Utah lawmakers weren't looking for a fight when they renamed U.S. Highway 6 to honor a retired colleague this year and stirred the ire of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
In fact, sponsors of the "Mike Dmitrich Highway" bill say they didn't even know the highway already had a name. It did, though, from coast to coast, and now one of the nation's oldest special-interest groups is firing back.
The Union Army saved America, and Utah should not forget, said Magna resident and Sons of Union Veterans officer Eric Richhart. The Utah Department of Transportation this year denied his request for new "Grand Army" signs on the road, and on Monday the group's national president wrote to Gov. Gary Herbert objecting.
"It preserves the heritage of the Grand Army of the Republic," said Richhart, whose great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier. "It was through their efforts that the Union was saved and our country is what it is today. It is a piece of history that cannot be overlooked or denied."
Herbert had not seen the letter Friday and had no comment, spokeswoman Angie Welling said.
Two signs in Utah -- one each by the Colorado and Nevada borders -- still announce the Grand Army of the Republic Highway. But Richhart wanted new signs between Interstate 70 and Interstate 15 in the stretch renamed for Dmitrich, a Price Democrat.
The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization formed by Northern Civil War veterans and later succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans. Starting in the 1930s the Sons of Union Veterans asked every state along the route from Massachusetts to California to name it "Grand Army of the Republic Highway," and each state did before the group placed a commemorative marker in California in 1953.
The Utah Legislature named its portion after the "Grand Army" in a bill passed in March 1949 allocating $150 for signs. But in a letter rejecting Richhart's request for signs in September, a regional UDOT official said the department finds nothing about the highway name in current Utah code and will focus any future signing efforts on Mike Dmitrich.
True, the law is gone. It vanished during a 1963 recodification of state transportation law, according to state Law Librarian Jessica Van Buren. It's unclear why legislators at that time dropped it, though Van Buren said it could be that the law was written more like a resolution than a statute, and really didn't belong in code.
Efforts to reach Dmitrich at his home in Mesquite, Nev., were unsuccessful. His successor, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, sponsored the bill honoring him and said he had never heard of the Union veterans' label. Dmitrich deserves the honor, he said, because, "He put 40 years in with the state as public service. He traveled [the highway] a lot, pretty much back and forth to Price every week."
Nonetheless, Hinkins said he wouldn't want to block the veterans' group from having road signs as well. "I wouldn't have a problem with honoring soldiers, for sure."
Highway 6 in Utah, long considered among the nation's most dangerous, has undergone a series of widenings and safety improvements during the past decade. Dmitrich saw to that, said Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, House sponsor of the "Dmitrich Highway" bill.
"It was a tribute to all of the work that he had done on that highway over the years," he said.
"I don't know what to think [about the naming conflict]," he said. "Maybe we could dub it both, I guess."
That's fine with Richhart, he said, so long as the veterans get top billing on any shared signs.
For now, neither name is going on the highway, said UDOT spokesman Adan Carrillo. The Legislature never allocated any money for "Mike Dmitrich Highway" signs, he said.
And that $150 appropriated in 1949 for "Grand Army" signs? Long gone.