Golden memories as the Eisenhower Tunnel turns 50

David Heitz
Opening day for the Eisenhower Tunnel, March 8, 1973.Photo byColorado Department of Transportation

I never will forget the first time I drove through the Eisenhower tunnel. At age 20, I was embarking on the adventure of my lifetime – moving from Illinois to Los Angeles for an internship. I loaded up my Dodge Colt with all of my belongings and set out in search of a new life.

Chills went up and down my spine as I approached the Eisenhower Tunnel. I already had been blown away by Colorado’s beauty (I took the scenic route) but the tunnel proved itself a modern marvel.

Tunnel 1.7 miles long

Last month, the westbound Eisenhower Tunnel celebrated its 50th birthday. Among the tunnel's notable facts, as explained on the Colorado Department of Transportation website:

· The tunnel bores through the mountains for 1.7 miles.

· As of 11 a.m. March 8, the tunnel’s birthday, exactly 434,431,100 vehicles traveled through both the Eisenhower and Johnson Memorial Tunnels since March 8, 1973. ”The Colorado Department of Transportation marked the historic milestone by pausing westbound traffic for 50 seconds, so the Colorado State Patrol's vintage 1970 Fury was the first vehicle to usher in the tunnel's next half-century,” according to a Colorado Department of Transportation news release. “It was a state patrol vehicle that first entered the tunnel when it opened to traffic 50 years ago.”

· The Eisenhower Tunnel is the highest point of the nation’s interstate system at 11,200 feet. At one time, the Eisenhower Tunnel was the highest vehicular tunnel in the world.

· “While motorists drive through the tunnel in a few minutes, they may not realize the monumental effort it took to plan and build such an infrastructure under the most challenging of circumstances,” said CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. “Over a five-year construction period, 6,000 people and heavy machinery worked a total of 4.9 million hours to bore through granite under the Continental Divide in harsh weather conditions. When construction started in 1968, it was the largest single federal-aid highway project in the nation’s history. For the last five decades, the Eisenhower Tunnel has served as the great connector, tying east and west Colorado together. It has provided a critical life-saving link for moving goods and services and helped to mark Colorado as a world-class mountain destination.”

· “There were monumental obstacles to building the tunnel,’ according to the CDOT news release. "Crews worked in brutal winters at over 11,000 feet, and then new engineering methods were needed to shore unstable rock so a hole 50 feet high and 45 feet wide could be supported."

· The tunnel took five years to build, two years longer than expected, and cost $110 million. “As one veteran highway engineer put it, ‘We were going by the book, but the damned mountain couldn’t read,’ the news release reports. “One federal highway engineer stated in the Denver Post in 1972, the project involved “pioneering every foot of the way."

Eisenhower tunnel memories

Gov. Jared Polis posted Friday about the tunnel’s birthday on his Facebook page. Many people chimed in with their memories of the tunnel in the comment section.

“I remember many trips over Loveland Pass pre-tunnel and the wonder of our first drive after it opened,” commented one.

Another commenter said it’s time to start digging a third tunnel. “We could make the middle tunnel alternating directions, four lanes going west when all the traffic is going west and four lanes going east when all the traffic is going east,” he suggested. “Then there would be redundancy if there was an accident blocking any of the three tunnels, you could still have two-way traffic even if one tunnel had to be closed. You could use the third tunnel for hazmat trucks and not stop traffic for them or send them around the long way on Loveland pass.”

Several commenters reminisced about the pre-1973 days when there was no tunnel. They had to maneuver the passes for ski trips. Many recalled ski lift tickets costing $12 back then.

“We lived in Silverthorne when the tunnel was under construction,” said one. “Saw the first borehole. It was then a long way to Denver over the Loveland pass.”

For me, driving the mountainous terrain on my trip out west made me feel I had traveled a long distance from home. Driving through the tunnel was cool and it seemed to go on forever. It was indeed the gateway to the west for me, and I felt accomplished when I came out on the other side.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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