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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Driesel likely enjoyIn 1929, workers wore suction-cup shoesed a great view of the bridge’s progress because after they finished the towers, he was one of the men chosen to paint them. He would have seen the big steel trucks pulling in from Pueblo each morning, carrying Colorado Fuel and Iron Company steel. It was the biggest order that the company had ever received up to that point, and it made 1,000 tons of steel for the Royal Gorge Bridge.

The bridge used Pueblo steel in the towers, cables, anchors, collars and the steel rods welded to the collars that hung straight down to support the I-beam steel structure that would finally hold the wooden plank floor of the bridge. Despite the complexity and challenge of the environment, construction of the Royal Gorge suspension bridge actually fit together like a simple puzzle, one step bolted or welded into the next.

The last steps included bolting 1,292 wooden planks to the floor structure and placing waist-high wire support along the sides of the bridge so people wouldn’t fall off. The origin of the original planks is disputed – some say they came from a lumber yard in Pueblo and others say it’s oregon fir. It could be both.

The men completed the bridge in less than seven months for $350,000. It was 1,260 feet long, 18 feet wide and 956 feet above the river below. The Royal Gorge Bridge became the highest suspension bridge in the world, and it would hold that title for more than 70 years.

Perhaps a more impressive statistic is that not a single man was killed or seriously injured during construction, and this was in a time when worker safety was not normally of paramount concern.

Driesel and the other workers joined a throng of more than 3,000 people for the grand opening of the bridge on Dec. 8, 1929. Denver city officials and guests of honor, including Lt. Gov. George Corlett traveled to the ceremony on a special Denver and Rio Grande train for the occasion. The local papers proclaimed that the prettiest girl in Fremont County, Miss opal Joyce, cut the ribbon and the guests crossed the bridge en masse. Not all of them could stomach the heights, however, and Driesel remembers the workers carried plenty of sick people off the bridge.

Some of the workers, including Driesel, stayed on to work on Piper’s next project, an incline railroad down a gulch to the bottom of the gorge. But after that finished, he and the others drew their last check from the Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Co. and walked out in a world very different from the world when the bridge started. The stock market had crashed in October 1929 and the country slid into depression. Driesel wouldn’t find any work for months and when he did, it was back in Oklahoma on a cotton farm.Opal Joyce, a local beauty, cut the ribbon to open the bridge in front of 3,000 guests on Dec. 8, 1929. The project complete, many bridge workers faced the end of employed flush times, as the first stage of the Great Depression  set in across America.

Piper also took hard hits in the depression, but carried on. He received great admiration and support during the project, but today one may look back on it with more questions. Piper basically built a bridge to nowhere, since the Royal Gorge doesn’t connect to anything but the old construction road that meanders back to the Arkansas river above the gorge. One might say that he simply built a tourist attraction.

However, while it was indeed a tourist attraction, it was also an engineering marvel at the time, a celebration of physics, organization and the will of men. Today, 83 years later, the bridge still holds magic for everyone who walks across it. The canyon walls drop off immediately below one’s feet to dizzying depths below. The bridge moves slightly and sways in the wind. It brings with it the feeling of cheating death and of flying.

Others may simply look at the incredible distance between the canyon walls and imagine the challenge, for a brief moment being able to relate to the vision of Lon Piper and the mindset of Americans in the early 20th century.

 

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