Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of I-80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction

John Waggener, Associate Archivist at the AHC, has just released a new book, Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction, published by the Wyoming State Historical Society, a non-profit membership-driven educational organization.

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.

John explains: “Those guys saw a lot of action and relived some of it as they drove across I-80. 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.”

This stretch of road in south-central Wyoming is steeped in tragedy, controversy, myth and even conspiracy. On October 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 Union Pacific 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.”

Figure B

In the early years along the Snow Chi Minh Trail, bulldozers were needed to clear drifts like this one at Milepost 274.9 east of Arlington, Wyoming. Source: Ronald Tabler Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

“I started working on this project in 2004. It is pretty emotional to finally see it published,” John said, adding, “My family 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 a Wyoming Cowboys football game on October 7th (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.”

John is a 5th 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.

Figure A

John Waggener “testing” the rails of a snow fence along I-80, 2008

The book is making its way to local booksellers around Wyoming, or can be ordered directly from the Society by contacting Linda Fabian, Executive Secretary, Wyoming State Historical Society, 307-322-3014 or linda@wyshs.org,

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