Highway to hell

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Highway to hell

Red Mountain Pass has a legacy of death, but its allure lives on

Red Mountain Pass

The legacy of Red Mountain Pass

Nancy Shanks and Dennis VanPatter, with the Colorado Department of Transportation, provided this information about Red Mountain Pass:
When was the pass built?
The first wagon road over the pass was built in 1883 by a private toll road company.
When did the first automobile cross the pass?
The first vehicle to drive from Ouray to Red Mountain Town was a Ford Model T in 1911 – taking a doctor from Ouray to a house call in Ironton, and then the group went on to the top of Red Mountain Pass. The return drive from Red Mountain to Ouray took two hours.
When was it paved?
First paving occurred in the 1950s, and the road was paved in stretches over the next several years.
What were the challenges?
The natural terrain of the area made building the wagon road, and later re-engineering by the state of Colorado for motor vehicle travel, difficult. The lower six miles from Ouray up through the Uncompahgre Canyon travel through areas of vertical cliffs. The original toll road was built far lower in the canyon, close to the river, and it joined today’s grade in the vicinity of Bear Creek Falls. When the state of Colorado took over the road at the request of the counties in about 1920, the road was reconstructed on its present grade, well above the river and out of reach of flooding. Other sections were rebuilt, and the road was widened and graveled to accommodate motor vehicles. It was opened in 1922. Steep mountain terrain and high elevations bring their own kind of challenges, as CDOT faces in many locations around the state.
Why isn’t it safer? Is this the best we can do given the terrain?
This highway is safe. Speed limits are, by necessity, slow, and the types of major accidents that occur in high-speed situations elsewhere are nonexistent on this road. Drivers typically drive the road carefully and cautiously. This is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, and motorists treat it as such. Construction of the East Riverside snowshed, where a major avalanche path intersects the highway, greatly reduced adverse impacts of snowslides on the highway. The highway is open year-round and is used daily by commuters, local residents, trucking companies and visitors.
Why was it deemed necessary to build the road?
Extensive mining in the area of Ouray, Red Mountain, Silverton and Telluride provided the impetus for the original construction of the toll road. Railroads reached Silverton and Ouray, but transportation of ore to the railheads required a wagon road. Later, with motor vehicle travel predominating, this major north-south route through southwestern Colorado became a major contributor to commerce.
Why is it called the “Million Dollar Highway?”
Only theories exist on this topic. One theory says that the gravel used to pave the road prior to it opening for motor-vehicle traffic in 1922 contained nearly $1 million in ore per mile. Another says the road cost $1 million to build per mile (an astounding total even as late as 1922). Another theory is that the scenery along the highway results in “million-dollar views.” The bottom line – no one is sure, but it’s fun to speculate.

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