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Interstate 70

Edward A Geary
History of Emery County

In 1957 legislation sponsored by Senator Wallace F. Bennett of Utah added 1,000 additional miles to the original 40,000-mile Defense Highway System (later renamed as the Interstate system). Utah officials proposed that part of the added mileage be devoted to a new highway connecting Denver with the Wasatch Front metropolitan area, but federal highway officials decreed instead that the new road should go more directly west from Denver and connect with Interstate 15 at Cove Fort. It would thus be the first major transportation link in Utah not to funnel through the Wasatch Front area. The new addition to the Interstate system was decried by Salt Lake City newspapers as a “road to nowhere” but was eagerly hailed in Emery County as a long-overdue recognition of the natural advantages of the Salina Canyon route.

Emery County officials hoped the interstate would roughly follow the Spanish Trail route through the county, leaving the Green River-Price highway near Woodside and crossing Buckhorn Flat to join Highway 10 near Castle Dale. This would have placed several county towns directly on the interstate. Ironically, it might have been an effort to promote local scenery that led to the scuttling of this plan. In the summer of 1958, county officials invited several guests including state and federal highway representatives to participate in a two-day “safari” through the San Rafael Swell with a goal of making the region’s scenic attractions more widely known. The party traveled over primitive roads from Moore to Eagle Canyon, Copper Globe, and the Head of Sinbad, and returned by way of Buckhorn Draw. It was apparently this introduction to the San Rafael that gave highway officials the idea of building Interstate 70 directly through the heart of the Swell. The result was arguably the most scenic stretch of highway on the entire interstate system, but the decision also meant that the direct economic benefits to Emery County were largely limited to Green River.

The route across the Swell was surveyed in early 1963. Construction began a few months later and proceeded in eight- to ten-mile chunks until the full length of the route was opened to traffic with a dedicatory service at Ghost Rock on 5 November 1970. Initially only two lanes were completed across the Swell with the other two lanes being built over the following dozen years. Interstate 70 almost exactly bisects the Swell, piercing the San Rafael Reef by way of Little Spotted Wolf Canyon, where a natural gorge only a few feet wide was enlarged to four-lane capacity at immense cost. It then climbs to the grassy valleys at the Head of Sinbad, surrounded by Wingate sandstone walls, where it passes within a mile of the historic Swasey cabin at Jackass Spring, and where the Ghost Rock rest stop provides expansive vistas across the Swell. Farther west the highway crosses Eagle Canyon on an award-winning bridge, affords other dramatic views of the San Rafael Knob region to the south and Salt Wash to the north, then drops down into the valley of Muddy Creek before continuing on to a junction with Highway 10 at the mouth of Ivie Creek Canyon.

Even though Green River got only two connections to the interstate instead of the hoped-for three, the long distances to other service areas assured the community’s status as a travelers’ oasis. The 110 miles between Green River and Salina still represent the longest stretch without services on the entire interstate system.