Mesquite residents can be frustrated by the slowdowns they experience driving the Virgin River Gorge. It seems that repairs are needed all too frequently along this 29-mile stretch of Interstate 15 that snakes through the canyon between Mesquite and St George. The gorge dissects a little slice of Arizona, and one can fantasize driving through the Grand Canyon, popping out on the Colorado plateau as the gorge opens up at the crest of the hill to views of Pine Valley Mountains and Zion National Park.
Maintenance of this road is critical to the commercial and social well-being of southern Nevada and southern Utah. However, the freeway has at times been a burr under the saddle of Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) because it spends a significant portion of its federal highway funds on a segment of road that provides limited benefit to the state of Arizona. In fact, before it ponied up the funds to repair four bridges in 2016, Arizona threatened to charge a toll to recoup its costs for maintaining that stretch of interstate highway. That idea didn’t get past Utah, since that state loaned Arizona funds to build the highway back in the 1960s-1970s.
The current project repairing bridge surfaces, reduces traffic on the highway to one lane each way. Work will continue into mid-2020. In the meantime, this $6.4 million project eliminates all loads over 10 feet wide, and redirects those unfortunates to a weary detour that adds over 200 miles to a trip between Utah and Las Vegas.
It is hard today to visualize the daunting trip that was the only means of travel between “point A and point B” before I-15 was constructed. There wasn’t even a skinny 2-lane road through the canyon prior to the freeway. No vehicular road had been forged through that route of ancient peoples. All traffic was required to climb Utah Hill, a winding, dangerous stretch of Highway 91, that still serves as the “back road” to St George, now improved with passing lanes and widened roadway.
Several years ago Phil Tuckett and the Dixie State University film department produced a documentary, “My Father’s Highway,” that tells the story of the building of Interstate 15 through the gorge. The film tells the story of many of the local workers and the difficulties of building that stretch of road, one of the last segments completed in the federal interstate highway system. The film tells a saga of true grit, can-do attitude, and a little bit of scandal involving highway funds that may have bankrolled Las Vegas casinos in the Kennedy era.
The story of the crew that worked on the highway is more than remarkable. Max Blazzard, the superintendent of the ADOT crew that was assembled to oversee the job, was a World War II veteran who headed up a collection of contractors who employed young farm kids and war vets who literally risked their lives to make this dream of a road through the canyon come true.
The crew didn’t have the luxury of driving to work in the formative stages of the project. The canyon survey was done by helicopter. Horses were the early transportation for the workers who staked out the route using long steel poles that would hopefully withstand the flash floods that often swept through the narrows. During one flood, a huge grader sank into quicksand and was lost. It wasn’t uncommon for part of the crew to travel to work by rubber raft. The blasting crews took lessons from bighorn sheep as they rappelled and rock-hopped the ridges, setting dynamite to blast out ledges where cranes and steam shovels could be lowered in to scoop rock and shape the roadbed. Workers’ children were sometime treated to an after-hours ride in the swamp buggy tractor with huge tires that was one of the job’s “work trucks”.
There were accidents on the job due to the trial and error methods needed to complete this uncharted endeavor. Late in 1970, a tragic truck accident killed Jimmie Hughes of St George, leaving behind his wife and ten children. His namesake son, born two months after his death, is a current member of the St George City Council. Hughes’ loss hit the community hard. Yet the importance of this dangerous project is put into perspective by J. R. Frisby, who stated that 23 deaths were recorded due to traffic accidents on Utah Hill between 1967 and 1973 when the
Virgin Gorge section of Interstate 15 was finally dedicated. The final cost of that 29-mile section of interstate was $61 million (1973 dollars). The stretch of highway is named Veterans Memorial Highway, honoring those among the construction workers, along with others who have served their country.
In the 46 years that have passed since the opening of the Virgin River Gorge, major road rehabilitations have occurred. The value of that stretch of I-15, both locally and nationally, cannot be overstated. It is the life line for Mesquite, St George, and commerce all the way from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. How many of us retired to Mesquite because I-15 offered a quick trip back home to points east or west? For St George, I-15 and its truck traffic is a substitute for a railroad in making the city a commercial center. “Truck counters” can often count 200 trucks among the oncoming vehicles during a 40 minute drive between Mesquite and St George.
Next time you are stuck in traffic waiting for lanes to slowly merge, take a minute to enjoy the stupendous scenic cliffs you pass along the way. Snatch a look at those drill holes in the rock where men like Tuffy Ruth of Mesquite set dynamite charges to blast away the walls to make room for the roadway. Think of all the workers, then and now, who toil to build and maintain this remarkable road, and do their best to bring you safely home through the gorge.