The building of roads, highways and freeways sometimes involves grappling with ways to preserve history.
Ever wonder, for example, why there is a slight curve on Interstate 15 near American Fork? Historians speculate the road swerved to preserve the Roberts and Munk Ice plant, a historic structure that played an important role in Utah’s celery farming industry in the 1940s.
What’s the state’s oldest bridge still in service? That would be a structure that crosses the Price River located one mile northwest of Castle Gate that was built in 1914.
I learned much about how the Utah Department of Transportation works to preserve history while complying with federal laws as it plans new highways or improves old ones while talking to Elizabeth Giraud. She is UDOT’s Architectural Historian, the only employee who fills that role. She works with staff archaeologists to identify cultural and historical resources that might be affected by highway construction.
For example, she has identified 400 historic buildings as part of the planning for where the proposed West Davis Corridor Highway might be built.
“The architecture was a little different in that area,” explained Giraud. “It was flat and close to the [Great Salt] Lake...There are some beautiful old farm houses, barns and poultry sheds.”
One in particular stands out. That would be a prairie style Mormon chapel in Clinton, a structure she said the agency would “move mountains to avoid taking something that significant or unusual out.”
Giraud said she finds working with small neighborhoods or local communities on the delicate issue of trying to construct a needed road without ruining a special place to be a rewarding part of her job.
“What’s interesting are the things we find out about in communities,” she said. “You work with local people and ask them what’s of significance in this project or study area that you find significant in your community.”
For example, she recently has been working on a project in Murray just west of State Street between 4500 and 4800 South. The historian found this to be a tight-knit community where few homes had been altered and where generations lived in the same area. The project ultimately will require the loss of a few homes to meet the city’s needs but managed to avoid a major adverse impact on the neighborhood.
One study that Giraud finds particularly interesting is a survey of Utah’s bridges to see which might qualify for the National Historic Register. Historians looked at 210 bridges from 1910 through 1945, and 619 post-war structures from 1947 to 1965. It determined that 38 pre-war and 31 post-war bridges qualified.
The reason for studies such as this one is that the National Historic Preservation Act requires agencies receiving federal funds to consult with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office to determine if a property is eligible for the National Register. If it is, then an agency such as UDOT must determine what effect building a highway might have on such structures.
“The interesting part of the job are the stories we uncover when we are doing the research,” said Giraud, who once served as the preservation planner for Salt Lake City. “If we have to mitigate, then we must do more research and make a record of what we acquired. I find some interesting facts about Utah history that people never realized.”
What constitutes a good day for a historian working for a highway department?
“A good day is when I read a good report and see somebody has put in a lot of effort and found information nobody would have found if it were not for a project,” she said. “Or it might be attending a public meeting where people bring up a really good point and force us to think as an agency to balance the needs of transportation with how that community functions.”
And those “good days” hopefully help UDOT find ways to both build modern highways while preserving important parts of Utah history.