A car passes over the San Rafael/Buckhorn Wash bridge not long after it was constructed. The bridge replaced several others that had not withstood the onslaught of the river during high water seasons.
It's hard for most to imagine today what the San Rafael Swell was like before roads ran through it. Looking at the terrain, it would seem extremely hard to enter or get around.
Long before there were lots of four wheel drive vehicles, before I-70 was even a twinkle in the eye of national road designers, and even before the MK Tunnels in the Swell were formed by blasting, there was something that happened that drew hundreds of people from the local area.
It was the opening of the first permanent bridge for motor traffic across the San Rafael River at the bottom of Buckhorn Wash (Canyon). While other bridges had existed in the area before, they were of light construction, mostly wood, and in heavy water years they were always washed away.
Before 1937, when the water was high in the river at that point in its flow, it was impossible to cross. When the water was low, the mud would suck down just about any wheeled self-propelled vehicle.
In the summer of 1936, men from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began the work to put a good bridge across the river. At this point the Bureau of Land Management did not exist, but instead there were various divisions that managed lands under the United States Interior Department. The bridge the men began to build was part of a plan by the Division of Grazing to open up the area south of the river to more uses.
"...the construction of the bridge is regarded as one of the most important projects yet undertaken by the division of grazing in the Intermountain region," stated the Sun Advocate on April 23, 1937, not long before the span was completed and dedicated.
The CCC was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program. The CCC provided untrained men manual labor jobs that dealt with the conservation and development of rural properties owned by the federal government in particular. The men also worked on projects on state and local lands as well. During the years of the depression many young men had a hard time finding work and the program was set up to give many men in their 20s and 30s work while also providing for building infrastructure across the country.
The CCC was a large organization. While the number of men in the program varied over the years it was operated, it never exceeded 300,000, but over most of a decade about 2.5 million men worked in the program. Its operation could be equated to a civilian army arrangement. Once enrolled in the CCC A young man could expect the Corp to provide him with housing, clothing and food. They were paid about $30 per month, most of which had to be sent home to families they had left behind where ever they came from.
The camps in Utah did a lot of work. They built campgrounds in some of the canyons in northern Utah, they built reservoirs, they built the rodeo grounds in Tooele, terraced mountainsides in areas like Willard and the mountains above Provo and built water works in many places. Thousands of workers toiled on all kinds of projects within the borders of the state. It was estimated that the corps spent more than $52 million in the state during the nine years it was in business.
The new bridge across the San Rafael (now closed off and standing by another "new bridge" that replaced it in the early 1990s, was completed in early April 1937 and was opened for traffic on April 25 with hundreds of residents from the two county area attending the dedication. The bridge was considered so important that Utah Governor Henry H. Blood came to speak at the dedication.
"When Miss Lucylle Bell...officially christened the structure the San Rafael Bridge, she more than marked the completion of an engineering project," stated the paper on April 29, 1937. "By breaking the band of red, white and blue ribbons and leading the procession across the span, she put the final touches on a development that had been the objective of stockmen in this district for several decades."
The bridge was designed by H.K. Lehmer and was engineered by K.D. Williams and O. B. Freeman.
The new bridge was 160 feet long and unlike the ones before it was anchored into a ledge on the north end and anchored by pylons driven into the ground 20 feet deep.
It was the opening of a whole new world for not only grazing, but prospecting and recreation.