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.
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Regardless, Piper presented his plan to Cañon City officials, and after months of lively debate covering every aspect of his proposal, they finally approved it. Construction started two weeks later on June 5, 1929. In hindsight, how could they have turned it down? People in the area needed jobs and the city needed revenue from tourism, taxes and the use fee Piper agreed to pay for every person who set foot on the bridge.
When Driesel and his friends reached the Royal Gorge, construction had already begun, a crew of 50-80 workers toiling 10 hours a day following the plans of engineer George F. Cole. Piper and Cole had worked together before on bridges and they partnered on the Royal Gorge project. It would be the highest suspension bridge in the world by far. Cole undoubtedly recognized irony: He was known to be terrified of heights.
The height and exposure proved to be an issue for many workers, including Driesel, who’d never even seen the Royal Gorge before showing up to work. In a 1980 interview with John A. Salas of The Pueblo Chietain, Driesel remembered, “I never seen anything like that in my whole life. I didn’t know somethin’ like it even existed.”
Construction foreman Fred Rice put Driesel to work on a crew building one of the 150-foot-high towers directly on the gorge rim that would support the heavy suspension cables. For a lowland man, it must have been an exciting job, seemingly on the edge of an abyss, battling the canyon’s tenacious winds, vertigo and summer lightning storms. Driesel confessed, “When I was working I never looked down. I was sure that if I did, I’d fall.” Construction safety nets didn’t exist in 1929, and a fall meant certain death.
While the towers were going up, men dug a trench 4 feet deep and 100 feet long into the bedrock directly behind the towers. Then they drilled farther into the bedrock and installed 100 pipes to serve as anchors for the steel cables to suspend the bridge. The anchor represented a crucial element of construction – since the bridge was so long, each anchor would need to hold an incredible amount of weight, strong enough not only for the bridge but also to resist the gorge’s gusting winds.
Depending on their responsibilities and experience, workers earned between 35 and 50 cents a day for the dangerous work. These were good wages and for many, likely their last decent paying job before the Great Depression hit less than five months later, before the bridge was even finished.
Work progressed quickly, a testament to the foreman’s organizational skills. To start the project, workers had built a new road to the south rim of the gorge, even before they could start hauling the many tons of steel, concrete, tools and living supplies to the work site.
DESPITE THE DIFFICULTIES, Driesel and his fellow workers completed the four towers in three weeks. Then came a bigger challenge – how to string the first cable across the 1,260-foot gap between the north and south canyon rims. Under rice’s watchful eye, they lowered a half-inch steel cable down each side of the canyon and spliced the two cables together at the bottom, before pulling the cable back up with a steam-powered winch.
Once they had the first cable in place, they used it as a guide to run three additional three-quarter-inch trolley cables across the gorge. The trolley then ferried the smaller No. 9 cables across, all 4,200 of them. Each main suspension cable for the royal Gorge Bridge consists of 2,100 No. 9 cables. The trolley could only pull one cable at a time so it required 4,200 trips across the gorge. Each cable was then secured to a steel pipe in the bedrock anchor pit.
Once all the individual cables were draped across the gorge, workers bundled them together into two large cables by bolting circular steel collars around them. These finished large cables ran from the top of each tower on the north side to the top of the tower on the south side. When all 4,200 cables were tightly attached and tested, workers filled the pits with concrete, creating anchors to support the entire bridge. The finished cables themselves are rated to support far more weight than would ever be on the bridge.