Friday Flashback - Superstition

Written By Susan Shirley

So, is it too soon to congratulate ourselves on surviving Friday the 13th a week ago? Knock on wood!

In my lifetime, a whole set of superstitions has faded, at least in the United States. That would be the category of beliefs such as: that women are bad luck on a ship; that, if a woman is allowed into a mine, there will be a major catastrophe; that redhaired, older, or pregnant women bring bad luck in certain situations (so, I'd guess an older, redhaired, pregnant woman would have been REALLY taboo.) Some of us also remember, as recently as the early 1970s, entire large sections of the newspapers' employment ads under the heading, "Help Wanted: Men."

The engineering marvel to our west, the Eisenhower Tunnel, was named after President Dwight Eisenhower following his death in 1969. The First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, was born and raised in Denver, and the couple were married in her Denver home. Eisenhower himself seems to have had a relatively open mind regarding the roles of women in society,  appointing several women to cabinet positions during his presidency in the 1950s, a decade not exactly known for its embrace of full equality for women.

But the tunnel itself, begun in the late 1960s, had only one woman who contributed as one of the nearly 6,000 workers who dug and blasted their way through over 7,700 feet of mountain and approximately a million cubic yards of material. The woman was Denver native Janet Bonnema, mountain climber, pilot, and former captain of the CU ski team. Despite her capabilities, and the fact that the requirement for men was to be under age 68, she would never have been hired had it not been for a supervisor misreading the name on her application as "James." When she showed up for work, she was told that there was no way she would be allowed near the tunnel, because the men would walk out en masse if she was. She was put to work, but not allowed to set foot beyond her office door.

Not being the sort to shy away from a challenge, in 1972 Bonnema filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Highways (CDOH) under the shiny-new Equal Employment Opportunity Act. The case settled in favor of allowing Bonnema into the tunnel to do her job as an engineering technician, but when she attempted to walk inside the tunnel for the first time, 66 male workers temporarily walked off the job. Later, Bonnema was allowed inside the tunnel to take measurements, collect rock samples, and make technical drawings.

The 1.6 mile long Eisenhower Tunnel opened March 8, 1973. It cost $116.9 million (way over budget, but relative to the $4 billion total price tag for I-70, maybe not so bad) and about 4.9 million hours of labor--nearly exclusively "manhours" in this case. At 11,155 feet, CDOT says it is the highest vehicle tunnel in the world. By July, 1973, a million vehicles had passed through the tunnel, and by 1992, over 100 million vehicles had made that trip. In February, 2015, an average of 32,465 vehicles passed through the tunnel each day.

Bonnema's persistence and determination opened up a vast array of opportunities for women in Colorado. After the tunnel was completed, she returned to school and earned a civil engineering degree, something she had wanted to do when younger, but had been deterred by guidance counselors from pursuing "male" subjects.  She was later inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame.

Sources: Federal Highway Administration website; James T. Callow Folklore Archive; Eisenhower Library;; Colorado Department of Transportation.