The Saratoga Sun -

Snow fence and gates

Author tells the tale of the Sno Chi Minh Trail and the highway innovations Wyoming has contributed at book signing in Elk Mountain

 

Mike Armstrong

The book Snow Chi Minh Trail on display.

John R. Waggener, an archivist in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, is the author of "Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction." The book is published by the Wyoming State Historical Society, a nonprofit, membership-driven educational organization.

The subject matter is a 77 mile stretch of road that is known to many Wyoming residents for its volatile weather conditions that makes the highway very hazardous.

Waggener was at the Elk Mountain Fire Station on May 20 to sign copies of his book and answer questions about the "Snow Chi Minh Trail."

He gave a slide presentation of photos taken from his book and while he spoke, he qualified stories that were true and disqualified myths. It was one of those legends that fueled his desire to write the book.

"I had heard that Lady Bird Johnson dictated the road location for highway beautification," Waggener said. "That is a myth."

Wyoming residents did try to tell federal officials the Union Pacific Railroad looked at that same area 100 years earlier when constructing the nation's first transcontinental railroad and decided against the shorter, more direct route. Locals warned highway officials of the adverse weather conditions around the Elk Mountain area and advised them not to build a road in that location.

Waggener said the stubborn officials, led by a man named Frank Turner, were fixated with the new road cutting off 19 miles, compared to the journey by U.S. 30 through Rock River, Medicine Bow and Hanna.

"It just was a very mysterious piece of road, and I always heard people calling it the Snow Chi Minh Trail, and then I realized it was known all around the nation as a notoriously bad stretch of road," Waggener said. "I thought this road deserved some historical research just to set the record straight."

Waggener is not sure how the interstate between Laramie and Walcott Junction actually got it's name.

"Nobody knows for sure but early references indicate truck drivers were calling it that, and yes, the reference is the Ho Chi Minh Trail," Waggener said. "The first documented use of the term that I see in a newspaper article is within one year of the road's opening."

The newly constructed stretch of I-80 was dedicated Oct. 3, 1970. The Vietnam war was starting to wind down from its high of almost 550,000 U.S. troops in 1968 to about 335,000 American troops in 1970, but the Ho Chi Minh Trail was infamous as a treacherous supply route the North Vietnamese used in battling South Vietnam.

Waggener told the dozens of attendees at the Elk Mountain Fire House when the road first opened there were 24 major drifting areas identified along the new route.

"When I say major drifting areas, we are talking 10 to 15 foot drifts that are covering the highway," Waggener said. "So that is where the initial snow fences were concentrated."

He said a lot of research went into designing the snow fences. Trains had used a type of snow fence using rocks.

"I like to put in a little plug for the snow fence," Waggener said. "I like to say the snow fence has been keeping Wyoming open to the world since 1868."

He said Wyoming's snow fences started out unique to other snow fences because they are taller. Waggener pointed out the U.S. highway department invented what is now called "Wyoming Snow Fences" to handle the drifts on this section of I-80 and it is the standard globally.

"You will see this design in Japan, Russia, Alaska; all around," Waggener said.

He said road closure used to have men with orange flags try and wave people off the road.

"Sometimes drivers would pull out a gun and tell them they couldn't tell them where to drive," Waggener said. "At some point because of this they started using troopers."

In 1973, a road closure gate was put up in Laramie and one in Walcott Junction.

"It is believed these were the first road closure gates in the nation for major highways," Waggener said. "So again Wyoming was pioneering because of this stretch of road."

He said the first variable message signs drivers take for granted along all Wyoming highways were put up in Laramie and Walcott Junction. He said they appeared in 1976.

Guardrails were also modified to handle the Wyoming winds and snow. Waggener said the guardrails first put up caused drifting. He said the modifications had to happen because traffic was constantly increasing.

"When the road first opened, daily traffic was about 3,800 (vehicles), now the daily traffic is 11,000," Waggener said. "It is about 56 percent semi-truck traffic now according to WYDOT."

He said WYDOT has done a tremendous job keeping it open.

Waggener has been around I-80 all his life.

"I grew up in the I-80 town of Green River. Our family spent a lot of time driving between Green River and Laramie often to attend UW basketball and football games," Waggener said. "We had a lot of scary moments in the area around Arlington, and I always wondered why that section of I-80 did not follow old U.S. 30 like the rest of the Interstate does across the state."

His fascination with the "Snow Chi Minh Trail" stayed with him for years.

"As a faculty member at UW, some of my job is devoted to doing research, so that seemed like an obvious project for me to take on" Waggener said. "It had personal appeal and I knew that many people were also interested in learning more about the road."

He began the project almost 15 years ago.

"I started the research in the fall of 2004, and the project just kept growing," Waggener explained. "For every question I answered, it would lead to new questions, so I just kept researching and writing until I felt like all of the main questions had been addressed."

Although he finished the book in 2017, he felt there was still more to take in.

Mike Armstrong

Author John Waggener shows off his book, "Snow Chi Minh Trail." at the Elk Mountain Fire Station on May 20.

"I finally finished the project in the fall of 2017, but I have continued to do research as I have learned new information," Waggener said. "During the book tour that has taken place over the last eight months, I have met many people who have connections to the road including retired highway department employees, and they all had interesting stories and historical notes to share, so I have been trying to weave these into a revision of the book."

He does see an end sight soon.

"I would imagine by this fall, I will be completed with this latest revision," Waggener said. "The book did have one revision done in February, so this next edition will be a third revision, and it should be out by about Christmas or very early in 2019. That will conclude the project."

The book can be obtained directly from the publisher by contacting Linda Fabian at the Wyoming State Historical Society in Wheatland.

 

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