Quest to Span the Royal Gorge
By the time Charles Driesel left the golden wheat fields of Red Rock, Okla., in 1929 and traveled west into Colorado, the fluctuating flow of the Arkansas River had been slowly carving a canyon into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains for over 5 million years.
It took the Arkansas River millions of years to carve the nearly 1,000-footdeep Royal Gorge near Cañon City, but it took a team of entrepreneurs, engineers and laborers just six months in 1929 to build a bridge across it.
Courtesy Royal Gorge Bridge and Park
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(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
FOR MOST OF THAT TIME, only the wind and the wildlife witnessed its progress, but as people populated the land, tales of a great deep canyon along the Arkansas river began to be told. As great wonders do, the canyon lured explorers, the curious and fortune seekers.
In Pueblo, a man at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company told Driesel that there was work up by Cañon City, a man was building a bridge across the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas river. Driesel hightailed it up the river west to see if it was true.
Depending on which way you’re headed, Cañon City either lies at the end of the mountains heading east, or the start of the Rocky Mountain foothills heading west. The Royal Gorge lies just a few miles upriver, the centerpiece of a 5,000-acre park granted to Cañon City in 1906 by an act of Congress, signed by President Theodore roosevelt. By the 1920s, Cañon City was a well-established town with the railroad, mining, oil, farming and a pleasant climate.
After the difficulties of World War I the decade before, the 1920s represented an era of growth and profit throughout the United States. restless, swinging jazz took the nation by storm. Automobiles became commonplace and the radio connected the entire nation over the airwaves. optimism and ambition filled the air. Many men looked to big projects to cement their legacy.
Near Cañon City, the Royal Gorge looked much the same as it had for millions of years, but it had become a tourist attraction. First, people rode horses in to marvel at its splendor. Railroad companies fought for the right to build the first rail line through the bottom of the gorge. Then people chipped a road into the rocky hills and buggies reached the precipice edge. Men built an auto road to the north rim and local entrepreneur Lorin Forgy obtained a concession from the city in 1925 to set up a viewing pavilion and restaurant on the edge of the Royal Gorge.
Still some dreamers went further, envisioning the crown jewel as a bridge across the gorge. Magazine articles as far back as 1908 talked about the possibility of a bridge, but big dreams also require big pocketbooks, so little happened for 20 years. Then, in 1928, a man from San Antonio named Lon Piper stood on the edge of the gorge and declared he would build a bridge over the chasm. Unlike the dreamers who came before him, Piper possessed both the experience and financial backing to make the bridge a reality. He’d built bridges before, toll bridges over the Rio Grande connecting the U.S. and Mexico, charging a small amount to cross. Some say that he was so taken by the idea of building a bridge across the Royal Gorge that he drafted a proposal for the Cañon City council that very night.
He immediately met skeptics who questioned his ability to complete the project and wondered if it was even possible to build a bridge across the gorge. It wasn’t a ridiculous thought. The Royal Gorge drops more than 1,000 feet vertically to a fast-flowing whitewater river and it’s a Vshape, the top more than a quarter of a mile wide. How could anyone hope to span such a gap with the basic technology of the time?