Building the Grand Avenue bridge — in ‘53
Regardless of being considered at the bottom of the totem pole as a rodman, Don Vanderhoof remembers his eight months working on the construction of the current Grand Avenue bridge to be among the best in his life.
Hired by what was then the Colorado Highway Department at the age of 21 in 1953, he was given a camera and told to photograph the construction process of the then new bridge.
“I probably took 150 to 200 pictures,” Vanderhoof told the Post Independent last week. The photographs were then sent to the Highway Department district office in Grand Junction to be developed.
“I know of the engineering crew, I’m the last one left,” he said of the four-man crew (not including the larger Gardner Construction crew). “Most of the guys working for Gardner Construction at the time were 10 years older than I was.”
“One of the jobs I had was checking those (rivets) and to check they were tight. I know that I am the only person alive that has touched every one of those,” he said of the many rivets currently holding together the structure of the ’53 bridge.
Compared with the two and a half years that the new bridge is estimated to take, it took only nine months for completion of the current bridge.
“It went much quicker than is does now because there wasn’t so much government interference,” Vanderhoof said. “They did things the government would not allow today and things that probably shouldn’t have been done; they just built the bridge.”
Pitkin Avenue Bridge
Most people don’t realize that while the 1953 bridge was being built, a temporary bridge was erected at Pitkin Avenue. Once the construction of the ‘53 bridge was finished, this temporary bridge was torn down and the pilings were left in the Colorado River.
Many summers later, a father and son were kayaking through Glenwood Springs via the Colorado River when the boy’s kayak flipped and became hung up on something in the water — ultimately drowning him.
“Unfortunately the father was downstream from [him] and the son’s kayak hooked on something, tipped over and the little kid drowned,” Vanderhoof said. “The father couldn’t get back to him.”
The following morning, Vanderhoof ran into the owner of the White Water Rafting Co. “He said, ‘Did you hear? We had a drowning in the river. I don’t know what that kayak hooked on, but there was a snag there.’”
Vanderhoof said he knew immediately what was lurking under the surface of the river and had photographs to prove it.
Days later he was approached by two men from the Highway Department who made the argument of having no record of there ever being a highway bridge connected to Pitkin Avenue. It took about 10 seconds for Vanderhoof to find the photograph he took of the temporary bridge and convince the men of its existence.
Crews were quickly sent out to remove leftover pieces of the bridge at Pitkin Avenue.
The original plans for the new bridge didn’t include Grand Avenue at all. The Highway Department wanted to put the new bridge across the river and tie it into Midland Avenue, creating a bypass from Sixth Street to 27th street.
“The town just went crazy. All of the merchants said you can’t take the traffic off of Grand Avenue,” Vanderhoof recalled. At the time, Midland Avenue was a dirt road with roughly three houses.
“The people just had a fit, there were busloads of people going to Denver meeting with the Highway Department,“ Vanderhoof said. “Finally the Highway Department relented and put the bridge down Grand Avenue.”
Ironically, 50 years later, many people wanted the main highway off of Grand and on Midland, but by then, 500 houses were already developed there, Vanderhoof recalled.
“I’ve often wondered what Midland Avenue would look like if they had done that. There would be businesses over there rather than houses, and Grand Avenue would sure be easier to get up and down.”
Times have changed
Construction companies in the 1950s didn’t have to jump through nearly as many hoops as they do now when working major developments.
The cranes that were used to lift and haul pieces of the bridge were very low rated and did not have the capacity to lift the things they did, Vanderhoof said, adding that the cranes would often tilt and bend over when moving heavy loads.
“They had a signal, a couple of toots of the horn, and it meant everybody that was available was to head to the cranes,” he said. “As they were lifting the beams, we were all hanging on the back of that crane to keep it on the ground — and it worked, we never tipped a crane over.”
One person died during construction of the ‘53 bridge — after a man suffered a heart attack and fell from a ledge 10 feet off the ground.
Vanderhoof continued working with the Highway Department for another four years before going into the banking business with his father and brother, but he remembers those years well.
“Those really were the best four years of my life,” Vanderhoof said.
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The 27th Street Underpass Bridge project design has reached 30% completion, with a final design expected to be completed by August.