On Sept. 12, 1964, hundreds crowded across freshly-painted highway stripes to watch the dedication of a new $12.5 million, 2.6-mile stretch of Interstate 70 designed to ease traffic congestion on what had been a four-lane street.
City and state officials joined highway engineers as an enormous ribbon was cut and onlookers applauded the first ever segment of I-70. Shortly after, the first vehicles poured through the section, headed to destinations east and westbound on a freeway that connected Jackson Street to the Valley Highway (present-day Interstate 25). The new interstate would make room for 38,500 vehicles and replace 46th Avenue, roundly criticized as the biggest traffic headache in the Denver Metro area.
“This was the most congested corridor in the city. Something had to be done and the I-70 viaduct was the result,” said Dianna Litvak, a historian with the consultant Mead & Hunt.
“Initially everybody was gung ho,” added historian Tom Noel. “It meant jobs, it meant faster transportation around town. It meant joining the modern interstate era. Denver was trying to keep up with Los Angeles.”
The gleaming interstate meant progress for Denver but disaster for the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, which were already crisscrossed by railroad tracks and booming factories. The viaduct divided the neighborhoods, cutting Elyria-Swansea in half and further chopping up Globeville, which had been split years earlier by the Valley Highway.
Hundreds of family homes that stood in the way were destroyed to make room for a parade of traffic.
“It made it easier for cars to get through at the expense of people,” said Dennis Gallagher, who represented the GES neighborhoods as a state senator for over 21 years, starting in the mid-'70s. Gallagher, who grew up in the area, remembers being away at college when he heard about a priest from Holy Family Church agonizing over losing 400 parish families who had to be relocated. “The emotional distress was just astounding.”
Betty Gallo Wonder, 81, born and raised at 46th Avenue and Claude Court, described the trauma she experienced as a kid when she participated in the Denver Public Library’s Oral History Project. “This is why I got involved with the community, the neighborhoods, about the new highway coming through.”
She remembered the helplessness her aunt felt when she lost her home to the highway. “They had went over to her, and they said, ‘Well, we’re buying your house.’ They never came to us and said: ‘We’re going to have meetings to talk to you, let you guys know what’s going on.’ We didn’t know what was going on. We just heard they were going to build a highway; Eisenhower wants his highway put through, and that’s it. You know, we had NO say-so.”
The Piro family was part of the I-70 routing collateral damage. Rocky Piro, who grew up at 48th Avenue and Wyandot Street, was a child when his extended family was split by the interstate. He remembers it damaged the social cohesion of the working-class families who lived there. Interestingly, he grew up to become a city planner.
“The freeway ended up being built between our family’s homes along either side of 48th Avenue. I remember the homes taken out. All along 48th Avenue it was a residential neighborhood,” he told the Denver Gazette. After 10 years of staying put in an area which had become noisy, polluted and layered with soot, his parents made the hard decision to move away, as did other members of the family. “My parents ended up just throwing in the towel. And we lost the social cohesion we had known.”
The Valley Highway
The history of I-70 is tangled with the tale of two highways. Interstate 25, or the Valley Highway as it was known back then, came first.
The first cranes and bulldozers started breaking dirt on Denver’s “Post-War Superhighway” in 1948. It was completed 10 years later, and city officials would eventually demand an east-west connection, but that was planned for later.
I-25’s beginning was star-studded but controversial.
When residents realized that the roadway would wipe out existing homes on the western side of Globeville, they fought it. Ernest Marranzino, a City Council hopeful, was an early voice in the fight to keep the GES neighborhood intact. At one neighborhood meeting, in the spring of 1947, his words could still apply today as a mantra of the GES neighborhoods.
Running I-25 through Globeville would mean “... the destruction of Denver’s industrial hub,” he warned. “The blighting of three of Denver’s oldest and finest communities and inconvenience to thousands of persons.”
Marranzino earned two things for his trouble: a Denver City Council seat and a postponement of the planned superhighway in order to allow for a six-week review. During that time, hundreds of Globeville residents showed up to protest the plan.
Op-eds in the Rocky Mountain News supported the highway for the good of the city, but wondered what would happen to the people who would be displaced. The proposal was considered “bold and farsighted” by Mayor J. Quigg Newton, and many city politicians who lived along city parkways and trolley lines agreed. When the Valley Highway was on the agenda for a June 1947 Denver City Council meeting, jeering and catcalls from 600 protesters in the audience were so loud, police were called to calm the disturbance. When the City Council approved the highway by a vote of 7-2, proponents had to be escorted out of the building by law enforcement.
A rapidly growing Denver: Interstate 70
The idea of building I-70 from Denver to the Kansas border took root during World War II, authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1944. According to Litvak’s masters thesis, “Freeway Fighters,” which she wrote while at the University of Colorado-Denver, the city and the state highway department started looking to replace 46th Avenue west of York Street as early as 1947. Between 1952 and 1957, the city got more serious, submitting annual inquiries. During that period, engineers recommended a route that followed East 46th Avenue on the east side of town and West 48th Avenue on the west side.
Residents fought to have the stretch of interstate moved to Adams County, just blocks to the north, along 52nd Avenue, but Litvak explained the decision to turn down that proposal had everything to do with money. If the freeway were built through that area, she said, Denver would lose federal funding and be stuck with a still problematic bottleneck at 46th Avenue.
“Denver was torn as to whether or not they should have the highway moving through the city,” says Litvak. “They were afraid of losing the money to do something with 46th and 48th avenues when they knew that they were the most congested in the city.”
As the wheels were turning among officials, the people who lived along east 46th and east 48th avenues were getting wind of what the changes would mean to an area which was already trampled by industry.
This wasn’t the first time the GES felt jerked around by the city. Just a couple of years earlier, Denver was initiating plans to rezone its districts, which were already heavily industrial, to include even more industry.
Residents were so angry about the oncoming factories and the pollution they were sure to bring, they proposed secession from Denver. Their meetings were called The Council of War, and were often held in community churches. The so-called "North Denver Rebels" believed their taxes were going to support the Denver Country Club set at the expense of their own interests.
“They can give kids in that area playgrounds and swimming pools,” complained a GES resident at one gathering. “But they take away all the privileges from our children. And give them a nice, stinking dump full of dead animals to play on."
The proposal to replace a busy street with an interstate advanced like a gathering tidal wave. Neighborhood groups complained to local officials and even went up the chain to highway officials in Washington, D.C. There were petitions, public meetings and trips to the nation’s capital with pleas to spare GES families, but their fate was sealed.
Eventually, state officials convinced the City Council that the highway department would continue with the original plan to replace 10 miles of 46th Avenue, from Colorado Boulevard to Brighton Boulevard, with a six-lane freeway. According to Fred Merten, the Metro District Engineer for the Colorado Highway Department at the time, other routes “were not practical or failed to serve the traffic desiring to use them.”
'A Genie ... let loose'
Not all Globeville residents who attended public hearings were sour on the highway. Some of them could see the convenience it would bring, and, according to Litvak’s research, at first, the mostly blue-collar residents were willing to live with the changes. Still, the Globeville community did have one important Hail Mary request: they preferred a ground-level interstate instead of an overhead viaduct. That $5 million proposal was ignored.
As to why the residents didn’t fight harder to block the impending freeway, Noel can only speculate.
“My guess is they didn’t think about this ahead of time and wouldn’t have a way of knowing exactly what the impacts would be,” he told the Denver Gazette. “The unintended consequences didn’t show up until later.”
Litvak called I-70 “...a genie that was let loose.”
In 1962, two years before the highway opened, neighbors got a taste of what it would feel like to have traffic at their front door: As the 46th Avenue arterial shut down, detours began through the residential area at the rate of 20,000 vehicles a day.
That winter, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced that decent winter weather had the project on time.
A year and a half later, the highway was finished and hundreds of homes were gone.
University of Colorado News Corps journalists Tayler Shaw and Tory Lysik contributed to this report