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Book tells history of I-80, or 'Snow Chi Minh Trail'

Sep 26, 2017 From wire reports

The Wyoming State Historical Society, a non-profit, membership-driven educational organization, has released its newest publication, "Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction," by John Richard Waggener.

The title comes from long-haul truckers who dubbed Interstate 80 (specifically the 77-mile stretch between Walcott Junction and Laramie) the "Snow chi Minh Trail," a negative reference to the similarly mountainous roadway used by North Vietnamese soldiers to reach South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

"Those guys saw a lot of action and relived some of it as they drove across I-80," said Waggener, adding, "Not many stretches of highway across America have generated so much interest to fill the pages of a book, but Interstate 80 between Laramie and Rawlins is one of those exceptions."

On Oct. 3, 1970, the newly constructed stretch of Interstate 80 was dedicated. Residents had warned highway officials of the adverse weather conditions around the area of Elk Mountain and advised them not to build a road there. Wyomingites who knew their history reminded highway officials that the UP Railroad looked at that same area 100 years earlier when it was planning and constructing the nation's first transcontinental railroad and decided against the shorter, more direct route. It wasn't but four days after the road was dedicated that a winter storm wreaked havoc on motorists traveling on the new road. Wyomingites referred to the road as a "monument to human error."

Waggener is a fifth-generation Wyomingite, born and raised in the Interstate 80 town of Green River. He attended the University of Wyoming where he earned his undergraduate degree in education and geography and his graduate degree in geography. Since 2001 he has been a faculty archivist at the American Heritage Center where he enjoys preserving historical Wyoming documents and making them available to researchers.

"I started working on this project in 2004. It is pretty emotional to finally see it published," he said. "My family and siblings made many trips down I-80. Our road trips were full of sightseeing, explanations, and interpretations of the natural, cultural, and historical wonders found along the way."

One of his more vivid memories comes from an introduction to the Snow Chi Minh Trail in 1972 when his parents took him to the Oct. 7 Wyoming Cowboys football game (he still has the ticket stub).

"The road conditions that day were favorable, but I will always remember the near whiteout conditions my dad got us safely through on several other occasions," he said.

He credits his parents for showing him that high "ways" are just that - ways to see the state of Wyoming.

Charlene Busk, chair of the Society's publications committee, said the Society was pleased to be able to partner with the author in this endeavor because it records the history of this important stretch of highway which became a public relations nightmare for the Wyoming Highway Department.

"The book is a primary resource with many oral histories of people involved in the construction of I-80 since the mid-1950s, and numerous photographs, some of which have never been published," she said.

She added that the book has an exceptional bibliography.

"Interstate 80 has been fodder for not only Wyoming newspapers, but for newspapers throughout the entire United States," she said.

The book is making its way to local booksellers around the state, or can be ordered direct from the Society by calling 322-3014 or emailing linda@wyshs.org.

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2017-10-18