear locals say is that it is never boring. The scenery changes with the time of day and season. Occasionally, you will see rock climbers hanging off the cliffs. There are also hiking trails for the adventurous.
If you were to ask any one of the workers who worked on this project, they will tell you with great pride that this is their road.
The Virgin River Gorge, where else can you experience 500 million years of astounding geology without stepping out of your vehicle?
There is a reason the speed limit is 55 mph. Enjoy the view.