Saturday, January 6, 2018

Navajo Bridge

The most spectacular 660 feet stretch of early US 89 was the span of the Navajo Bridge across the Colorado River at Marble Canyon near Lees Ferry.

Of all the obstacles to overland transportation in the Southwest, none was more formidable than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Explorers, pioneers, teamsters, engineers and others have sought a way to cross the yawning gorge ever since its tentative explorations by Spanish missionaries in the mid-18th century.

The motivation to improve the Lee's Ferry road in the 1920s came from the Utah State Road Commission [USRC].  After the formation of Bryce Canyon National Monument in 1923, USRC designated the road south from Bryce to Kanab as part of its Seven Percent System, making it available for federal funding. Utah's motivation was apparently to boost tourism in the region by linking the north rim of the Grand Canyon with Bryce and Zion National Park, through what was called the "Park-to-Park Highway".  The route on Arizona's side of the border was still only a rutted county road, but Utah's move prompted the Arizona Highway Department [AHD] for the first time to begin considering its improvement.

The overriding obstacle to development of the route was, as always, the Colorado River, which cut through the road like a giant slash in the desert fabric. Lees Ferry would always constitute the route's weak link, regardless of how well the rest of the road was built and maintained. For the route to attain true highway status, a permanent bridge was needed over the Grand Canyon.

After many years of engineering as well as political back-and-forth construction on Navajo Bridge finally began in June 1927.  The single greatest hurdle of the project - was the transportation of some 3.2 million pounds of materials, supplies and equipment over the 130 miles from the railhead at Flagstaff to the bridge site. With little improvement since the 1910s, the road north of Flagstaff was still no more than a trail in many places.  The most impressive dimension of the Grand Canyon Bridge was its distance above the river level: some 467 feet from deck to water, making it the second highest bridge* in America at the time of completion.
An airplane flew under Navajo Bridge
during the 1929 dedication ceremonies.
After a genuine epic construction process, the bridge opened to traffic in January 1929 and was dedicated in front of thousands of celebratory onlookers in June 1929.  Arizona Governor John C. Phillips said,  "Today marked the dawn of the new epoch in the history of the Southwest," Phillips declared. "Man has achieved another triumph over grim nature. By his creative genius and daring, his engineering skill, he has bridged this barrier with ribs of steel and concrete and brought into closer
touch the people of two great states and has opened an avenue whereby the traffic of the west may view our scenic wonders and our people."

As the only crossing of the Colorado River for some 600 miles, the bridge has had a profound impact on the commerce and transportation of a rugged and remote part of the West. The Navajo Bridge did mark an important milestone of engineering design, logistical planning and construction supervision. It was the first steel deck arch built in Arizona and a nationally prominent example of this uncommon
structural type. What makes this bridge technologically noteworthy is its immense scale, its inspired logistical planning and its breathtaking span over one of the most spectacular bridge sites in America.

This handsomely proportioned structure ranks among the country's most dramatic bridges. Flying high over the Grand Canyon, the Navajo Bridge is Arizona's most aesthetically and functionally successful example of civil engineering.

Most of the above narrative was taken from this source document:

For a great story about the 1929 context and dedication of the original Navajo Bridge see:

Here's a superb article about the dedication of the second Navajo Bridge:

Below is a 32 second video of some Navajo Bridge scenes.  For many additional scenes of construction of the original Navajo Bridge visit the Library of Congress collection here:

*The 1927 Twin Falls-Jerome bridge over the Snake River is 476 feet above the water, 11 feet higher than the Navajo Bridge-to-water measurement. Some accounts have claimed the Navajo Bridge was the highest in the world at the time of completion.  The Navajo Bridge would have actually been the fourth highest in the world. The Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge in Constantine, Algeria and the 1839-built Charles Albert suspension bridge at Allonzier-la-Caille in the Rhône-Alpes region of France appear to have been higher than either of the American bridges mentioned here.  Many thanks to an astute reader who informed us of our error in calling the Navajo Bridge the "highest in the world."

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