‘Father of Glenwood Canyon’s I-70 project’ recalls experience

MEEKER | To say that the contribution of Meeker resident R. A. “Dick” Prosence to Colorado has been enormous would be an understatement.
A former civil engineer for Colorado Department of Highways (CDOH, which became CDOT in 1991), Prosence was among a cadre of gifted engineers who built the 180 miles of Interstate 70 through western Colorado and is generally acknowledged as the “Father of Glenwood Canyon’s I-70 Project.”
Prosence’s tie to Meeker is his wife of 34 years, Beverly (née Hazelbaker), a Meeker native whom he actually met at work. They parked their trailer here during time off in the summers and finally relocated from Phoenix in 2006.
Born in Illinois in 1924, Prosence’s family moved to Colorado Springs in 1929 and then to Utah in 1939, where Prosence later earned his degree in civil engineering from the University of Utah in 1950.
Considered by most to be the oldest engineering discipline, civil engineering deals with the design, construction and maintenance of the physical and naturally built environment, including roads, bridges, canals, dams and buildings.
After college and various jobs for three engineering companies, as well as the federal government on a tunnel project in Mesa Verde, Prosence came to CDOH. It was then in 1960 that his 22-year odyssey began.
While still a relatively inexperienced civil engineer, he was given what he calls “the assignment of a lifetime.” His daunting task was to become familiar with every single mile of the terrain for the projected highway, perform excavation and embankment studies, do rough calculations for roadway pavement, and ultimately deliver the first cost estimate for the project.
To this day, Prosence enjoys enormous personal satisfaction from, in his words, “the fact that most of I-70 has been built along the alignment selected in the 1960 cost estimate.”
As one would expect, among the most challenging sections of the highway was the one through Glenwood Canyon, a project that necessitated Prosence living in Glenwood Springs for a year during 1964 and 1965 after he was promoted to assistant district engineer and more specifically “resident engineer” on the “Twin Tunnels” project just east of town. These tunnels were bored to eliminate the infamous Horseshoe Bend, the scene of many serious, and often fatal, accidents.
Just one aspect of this major challenge, Prosence said, was the Shoshone Power Plant. “The original intent (of the Public Service Company) was to build the power plant at Grizzly Creek, but they ran short of money and just stopped at the present location,” he said.
The canyon project was not without controversy. On the contrary, the late country singer/song writer John Denver is remembered for his activism. Denver, along with Mark Skrotzki, a meat cutter from El Jebel, and others formed Citizens for a Glenwood Canyon Scenic Corridor.
Prosence recalls it well. “[Their organization] was based mostly on ‘save the canyon from these engineers who are going to butcher it,’” he said. He also remembered a video that was produced showing Denver throwing a rock from one side of the canyon to the other to demonstrate its narrowness and then said, “The engineers are out to destroy this beautiful canyon.” Prosence added, “The media, especially that from (the city of) Denver and Aspen, loved the controversy, and the video was shown on Denver TV channels.”
But even though Governor Richard Lamm, newly elected in 1975, “had strong environmental views, he came out promptly in favor,” of the project, “as long as it was done right,” Prosence recalled. And it was.
Prosence actually credits two “inspired designers” for ultimately getting the canyon design accepted: Joe Passonneau and Edgardo Contini. It was especially the Italian Contini who “lifted the design to a higher level by conceiving the concept of the Hanging Lake tunnels,” Prosence said. “His ultimate desire was to push the freeway up onto the canyon wall, crossing side canyons with graceful bridges and ridding the canyon floor of everything but a memory of a highway.”
All this beauty did not come cheap, however. Prosence still recalls with a chuckle one state highway commissioner, Andrea Schmidt, who quipped, “For what this was costing, we might as well pave the roadway with silver dollars.” The cost, in fact, was just shy of a half-billion dollars. That section of I-70 opened on Saturday, Oct. 13, 1992, silver dollars not included.
For those who want to read more about this fascinating project, Prosence highly recommends the book, “Wooing a Harsh Mistress: Glenwood Canyon’s Highway Odyssey” (Greeley: Canyon Communications, 1994), written by fellow engineer on the project and close friend John L. Haley. Prosence actually wrote the introduction to the book and is mentioned frequently.
When asked what feelings strike him when he drives this 180-mile stretch of I-70, Prosence answered, “I am very proud to have participated in this project. It is one of the most amazing engineering projects ever accomplished and received award after award. But it’s more than that. It’s the memories.”