Craig, Colorado is a small town in Moffat County in the sagebrush of the high desert of northwestern Colorado. It is on U.S. 40, almost exactly halfway between Denver and Salt Lake. Up until the 1970s, its location made it a favored stopping point for travelers crossing the sometimes challenging roads over the Rocky Mountain passes.
However, like many developing towns across the country, Craig would become an orphan when one of the largest infrastructure Acts of the 20th century was passed in 1956.
The First 60 Years
Moffat County opened up to homesteading in the early 1900s and became firmly established when the railroad reached the area in 1913. In less than a decade, Craig grew to over 5,000 people.
The first boom cycle for Moffat County was short-lived as average precipitation was too unpredictable to create a consistent living off farming. Most of the homesteaders eventually gave up and either moved into Craig or left the area completely.
However, Craig continued to survive and have moderate growth thanks to a few key industries. Cattle ranching and coal became the main revenue for the remote corner of Colorado. As roads improved, Craig was ideally located between Denver and Salt Lake City. That helped keep traffic flowing through the area and brought in tourist dollars from outside the county.
The Rollercoaster Population
Moffat County was carved out of Routt County in 1911. In 1910, only about 25% of Routt County’s population lived in the newly created county. There were about 2,000 people living in Moffat County when it was established.
By 1920, the population of Moffat County had more than doubled to 5,129. The population then dropped to 4,861 by the 1930 census but recovered in 1940 to a census of 5,086. It would continue to grow for the next twenty years to 7,061, only to decline in the 1970 census to 6,525.
A population boom in Moffat County’s first decade would seem to be linked to that inflow of homesteaders and the decline following that would be linked to homesteaders leaving the area. The steady growth from 1930 to 1960 would seem to be associated with the link that Craig had to Denver and Salt Lake as the halfway point between the two major cities on a major highway. That highway was U.S. 40 and was known as the Victory Highway and also the Main Street of America linking Delaware to the east to Salt Lake to the west.
The decline in the 1970 census seems to coincide with the impact of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This was the legislation that created the interstate highway system. Essentially, it shifted most of the cross-country traffic from roads like U.S. 40 to interstate highways like I-80 through Wyoming.
The Rocky Mountain Reputation
There were multiple competing goals in the design of the new interstate highway system. Among them were:
- Maximizing interstate highway usage by avoiding duplication of service
- Minimizing costs by avoiding difficult geographical construction challenges
- Expedited construction timeline
- Service public and military needs
- Link key population centers
To understand what happened in Colorado regarding the creation of the system, it is important to note that the decision-makers apparently had a healthy fear of the Rocky Mountains. The initial routes for the interstate highways avoided crossing the formidable mountain range by sending traffic north across southern Wyoming (I-80) or south through the more moderate climates of New Mexico and Arizona (I-40).
The plan was to have one interstate highway (I-70) in Colorado, but it would stop in Denver and not cross the mountain passes. That would serve the population center of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and minimize the cost. It also would avoid slowing the completion of the interstate system by not taking on the task of building roads through the mountain passes.
Colorado Governor Johnson and I-70
One of Moffat County’s most famous citizens was Edwin Carl Johnson. Johnson and his spouse came to northwest Colorado on the advice of his physician who felt the climate would be more favorable after his recovery from tuberculosis.
He became involved in Colorado politics and twice, in 1933 and 1955, he served as Governor of the State. Eighteen months after Edwin Johnson took office for the second time, the massive highway Act was passed and he became a major advocate for Colorado’s interests in the interstate highway plan. He insisted that it would be unfair if the country’s major arteries were to be routed around Colorado.
The Interstate Sausage
Political compromise has been compared to making sausage. It is something that may be necessary but nobody should witness how it’s done. The alignment of the interstate highways is no exception. The interests and well-being of many small communities were sacrificed in an effort to accomplish the task. Craig was one of the casualties.
Although Governor Johnson had been a resident of Moffat County, his task was to convince the multiple stakeholders that Colorado must have an interstate highway that crossed it from east to west in order to not be isolated from the commerce that would be crossing the country. Had he been the decision-maker, I-70 would have likely followed the most direct route and Craig would have benefited.
Fortunately, Governor Johnson did have allies in Utah and they became key players in this effort. They wanted the I-70 extension to connect to Salt Lake City. This presented the opportunity for the new interstate to follow the U.S. 40 alignment through Craig or via the U.S. 6 route. Upon agreeing to this, Colorado and Utah presented a united proposal for bringing I-70 through Colorado and Utah.
Sneaky Public Roads Commissioner
The Bureau of Public Roads (now the Federal Highway Administration) accepted the extension plan but the Department of the Army felt that it should be routed through southern Utah to connect to southern California. The route was changed and announced without any discussion with Governor Johnson or the Utah officials. The Commissioner of the Bureau admitted later that they intentionally did not inform anyone of the re-routing of I-70 in order to avoid any complaints.
This re-routing ended any opportunity for Craig to be a part of the economic benefit of the interstate highway system. While Craig remains on a more direct route between Denver and Salt Lake, it is slower than the longer routes that include travel on an interstate highway. It has had an economic impact and the lost revenue of the cross-country traveling public likely contributed to the decline in the population of Moffat County in the early 1970s.
It could be argued that Craig might have not gained much economically if I-70 had been routed near the town. Steamboat Springs is 42 miles east of Craig and would have been an option for interstate travelers to rest, eat, and/or refuel. It is likely that both towns would have benefited, but Craig needed the connection more than Steamboat Springs. Craig didn’t have the mountain town attractions that Steamboat Springs developed in the 20th century.
Because of Craig’s coal reserves, a boom cycle began in the 1970s when three coal-fired electrical power plants were built; however, after expending much of the readily available coal and because of the health and environmental threats, the units have been scheduled to be closed down over the next decade.
Today, Craig faces a bleak future with no reliable financial source for new employment and new tax revenue. Its situation is compounded by its remote location, hundreds of miles from the economic centers of major cities. Had I-70 been built along the U.S. 40 alignment, Craig’s future might be more hopeful than it is today.