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Author Topic: Interstate 80 "Snow Chi Minh Trail" History  (Read 5247 times)


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Interstate 80 "Snow Chi Minh Trail" History
« on: April 30, 2015, 12:08:59 AM »

A new book is out about I-80 between Laramie and Rawlins Wyoming by John Waggener. I have met Mr. Waggener and am thrilled he has chosen to write a historical book about I-80 west of Laramie leading toward Rawlins. This was one of the longest continuous stretches of Interstate highway to open at one time, back in 1970. The book is timely, especially with the major accident that occurred along I-80 west of Laramie last week (on Monday April 20 around 8 am) that claimed two lives and caused 16 injuries (see http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_27951242/pileup-i-80-kills-1-closes-interstate-again and http://www.k2tv.com/news.php?id=5115 for more).

Here's more information on the new book with some interesting quotes about the history of the route and highway innovations made along the route as related to snow fences, variable message signs, and variable speed limit zones:


On Oct. 3, 1970, more than 400 people gathered near Arlington on a beautiful autumn day as Gov. Stan Hathaway cut ribbon, opening a 77-mile stretch of Interstate 80 connecting Laramie and Walcott Junction, outside Rawlins.

Four days later, an early winter storm iced the roadway. Several cars crashed.

Police, for the first time, temporarily closed I-80 in the area.

"And the rest is history," said John Waggener, who has penned soon-to-be released book on the 77-mile stretch. "They've been plagued with problems on that stretch."

That history also includes April 20, when lanes 18 miles west of Laramie were closed for 32 hours after a fiery pileup involving 60 vehicles. Two people were killed.

People throughout Wyoming have questioned what can be done to improve the southeastern Wyoming arterial, an important overland corridor that connects New York City and San Francisco. Waggener, an archivist at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center, offers a historical perspective on the 77-mile stretch in "The Snow Chi Minh Trail," which is being published by Skyline West Press in Cheyenne and will be in bookstores this summer.

I-80 roughly follows U.S. 30, historically a major cross-country route, but detours between Laramie and Walcott Junction.

U.S. 30 heads north into terrain more sheltered by the elements – through Bosler, Rock River, Medicine Bow and Hanna. I-80, which at the widest distance is 15 miles from U.S. 30, is a more direct route between the two points. I-80 shaves off 19 miles between Laramie and the junction, Waggener said.

Wyomingites warned the federal government the proposed route was hazardous during the winter, but officials at the former U.S. Bureau of Public Roads were excited to save mileage and money on maintenance, he said.

The entire stretch is at more than 7,000 feet above sea level.

"It's just a lot of highway that’s at a high elevation, and it's near the foothills of the Medicine Bow," he said. "That's the issue. It's not that it's the highest (summit), but it's so many miles of fairly high (roadway)."

Many people blame the former Wyoming Highway Department – now the Wyoming Department of Transportation – for the more hazardous route, but Waggener said he doesn't. The federal government, which paid for 90 percent of the interstate construction costs, insisted upon the 77-mile stretch. If the state wanted an interstate, the Wyoming Highway Commission had to approve the route and it did, he said.

State highway officials used snow fences on I-80 and other highways throughout the state, but they didn't have the capacity to hold back the massive drifts. So they developed what’s now known as the Wyoming Snow Fence, which is standard on all state highways and roads in other snowy states.

"Prior to this, snow fences weren't really scientific," Waggener said. "WYDOT got into the research and technology of snow fence design."

Today's electronic signs that warn of AMBER Alerts and weather evolved from a simpler form on the stretch. In 1976, highway officials installed two magnetic boards – at Laramie’s Curtis Street exit and at Walcott Junction – with fixed messages warning of road conditions. Highway officials could change the boards by sending an electronic signal, he said.

"Again, the Snow Chi Minh Trail was the testing group of the variable message signs," he said.

In 2008, WYDOT installed variable speed limits, a system in which the department can assess conditions and reduce speeds almost immediately through electronic speed limit signs.



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Re: Interstate 80 "Snow Chi Minh Trail" History
« Reply #1 on: April 30, 2015, 01:33:43 PM »

Thanks for the tip about the book - this will be one worth reading.  My travels take me on this stretch of I-80 often and it's no joke at how bad the road can suddenly get.  I thought I had heard from some of the Laramie locals that this stretch is the only interstate highway that usually has year round snow removal occurring.  Whether this is true or urban legend, I don't know ...  :confused:


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Re: Interstate 80 "Snow Chi Minh Trail" History
« Reply #2 on: October 11, 2020, 07:18:02 PM »

An article in the Laramie Boomerang discusses the history of the "Snow Chi Minh Trail" which was completed 50 years ago.
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