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EDITOR'S DESK: Back in time with the Cimarron interchange

The original Cimarron interchange is shown under construction in a photo looking north that appears in a booklet published by the Colorado Department of Highways commemorating the official opening of the "Monument Valley Freeway" through Colorado Springs in July 1960. Also part of the construction was Cimarron itself, which previously went west no farther than the confluence of Monument and Fountain creeks. The interchange shown in the photo is the one being replaced in the current project.
Westside Pioneer photo - Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District
By Kenyon Jordan


It all started when a lead staffer for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) commented at the May 26 public meeting for the new Cimarron/I-25 interchange that the old one was built in 1964.
       At this news, I think most everyone there pretty much yawned, mumbled “that's a long time ago,” or snuck back to the snacks table to see if any macadamia nut cookies were left.
       As for me, there was an unavoidable sensation of planets spinning free of their orbits. 1964? How could that be? The date consistently given for the interstate through Colorado Springs has always been 1959. As for '64, that was when state officials say that contractors started building the Midland Expressway (Highway 24). It would become the bypass for Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs that connects with the road up Ute Pass.
       So if the Cimarron interchange wasn't built until '64 - theoretically as part of the bypass project - where did area motorists going west from I-25 turn off in the meantime? Before the bypass, I knew, the state highway through the Westside was Colorado Avenue. So why didn't state officials put a freeway interchange on the avenue?
       Dumb questions? Maybe to an old-timer. But I didn't come here till the '70s, so research was called for.
       In such historical puzzles, a good starting place is Mel McFarland, a local historian who grew up on the Westside and has written his Cobweb Corners column for the Westside Pioneer since 2004. For his own research efforts, he often spends hours in the Local History section of the Penrose Public Library. Luckily, in this case, he recalled seeing a booklet
An aerial photo from 1962 shows Cimarron Street going through its interchange with what was then US Highway 87 and continuing west to Eighth Street. The extension to Eighth, which would become part of the Highway 24 bypass project starting in 1964, was built in conjunction with the interchange work for the Monument Valley Freeway project that was officially completed in 1960.
Westside Pioneer photo - Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District
in Local History that the state had published when the interstate was opened.
       So I paid a visit to Local History, and sure enough, that booklet turned out to be the “smoking gun” in disproving CDOT's announced date for the original Cimarron interchange. The document also provided a wealth of information about when the freeway first came through Colorado Springs.
       Published by the Colorado Department of Highways (the predecessor to CDOT), the booklet is dated July 1, 1960. It was published for the purpose of “commemorating the opening of the Monument Valley Freeway” through Colorado Springs, the title page states.
       Several of the pages display photos of construction on the 10 freeway/street interchanges that were created as part of the 11.9-mile project through the center of town.
       As a side note, the original freeway line is mostly unchanged, and all 10 of those interchanges still exist, albeit with upgrades of some kind or another (except Cimarron and Fillmore, both of which are getting replaced this year). The others are Woodmen, Peak View (now Rockrimmon), County Road (now Garden of the Gods Road), Fontanero, Uintah, Bijou, Nevada/Tejon and Harrison School (now Circle Drive, although the school is still there).
       The only one of these interchanges that never got busy is Fontanero. According to a 1954 city map, the easternmost segment of the multi-segment street did not continue west of Monument Creek (still doesn't). By contrast, a graphic in the 1960 booklet depicts a hoped-for Fontanero extension over both the creek and railroad tracks. If built, that extension would have connected the Fontanero interchange with Templeton Gap Road. But it never happened.
       Page 16 has a photo of the Cimarron interchange under construction. The photo caption reads: “The Freeway is carried over Cimarron Street on twin bridges and provision has been made for the full exchange of traffic between that street and the Freeway.” This proves that Cimarron was part of the 1960 project.
       But was it actually finished before 1964? Yes, again. A 1962 aerial photo (also found in Penrose's Local History section, with the help of library staff) clearly
This is a portion of a city street map from 1954 (the year before the Monument Valley Freeway project started). Cimarron Street at that time did not extend east of the confluence of Fountain and Monument creeks. That would change radically with the 1955-60 freeway project, with Cimarron being developed as one of its interchanges. The work extended the street west from its pre-freeway segment east of the Monument/Fountain creek confluence, continuing through the interchange and over to Eighth Street. This outcome can be compared with Fontanero Street, which was similar to Cimarron in that a segment of it existed east of Monument Creek; also similar, the project created a Fontanero freeway interchange. However, there was a major contrast: Plans for an extension from the new Fontanero interchange to the segment east of the creek (which would have created an east-west connector) never materialized.
Westside Pioneer photo - Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District
shows the interchange, with all its ramps in place.
       Still, there is a tangential question - what about Cimarron Street itself? In the 1954 map, published the year before work started on the Monument Valley Freeway, Cimarron seems much like Fontanero - a fairly inconsequential street that does not cross the creek, going west. Even going east, it lacks (and still does today) a crossing over what was then the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad right of way. And its segment east of that dead-ends at Prospect Lake.
       So was an extension of Cimarron in fact part of the project? Zooming in on the booklet photo, we see the original Cimarron Street bridge over Conejos Street, the railroad tracks and Fountain Creek. The street heads west under the freeway bridges. West of the interchange can be seen the on- and off-ramps and what appears to be the street itself, continuing west of the bridges.
       The above-noted booklet graphic - the same one that illustrates the Fontanero extension that never was - also shows Cimarron continuing west to Eighth Street. We know it eventually went in and became part of the bypass, but when?
       That's where the 1962 aerial photo comes in handy again. In it, we see Cimarron laid in west of the interchange and connected at Eighth. So it really did get built with the Monument Valley Freeway project. As for the rest of the bypass to Ute Pass, that was still just a gleam in state and city planners' eyes in '62, awaiting its groundbreaking in 1964.
       Another question I had was, why use Cimarron for an interchange? At that time, there were several other minor streets south of downtown and east of the creek, which (like Cimarron) were just a few blocks in length, and could just as easily have been chosen.
       Possibly the most logical candidate, as mentioned above, was long-established Colorado Avenue. But at least it was not completely overlooked. The booklet points out that the project gave a bridge and underpass to the avenue, which it deserved as “the major intersecting state route within the city.”
       McFarland said he believes an advantage for Cimarron was its proximity to the Drake power plant, which was just getting started around that time; plus, Cimarron was/is close enough to downtown that it could provide access there in addition to Bijou.
       Obviously, a lot of thought must have gone into such things. In retrospect, the Cimarron bypass decision was probably the key reason the avenue didn't get an interchange - because its days as the main highway to the mountains were numbered.
       Believing that historical accuracy is worth the trouble, we sent our findings to Dave Watt, CDOT's resident engineer, who graciously thanked us for a “great job on the research” and agreed that we were “correct regarding the timing. The 1964 construction was US 24 from Eighth Street to the west along the current alignment of US 24. We may update our website with the graphics showing the 1960 interstate configuration.”
       Yay! It's not every day a news guy gets feedback like that. Almost makes up for my missing out on the macadamia-nut cookies.

(Posted 6/9/15; Opinion: Editor's Desk)

       Kenyon Jordan is the editor of the Westside Pioneer.

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