The story of the building of what was the most expensive stretch of freeway in America unfolded at the Founder’s Forum, which is part of the Mesquite Days celebration. The annual event also included a report on the current repairs to bridges on the highway, which is a story of its own.
The April 30 Forum was introduced by Darlene Reese, who is president of the historical society, and moderated by Merlin Hafen. Hafen noted that the hour-long Forum was recorded, and would be kept at the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum for future generations.
The guest panel included two men who worked on the building of the highway, Tuffy Ruth and Sam Reber, and the current project manager for bridge repairs, Winter DeLaMare of Wadsworth Brothers construction.
Ruth worked for all three contractors that were involved in the initial construction of the gorge freeway. He worked as a driller’s assistant blasting the rock to make way for the highway. “The fun part was blowing it up,” said Ruth. During the course of the work, the crews changed the course of the river three or four times. Ruth explained “The canyon was only about 38 feet wide in places when we started.”
Environmental concerns were few during the construction. “We couldn’t build that road today with the environmental regulations today,” said Ruth.
Current project manager Winter DeLaMare told the forum that environmental concerns represented about $10 million of the $30 million cost of the bridge project. “We have all the controls in place to make sure nothing is damaging the river,” DeLaMare said. He went on to explain how they even use large magnets to pick up any stray wires or bolts that may fall into the river or the bank.
DeLaMare said they are regulated today by numerous agencies both state and federal. Agencies involved range from state fish and wildlife agencies to the BLM and even the U.S. Coast Guard. “We have the Coast Guard involved because the Virgin River is considered a navigable stream.”
Tuffy Ruth noted that the biggest regulatory issue during the original construction was safety regulations. “The safety rules were put in blood before it was in ink.”
In the summer of 1968 Reber started work using an army amphibious tank that was driven through the river looking for places to put supports for the bridges. “We were supposed to find five feet of solid rock to put the piers on,” Reber told the audience. He explained how they worked 12 hour shifts so that the construction equipment was always in use. Reber said that “At that time the going wage for laborers was about $3.50 an hour, I got paid $8 an hour and thought I was in hog heaven.”
Costs have changed for both labor and construction since the 1970’s. Then the average cost of freeway construction then was a million a mile, today replacing 600 feet of bridge in the Gorge is costing $30 million for 600 feet. DeLaMare explained that just the one bridge repair was costing “as much as the total cost of building the entire project in 1970.”
One of the reasons for the high costs of today’s work on the highway is managing traffic. The contractor is required to limit road closures to 20 minutes. DeLaMare explained that when they do closures they try and do them at night when there is little traffic, “Traffic is a major cost of the project.”
One cost is replacing barrels that are hit by cars. “We have one man who 7 days a week does nothing but replace barrels that foolish drivers seem to bang into,” said DeLaMare. “The truck drivers tell me there are more people willing to die than let that big truck get in front of them.”
Positive news was that Wadsworth Brothers expect to complete the bridge repair work several months early, possibly by December or early January.
A feature length film of the construction of the Virgin Valley Gorge freeway was done by Dixie State University. Those interested in seeing the film should contact the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum.