Royal Gorge's Timeless Test of Courage

A 2013 wildfire that consumed 48 structures at Royal Gorge Bridge and Park somehow spared the bridge itself.

John Wark

Before the shroud of smoke lifted, before firefighters subdued the ferocious 2013 Royal Gorge Fire, urgent questions quickened the hearts of Cañon City and Fremont County neighbors and fans around Colorado and the world.

Would their beloved Royal Gorge Bridge survive the intense heat? Would its wooden planks and steel cables escape the flames?

Overnight, the fire had rendered 48 treasured park structures into nothing more than piles of ash and twisted rubble. Gone were all the trademark sites – the visitor center, the water clock, the carousel and more – that had framed many families’ filmed and photographed memories.

What about the bridge itself? As if by some miracle, the fire blackened less than 10 percent of the 1,292 Douglas fir planks. The bridge stood as strong and tall as ever above the smoldering park grounds.

That good news stirred patriotic pride within park employee Peggy Gair, who first visited in the 1960s as a child from Nebraska. The bridge was built to “withstand the ages,” she said, and American know-how had somehow saved the day.

The bridge has been a source of Cañon City pride and visitors’ love for 90 years now, drawing an estimated 26 million guests. The visionary who made it happen, San Antonio finance man Lon Piper, wanted a span that would surpass one in Algeria (Sidi M’Cid Bridge, 575 feet high) as the highest bridge in the world at that time.

Royal Gorge’s depth fit the bill. At 955 feet above the river, his bridge boasted the title of world’s tallest for decades. To date, it remains the highest suspension bridge in the United States. Height isn’t for everyone, of course, but it has always been the bridge’s claim to fame, the light of that celebrity reflecting in the faces of Cañon City citizens.

It’s taken courage and financial help for Cañon City to rebuild and reopen the park, bigger and better than before the fire, in the face of odds that the region’s wind, low humidity and flammable ground cover could spark a new inferno.

The gorge that Piper’s bridge spans is not the aftermath of an earthquake, as some have supposed, but of the grinding erosion of its hard rock granite walls by Arkansas River water-borne sand. The river is snow melt from the Sawatch (west) and Mosquito (east) ranges. It runs in line with Rocky Mountain geology before making a sharp turn east against it, toward Cañon City. That specific stretch of earth lifted not once, but twice, over millennia, the sand quickly (in geologic time) cutting a narrow gap – a bottleneck – that hasn’t undergone enough weathering yet to widen.

Early travelers marveled at and sought shelter within the gorge’s tight walls. Zebulon Pike called it “the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River.” Ute Indians wintered there. The riverbed also was the scene of a brutal corporate contest. Two railroads sabotaged each other, seeking access to the canyon, so narrow that it could accommodate only one set of tracks leading up to the gold and silver mines in Leadville; the dispute had to be settled by Colorado’s highest court.

It took courage for Piper to hire workmen who had experience constructing toll bridges across the Rio Grande and ship them to rural Colorado to make history in 1929. Their achievement is impressive: a span 1,260 feet long, 18 feet wide and 955 feet above the river. They finished it in less than seven months without loss of life or serious injury. And it wasn’t easy; they installed 100 pipes into bedrock on each side of the gorge and attached to them suspension cables consisting of 2,100 small-diameter cables, each cable requiring a trolley round trip across the canyon. That helped push the cost up – $100,000 in 1929 dollars over budget. The investment paid off, at least in safety. The bridge is rock-solid nine decades later.

For the rest of the story see the May/June 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

Add your comment: