A Classic Western Quarrel:
A History of the Road Controversy at Colorado National Monument
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Construction of Rim Rock Drive: 1931-1950

The initial years of road construction in the Colorado National Monument occurred during the Great Depression. The 1929 collapse of the nation's economy affected nearly every aspect of American life. Businesses failed, farms were lost, unemployment increased and the average income decreased. [270] In Colorado the depression developed more slowly. Because its economy was primarily based on agriculture, Colorado felt less of the economic downturn until after 1930. Unemployment increased and agricultural prices fell more slowly than elsewhere. Yet, by 1931, cities such as Denver and Pueblo experienced more unemployment. Rural Coloradans suffered and as agricultural prices dropped, they headed for the cities when they lost their farms. The environmental impact of the dust bowl and the decline of the economy, combined to force farmers to leave for the city. [271]

The depression had a surprisingly less dismal effect on the National Park Service and congressional appropriations for park development. In 1930, appropriations increased by $3 million. Tourist levels remained steady. Road construction was the one aspect of park development that received the most attention during the depression. Across the nation, various national parks, such as Rocky Mountain and the Grand Canyon, received grants for road construction. Road appropriations in 1931 expanded to include the improvement of approach roads to parks as well. That year, approximately $100 million was appropriated for roads to and through national parks and monuments, including $75000 for the Colorado National Monument. [272]

Road Construction, 1931-1933

Between 1931 and 1933, local and federal involvement in the Colorado National Monument occurred simultaneously. Once the $7500 appropriation was available to the Colorado National Monument, the National Park Service and the local community immediately planned for the initial construction of the road through the park. In the first week of November 1931, Park Service engineer T. W. Secrest conducted a reconnaissance of the Colorado National Monument in which he developed and submitted road surveys to the Washington office for approval. [273] The reconnaissance consisted of eight days spent "studying and traversing the monument and approach roads." [274] Part of this survey included the pipe line road leading up to Fruita Canyon on the park's west side. County officials stated that they would improve this road, "thus making a connection with a county highway leading from the trail of the Serpent." [275] County officials also offered to "furnish any equipment they had idle" for the construction of the road. [276]

The Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce influenced the course chosen for the road. It wanted a road from which people could view the more impressive of the park's features from their automobiles. This route was more expensive because it required cutting through more cliffs, but eventually the Park Service agreed to it. [277] The ultimate goal was to construct a complete loop from Grand Junction to Fruita via the Monument. The route stretched from the Serpents Trail through the Monument and eventually emerged in Fruita Canyon on the western end of the park. The original plan entailed construction of a "single-width highway of about twenty-four miles," which followed the approximate route of today's Rim Rock Drive." [278]

In addition to suggesting possible routes for the road; the chamber of commerce contributed funds and some labor to the National Park Service. Local funding of the road project, combined with Park Service appropriations, enabled early construction. The Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, working in conjunction with a presidential committee, expended funds acquired from local sources. Although the amount of funding was relatively small, it did contribute to the construction effort. [279] The chamber requested federal emergency relief funds to reduce unemployment in the Grand Valley. It also suggested that the Park Service choose Secrest to head the road project. [280] Taylor discussed the chamber's requests with Horace Albright. He tried to convince Albright that the initial construction should begin not just for the "expeditious development of the Monument" but also to "relieve unemployment." [281] Albright responded by stating that funds were not available for the construction of the entire road but that he would authorize funds for the first section of construction. [282]

Just weeks before construction began, the Park Service's plans were interrupted. During the second week of November, 1931, the chamber of commerce and county commissioners, anxious to start construction, authorized the beginning of work on the road to the Monument boundary. They even donated equipment to the cause. [283] The National Park Service, however, wanted to postpone construction until a landscape architect evaluated the proposed routes. The Park Service also wanted a full description of the road project to be approved by its offices in San Francisco. [284] When these issues were resolved, construction officially began on November 21, 1931.

The first section of construction, from Station 0+00 Section 1B to Station 83+00 Section 1B, was chosen for a number of reasons. [285] The construction began near the center of the present Rim Rock Road, and headed west toward Fruita Canyon. The goal was to make the scenery of the Monument Canyon accessible to tourists as soon as possible, so construction started near the canyon rim. Monument Canyon contained the park's most outstanding physical features—the monoliths—but access to it was limited. Initiating the construction in this section was also important because it completed the loop from Grand Junction to Fruita. Because the Serpents Trail was already built on the east side of the park, it made sense to start where this road ended. According to this construction plan, part of the loop was already completed. [286] During the first phase of construction, about 50 men from all over Mesa County were employed by the project, which provided some of the only work to the county's unemployed. The project benefitted local businesses, because workers had money to spend on goods and project officials purchased construction supplies from local stores. [287]

Figure 4.1. Progress of Construction on Rim Rock Drive. From T. W. Secrest, "Final Construction Report on Scenic Rim Rock Road," 12 July 1937. Colorado National Monument Archive and Museum Collection. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Not everyone supported what was happening. Almost from the moment construction began, Otto found reasons to protest. He felt that the chosen route was a "half mile off course," and that construction should be halted until improvements were made. He was also concerned that the road would not conform with the scenery of the park. [288] Otto intimated that local supporters of the Monument were kept in the dark regarding the use of funds. [289] His real complaint seemed to be that the chosen route would damage the landscape in the Monument:

There is a shameful misuse of federal funds at the Colorado National Monument. Your tinhorn landscape engineers and the wild construction engineer (T.W. Secrest) and your Chief Engineer F.A. Kittredge should have the steam shovel around their necks and get sunk in the Pacific. You never went over and studied this project and the engineers did not either, and naturally things just 'went haywire'. Come here and 'face the music'! When you throw a rock through a plate glass window it is ruined-spoiled-wrecked, but you can send to the factory and get a new one. But real elegant fine scenery once torn into like they did here at this high class scenic project—makes it bad. [290]

Not surprisingly, Otto's complaints were disregarded by the local park promoters and by Park Service officials, who were pleased with how construction was progressing. When Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur responded to Otto, he explained that the Rim Rock Road project had been carefully planned according to Park Service regulations, and that one of the engineers' primary objectives was to consider the landscape during construction. He pointed out the importance of the road project to the local economy. [291] Thomas Vint, the Chief Landscape Architect of the project, was less diplomatic in his opinion of Otto. He contended that Otto's letters were "the work of the hand of a fanatic." [292]

Despite overwhelming disapproval, Otto continued to harass officials until the spring of 1933, when he left for Yreka, California. He never returned to the Colorado National Monument. A combination of factors contributed to his departure, but perhaps the most compelling of these was that during the 27 years that he had resided in the Grand Valley, his credibility with the local community and with the National Park Service had diminished. When he left, the Colorado National Monument was no longer the place he originally boosted. It was now officially recognized by the Park Service, and its development was taken seriously by that agency for the first time in its history. [293]

Along with Otto's complaints, the initial phase of road construction raised the more serious question of future funding—never a reliable factor. Between 1931 and 1933, financial support for the road was contingent upon yearly congressional appropriations. In February, 1932, Albright, anxious to supply funds for unemployment relief in the Grand Valley, assured the chamber that the National Park Service would secure an additional $4000 to carry the project until the 1933 appropriation. After that, he wasn't sure if Congress would allot money out of the $950,000 available for road construction. [294] In March, 1932, Albright wrote to Congressman Taylor to discuss future funding. Estimating that it would take an additional $192,000 to construct the remaining sections of road, he told Taylor that he thought he might be able to allot another $15,000 to extend the road to the Coke Ovens area, but that money for the next section of road depended on the Roads and Trails appropriations for the year. [295] Between November 21, 1931, and May 1, 1932, a total of $17,474.52 was allotted by National Park Roads and Trails funds for the construction of the road. This amount included the initial allotment of $7500 from the Park Service and $1500 from the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce. In July, 1932, the additional $15,000 was appropriated; followed by $50,000 from an Emergency Relief Fund in August, 1932. [296]

Local funds also contributed to the road project. By June, 1932, the Mesa County Commissioners had expended a total of $10,000 on the improvement of Serpents Trail and the construction of four miles of roadway from the Glade Park store to the Monument boundary where Secrest's road survey began. In a letter to the Park Service, the Chairman of the local Monument Park Committee, L.W. Burgess, observed that enthusiasm for the road project was widespread:

Hundreds of people are driving to the end of the road each week and it is our belief that when the road is completed the drive will be one of the most popular in any of your parks. [297]

Local and Park Service perspectives of the road project were similar. Both saw the importance of the project to unemployment, although the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce was more nervous about the possibility of interrupting the project due to lack of funds. Shortly after construction on the first section began, the chamber had already established its own "Emergency Committee for Employment," which contained a list of 700 potential workers. Members of the chamber often visited the project site, and had already begun a campaign urging local residents to "come here for the Monument Drive." [298] The chamber of commerce estimated that in 1932 there were 18,000 visitors, and in 1933 there were 20,000 to the Colorado National Monument. Estimates such as these convinced both the local community and the National Park Service of the importance of continuing the road project. [299]

Support for the road project, however, extended beyond the chamber of commerce. Grand Junction lawyer Samuel McMullin wrote to Congressman Taylor in early 1933, expressing his appreciation for the road project's influence on economic conditions in the Grand Valley. He was especially impressed with T. W. Secrest's work:

... he has exercised a great deal of care in giving local destitute people employment on this work, going to the extent of staggering the work around so as to benefit the most number of people. Unfortunate and destitute ranchmen have been enabled through this work, to provide for the necessities in a considerable number and a good portion of the expenditures have been for labor. This has resulted in helping the small storekeeper, who is as necessary and needs as much assistance as anyone in these times. [300]

The Park Service also recognized the importance of the project, and appreciated the local attitude toward it, as is evidenced in a letter from Horace Albright to Congressman Taylor in early 1932:

Of course when we started this project this winter to help relieve conditions around Grand Junction we did not expect to go into it on such a large scale although I knew that we could not build roads in that country for the small amount of money which the local people were claiming the road would cost. However, we have such splendid cooperation from the local people and the road work has helped so tremendously in tiding men over this winter that we have felt obligated to go along with it just as far as we possibly could [301]

From 1931 to 1933, the local role in land acquisition for the park indicated that in addition to supporting the road project, local residents were also interested in expanding the park. There were two instances in which acquisition of lands outside Monument boundaries was deemed necessary to continue construction as planned. The first of these was the land surrounding the Fruita water pipeline that ran through Fruita Canyon to several reservoirs on Glade Park and provided the municipal water supply for Fruita. In late October, 1932, the town of Fruita agreed to supply water to the Monument during the construction for an annual fee of $10. [302] In January, 1933, Fruita officials agreed to grant free use of water during the construction. They realized the importance of the project to their town and the surrounding communities and the necessity of their water to the project's success. [303] Perhaps the pipeline's proximity to the Rim Rock Road prompted Fruita's eventual decision to donate the pipeline land to the Colorado National Monument. In a deed dated September 5, 1933, Fruita transferred the land but reserved "an easement for the maintenance and operation of a reservoir." The deed stated that the easement would not "interfere with the operations of the Monument." [304]

The community also acquired property in Fruita Canyon and No Thoroughfare Canyon that was considered necessary for road construction. Congressman Taylor was actively involved in this endeavor, and encouraged the Park Service to survey these lands. In an inspection of the Monument, Taylor found that in order to ensure proper grading for the road, portions of it would have to be constructed outside the boundary. [305] Taylor felt a presidential proclamation was all that was needed to acquire the lands. Nevertheless, he feared that once people learned of this, they might file on it in order to sell it later for a high price. [306]

The Park Service agreed to submit a presidential proclamation for the land. In the meantime, the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce attempted to purchase certain privately owned portions of the property. [307] One section of land that the chamber sought to acquire, owned by William Streb, was part of No Thoroughfare Canyon. [308] The chamber stated that it would raise $400 and requested that the Park Service pay the other half of the $800 purchase price. The Park Service replied that it could not supply federal funds until a presidential proclamation was secured to include the Streb lands. [309]

While the National Park Service compromised with the chamber regarding privately owned lands, it also devised a plan to acquire former Ute treaty lands. Portions of the land that the Park Service wanted to acquire had once belonged to the Utes. Under the Ute Indian Treaty of 1880, this land was subject to a fee of $1.25 per acre to be paid to the Ute Indians. [310] Congressman Taylor offered to introduce a bill in Congress that requested the $1.25 per acre payment. This bill, and the chamber's purchases, were expected to convince officials in Washington of the need for a presidential proclamation. [311] On March 1, 1933, the Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, submitted to the President of the United States a proclamation that suggested the following boundary changes:

This proposed proclamation amends the description of the Colorado National Monument so as to include additional scenic and scientific and other features. Also it extends the boundaries so as to include the Rim Road and other land to facilitate the administration of the monument. This proposed proclamation would add to the present monument approximately 3,800 acres. Of this area 3,089.74 acres are public lands and 200 acres are owned by the Town of Fruita for park purposes. The remaining land, approximately 500 acres, are in private ownership. However, the proclamation is made subject to all valid existing rights. [312]

On March 3, 1933, President Herbert Hoover signed the proclamation, thus changing the Monument's boundaries. In the preface to the proclamation "the protection of the Rim Road" was cited as one of the reasons for the additions to the park. [313]

From 1931 to 1933, the National Park Service benefitted from, and even relied on, local needs resulted in cooperative interaction between these two parties. Yet, for the first time since the park was established, the Park Service had a physical presence in Colorado National Monument that began to erode direct local involvement in the park's planning and development.

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Last Updated: 09-Feb-2005