Bill Sniffin: Interesting That Big I-80 Crash Did Not Occur On Snow Chi Minh Trail

in Bill Sniffin/Column

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily Publisher

Most drivers experience their worst winter traffic nightmares on Interstate 80 in an area from Elk Mountain to Laramie.

Yet, the biggest crash in years occurred last Sunday, March 1, on a lonely desert section of road near Creston Junction (note: some early reports listed it as occurring near “Crescent Junction,” which is on Interstate 70).

This barren lonely stretch of highway includes a small population of oilfield folks, who populate the nearby town of Wamsutter. It is a home of man camps and trailer villages. It can be a brutal place in winter with unrelenting wind, icy roads, never-ending traffic, and the desolate feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

Into this fray hundreds of big trucks and dozens of cars and pickups found themselves driving too fast and slamming into a huge string of vehicles that had crashed ahead of them.

It must have been horrible for the victims to know that it would be a long time before highway patrolmen, EMTs, and wreckers could get to them, when you are located so far out in the Big Empty in such terrible weather conditions.

Trying to get somewhere as fast as possible sounds familiar to me. In my life, it seems like I always needed to be somewhere at a specific time. Wyoming’s roads and winter weather rarely cooperated with my schedules. Today, I am able to monitor the weather and the roads and leave a day early or perhaps even re-schedule .

Most of those folks involved in that crash Sunday were on deadlines. They rolled the dice and took the chance that they could get through those awful conditions and say a prayer afterward for their good luck. But this was not to be their lucky day. Three people died and other reports said as many as 30 people were injured.

The video of that crash scene was seen by 500,000 people (according to Cowboy State Daily) and after viewing it, you again ask yourself why you would put yourself into harm’s way by driving a car or a pickup amongst all those gigantic trucks? What chance has a 3,500-pound car have when colliding with a 60,000-pound truck? In that video, some good Samaritans were trying to get a person out of a small black car that was unrecognizable, smashed so much in the front and in the rear. Truly a scary thing to see.

By the way, Wyoming was voted number-one for most dangerous state to drive in during winter weather. The nine other worst states for winter driving were: 2. Vermont 3. Montana 4. Idaho 5. Maine 6. Michigan 7. Iowa 8. New Mexico 9. Minnesota and 10. Nebraska. Not sure why Colorado was missed from this list.

John Waggener’s great book about Interstate 80, which he calls the Snow Chi Minh Trail, explains why federal highway officials picked the mountainous site rather than the longer U.S. Highway 30 route.

There were some very stubborn federal officials, headed by a rock head named Frank Turner, who were obsessed with the new road cutting off 19 “unnecessary miles,” compared to the route used by U. S. 30 through Rock River and Medicine Bow.

Waggener even recalls a heated exchange between Turner and former U. S. Senator Gale McGee. Turner prevailed.

Wyoming people fought valiantly in the 1960s to keep the new road out of the mountains. The federal people would not listen to them and threatened to not build it, unless it could be built on their route through the mountains.

Waggener says there are other places in Wyoming along Interstate 80 that offer problems, such as the Summit between Laramie and Cheyenne, but nothing compares to that daunting 77-mile trip from Laramie to Walcott Junction.

We old-timers recall a famous CBS TV newsman named Charles Kuralt, whose specialty was traveling the country and reporting on out-of-the-way places.

He famously declared that the stretch from Laramie-Walcott Junction was “the worst stretch of interstate highway in America.”

Waggener says another myth was the mystery surrounding why the Wyoming Department of Transportation re-built a stretch of highway 30 between Bosler and near Rock River as a four-lane road?

He points out the road needed re-building and speculation was that WYDOT favored the U.S. 30 route for the new interstate highway and was making a statement by creating a four-lane stretch on Highway 30 back in the late 1960s.

Waggener also discloses the Union Pacific Railroad chose not to build along this route because of the wind and the snow.

He reveals studies, which explained why there are such vicious winds near the Elk Mountain area. Due to the gap next to the mountain being the lowest elevation of the Rocky Mountains, wind blows at abnormally high velocities as the air rushes through there, causing havoc in the roads and stirring up the large amounts of snow that pile up.

On a personal note, I have driven Interstate 80 for almost 50 years and I still avoid the Snow Chi Minh Trail stretch during extreme winter weather.

One reason is the horrible snow and wind. A second reason is the huge increase in truck traffic, which makes driving along that stretch a game of Russian roulette.

Perhaps a third reason is that I like visiting the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow, which is one of the coolest places in the state.

About the only positive that Waggener pulls out of this discussion over the near half century of the Snow Chi Minh Trail’s existence is that the invention of the best snow fences in the world has resulted from this spectacular testing area.

The book is available from the Wyoming State Historical Society and fine stores around the state.

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