Over 40 years ago, a new highway was built to bridge the gap between southern and northern Utah. During this intense process, Interstate 15 was joined with another highway that leads through the mountains and Virgin River Gorge area.
Phil Tuckett, a former NFL player, NFL filmmaker, and current head of Dixie State University’s digital film program, saw the beauty of this unsung heroic story, and opened up the eyes of the world to it. He worked together with his students to create this film because they agreed it was a historical story worth telling. They named the special project, “My Father’s Highway: Building I-15 Through the Virgin River Gorge,” and it’s debut was during DOCUTAH’s film festival last September.
This informative and historic, yet engaging and heart-wrenching film takes you back to the days when the tenacious community workers accomplished an engineering phenomenon of their time. Twenty-nine miles of the road cuts across Arizona’s northwest corner, and the rest of it weaves in and out of an intricate network of bridges crossing the river. At points the road is set in between 500-foot limestone cliffs on either side and engineered so powerfully that at times it may seem to hang off of the sheer rock walls.
This 4 lane highway is carved in between the winding mountains of the 500 million-year-old Virgin River Gorge, and costed $10 million (the equivalent of $50 million today) per mile to create. Some argue that an effort of that magnitude could never be accomplished today because of funding fights and political struggles, but they did it back then, and it was the most expensive highway ever built at the time. Was the expense worth the reward? Well, the 1.4 million commercial trucks that travel through the pass annually would probably say so. The Federal Highway Administration also listed the Virgin River Gorge highway on the list of Nationally and Exceptionally Significant Features of the Federal Highway System.
This documentary does not only focus on the financial and engineering feats that were tackled, but also the people doing the tackling. This effort was led by veterans of World War II and workers from local southern Utah communities. In Tuckett’s words, “This project dominated the lives of so many during the eight-year construction period before the highway finally opened in 1973. It became less of a story about how many yards of concrete were poured into the bridges and more about human element and how much these people put into it.”
These people include President Eisenhower, the mob, and the individual workers. One worker named Jimmie Hughes died during construction, and his son Jimmie Hughes the younger is now a businessman and city council member in St. George. To him, not only is this film an excellent way for his father to be remembered, it also sheds light on how important this movement was for making southern Utah what it is today. “Obviously, the freeway was a big deal in opening this place up to the rest of the world, but (the film) also really shows you that these people were just a little bit different. If we don’t retain some of these things that make us a little different, what makes us unique, then what good are we doing,” he said.
My Father’s Highway: Building I-15 Through the Virgin River Gorge was a hit in the southern Utah community because of the many families in Washington County with connections to the film. A premiere showing of the director’s cut was shown at Dixie State University, DVD’s were released, and the film was featured in a local newspaper.