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From how it got its name to who drove through it first, here are some fun facts about the Eisenhower Tunnel

The Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel turns 50 on Wednesday
Posted: 8:00 PM, Mar 07, 2023
Updated: 2023-03-08 13:55:29-05
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DENVER — You drive through it many weekends out of the year, but how many times have you stopped to think where the name for the tunnel you drive through to get through I-70 to the mountains comes from? Or what systems are in place to stop fires if they occur inside? Here are some fun facts about the Eisenhower Tunnel.

It wasn’t originally called the Eisenhower Tunnel

The Eisenhower-Edwin C. Johnson Memorial Tunnel, more commonly now known as just the Eisenhower Tunnel, was originally going to be called the Straight Creek Tunnel, the name stemming from the valley where the west portal is located, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.

However, in September 1969 – about a year after the westbound lanes of the tunnel started getting built – the 36th governor of Colorado, John Arthur Love, proposed it be renamed after former President Dwight E. Eisenhower, who had died five months prior that year.

READ MORE: 50 years connecting the west and east: A history of Colorado's Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel

Eisenhower and his administration were instrumental in the creation of the Interstate Highway System (IHS) across the U.S., which was aimed at growing the U.S. economy (and safely move people in case of a nuclear attack) by providing “speed, safe, transcontinental travel” that could ultimately improve “farm-to-market movement,” according to the U.S. Army.

President Eisenhower also had a closer connection to Colorado and those experiences played a part in building the IHS, so say officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).

CDOT officials cite reports from back in the day that talked about the president’s interest in an interstate highway that would connect the country due to his experiences going back and forth between Denver and Fraser to fish.

In fact, newspaper clippings from 1954 reported that the president would spend “several weeks” trout fishing near Fraser and the Rio Grande River in the Wagon Wheel Gap area. The Gazette Telegraph and others also reported several times how President Eisenhower held the state’s first fishing license for several years.

“Traffic jams on old U.S. 6/U.S. 40 were nothing new in the area; reports say the President was stuck on several major jams on his way back from fish on Sunday evenings and felt an interstate system would take care of such problems in Colorado and elsewhere,” CDOT wrote on its website.

Fishing and the outdoors weren’t the only connection the president had with Colorado, however.

7,500 lights and a $70k electric bill: What it takes to power the Eisenhower Tunnel

The president’s wife, Mamie Eisenhower (née Doud), was born in Boone, Iowa but raised in Denver and the two married in the gladioli-filled music room of the Douds' Denver house on July 1, 1916, according to the DOT Federal Highway Administration.

In 1972, just a year shy of the tunnel’s inauguration, the Colorado State Legislature officially designated it the Eisenhower Memorial Bore.

Where does the “Johnson” part of the name come from?

While the westbound lanes of the tunnel had been completed in 1973, it took about another two years for work on the eastbound lanes which connected the mountains to Denver to begin.

A 1979 article from The Louisville Times reported that the Edwin C. Johnson Bore (the eastbound side of the tunnel) was dedicated to the late U.S. senator and governor of Colorado in December of that year at the request of the General Assembly.

Up until that time, the westbound tunnel was used for two-way traffic, journalists at the time wrote. “[Johnson] was active in the successful effort to get Interstate 70 extended westward from Denver, original western terminus, to Cove Fort, Utah,” the paper noted.

The second bore (what is now the eastbound lanes of the tunnel) opened to the public on December 21, 1979.

The tunnel has its own “fire department” of sorts

When you think of “fire department,” you think about a service run by a city to provide first response in case of fires, and while that may not be the case for the Eisenhower Tunnel, engineers who built the tunnel put in place a plan to protect people in case of a fire inside.

The Eisenhower Tunnel has what it calls a “Fixed Fire Suppression System.”

Construction for the project lasted about a year, from spring to December of 2015, according to CDOT’s website, and involved the installation, “and continuous testing and maintenance” of the system within both directions of the tunnel.

READ MORE: 'We’re like our own little city up here’: Inside the hidden control room atop the Eisenhower Tunnel

Officials cite the twice or thrice fires each year since the tunnels opened to the public in 1973 for the creation of the Fixed Fire Suppression System.

The system is not only capable of putting out large fires inside (up to 35 megawatts) in the first two minutes of the event starting but provides first responders nearby much-needed critical time to approach the scene of a fire and put it out.

The Fixed Fire Suppression System is able to provide water to the tunnels for up to an hour, dumping 500 gallons per minute from an existing standpipe system.

The Fixed Fire Suppression System helps eliminate closures or long-term damage to the tunnel, “which could cost Colorado billions of dollars and impact tourism along the I-70 mountain corridor,” according to CDOT.

The first person to drive through the tunnel received a summons for trespassing

It wouldn’t be Colorado without an outlaw story, now would it? And what better story than the one of Marion Woolridge.

In late 1972, a few months before the official opening of the Eisenhower Tunnel, Woolridge became the first person to drive through the tunnel – without asking for permission to do so.

Woolridge had allegedly been drinking before he took the wheel when he decided that he, not Governor Love, should be the first person to drive through the tunnel.

Per the Federal Highway Administration, the man had to drive past the signs prohibiting traffic and through foot-deep mining “muck” and mud.

When he made it out of the tunnel, his car was covered with “the goofy stuff,” according to a construction spokesman at the time.

Woolridge would then receive a summons for trespassing and as he explained it to the judge in Clear Creek County court that day, he was first.

The judge dismissed the charge on the grounds that the signs prohibiting traffic at the tunnel entrance weren't adequate, according to the FHA.

Editor's note on March 8 at 11:55 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated Mamie Eisenhower (née Doud) was born in Denver, but this is incorrect. She was born in Boone, Iowa. It also stated the second bore of the Eisenhower Tunnel opened on Dec. 23, 1979, but the opening of the second bore occurred on Dec. 21 of that year.

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