Public voting open for Zion Tunnel Preservation Project
By Lyman Hafen
The historic and iconic Zion Tunnel is dear to the hearts of people across the country and around the world. During the month of June, everyone can vote online to support a substantial grant that, if won, will provide funding to preserve and maintain the Zion Tunnel into the future through the Zion Tunnel Preservation Project.
The grant is funded by American Express through the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of their Partners in Preservation initiative. Twenty projects, including the Zion Tunnel Preservation Project, have been named finalists for a total of $2 million in funding. National Geographic is hosting the online voting, which began May 25 and continues through July 5. You can vote once a day. The winning projects will be announced soon after July 5. To vote, go to VoteYourPark.org.
It has always been easier to travel north and south than east and west in this region. It has to do with geological forces deep in the earth. And the result is that most of the mountains, faults, fissures, and fractures in red rock country run north and south, leaving openings for north-south travel through the valleys while rugged ridges, canyons, and plateaus hamper movement east and west.
In the early 1920s, as the nation started to realize the amazing beauty of this area, voices began to be heard in Washington demanding better access. It took a lot of time, money, and ingenuity, but when the task was accomplished, three magnificent national parks — Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon — were created. Centuries ago, Native Americans built the first trail out the east side of Zion Canyon, some 20 steps chiseled into the sheer rock near today’s Weeping Rock parking.
In the late 1800s, a local stockman named John Winder built the first pioneer livestock trail up and over the same rock face. In the years following the designation of Zion Canyon as a national monument in 1909, local park employees did extensive work in remodeling Winder’s trail and building others. But the idea of an actual road out the canyon’s east walls seemed beyond the reach of everyone.
Then, in 1923 Howard Means, chief engineer of the State of Utah, and B.J. Finch, a district engineer for the federal government, were sent to Zion Canyon to determine once and for all if a road could be built out the east side. Their initial determination was that it was impossible. Then someone introduced them to John Winder who showed them where the road should go up Pine Creek Canyon. They surveyed the route and determined it was feasible.
Their biggest hurdles would be engineering a mile-long tunnel through the stone towers and convincing Congress to appropriate money for such a project. By the summer of 1927, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel had been approved and funded. Area promoters and politicians — along with the National Park Service under its first director, Stephen Mather — had convinced a reluctant Congress that the project would work. On September 27, 1927, the first six men hired by the Nevada Contracting Company started clearing a right-of-way up Pine Creek Canyon.
Over the next two years, the number of workers would reach more than 200, and what they accomplished in those two years with limited technology and primitive equipment is still hailed as a wonder today. It took just 11 months and 12 days to blast the tunnel through the mountain. By the end of 1929, the road was complete enough that a car could be driven over the entire route. But it wasn’t until July 4, 1930, that all the work was finished, and that’s the day dignitaries from across the country gathered near the tunnel entrance to dedicate the engineering marvel and open it to the public.
Now we all have the opportunity to play a part in the tunnel’s future by voting for a grant that will help preserve it for decades to come. Between May 25 and July 5, you can vote once a day for this important grant by going to VoteYourPark.org. For detailed information on the Zion Tunnel Preservation Project and how you can support it, go to the Zion National Park Foundation website.