CHEYENNE — Many people in state and out-of-state can tell horror stories about their winter trip driving through southern Wyoming west of Laramie on Interstate 80.
Labeled by broadcaster Charles Kuralt as the worst stretch of I-80 in the nation, the segment between Laramie and Walcott Junction is the site of some of the worst crashes in the state and cost millions to keep open.
Local residents could have predicted the outcome when the federal government chose the southern route near Elk Mountain for the intercontinental highway rather than follow the longer existing route on U.S. 30, the old Lincoln Highway.
If you’re interested in an entertaining, exhaustive narrative of how the stretch between Laramie and Walcott Junction was chosen, John Richard Waggener has written the book for you.
Titled “Snow Chi Minh Trail” — the history of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction, it was published by the Wyoming Historical Society.
Appropriately, the book’s cover is a Wyoming Highway Patrol photo of a March 26, 2006 pileup of semis and cars on the highway in a blizzard. That crash, near Elk Mountain, involved 22 vehicles and caused six deaths.
Waggener relates how inconsistent the Federal Bureau of Public Roads people were in dealing with the wishes of the state leaders and local residents of the towns that were bypassed by I-80 —Bosler, Rock River and Medicine Bow along U.S. 30, the old Lincoln Highway.
Wyoming’s preference to locate the Interstate along U.S. 30 were not given as much weight as that of the state of Nevada which prevailed in getting a longer existing route through Battle Mountain and Winnemucca.
Paramount to the federal officials decision in Wyoming’s case was the opportunity to shave 19 miles off the distance between Laramie and Walcott Junction to save money.
That new location, along the old Overland Trail, placed the road at more than 7,000 feet for 77 miles.
The ranchers and other old timers in the area warned against building there because of the strong winds and the amount of snowfall, which was twice as much as on U.S. 30, according to a 1958 Wyoming Highway Dept. report.
The Union Pacific Railroad, they pointed out, looked at the same route 100 years earlier and chose the longer route.
The cost-benefit ratio for the Elk Mountain route trumped Wyoming’s efforts to save the U.S. 30 towns from economic blight.
Waggener said last week that Nevada had a greater number of road users who favored the longer route.
Wyoming’s argument wasn’t as compelling and, moreover, the federal Bureau of Public Roads showed a bias in favor of the shorter route.
“Wyoming was put on the defensive from the beginning,’” Waggener wrote last week in an e-mail. “This led to a butting of heads between the state and the feds.”
The Wyoming Highway Dept. attempted to sell the existing U.S. 30 route with an origin and destination study.
The study “backfired” when it showed that the majority of users preferred the option of a shorter route to save time and fuel. The responses suggested that the users did not need access to the towns along U.S. 30.
The study solidified the BPR’s position in favor the short route.
What could have changed the minds of the federal officials was a study of winter time road conditions on that Elk Mountain stretch.
“It was all a guessing game,” Waggener wrote. There was no road on the route at that time although the local highway officials had a sense of what conditions would be like.
The federal officials had no idea of what the combination of heavy snow and strong winds would do but concluded modern snow removal equipment could handle it, he added.
The first crash occurred only four days after the new I-80 Laramie to Walcott Junction segment opened.
This book has loads of riveting details, including efforts of Wyoming politicians during the 14 or 15 years from planning to the opening of the corridor in 1970.
Waggener is a Wyoming native who was born and raised in Green River, on Interstate 80. He has been a faculty archivist at the American Heritage Center in Laramie since 2001.
The book is available from booksellers around the state or can be ordered directly from the Wyoming State Historical Society. Contact Linda Fabian, the society’s executive secretary at email email@example.com.