Moving Mountains, The Construction of Red Rocks Amphitheatre

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Red Rocks Amphitheatre-Preconstruction View. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Archives.

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Photo courtesy of the Denver Library Photo Archives

Constructing an amphitheater from a mountain is no small task. Local and federal governments needed to work together and many bureaucratic and other less predictable hurdles needed to be surmounted. The visionaries who dreamed and initiated the project were courageous innovators indeed. They did not have electricity or heavy machinery. They relied on hundreds of individuals to move or remove tons of dirt and rocks. Some demolition involving dynamite would be a necessary part of this project. Given the imprecise nature of dynamite, it was lucky they were able to destroy only designated areas and not accidentally blow up a mountain. Besides the labor, the funding of construction must have been a juggernaut as well. Imagine convincing multiple layers of bureaucrats of the value of transforming a rocky hillside into a sonic masterpiece. Luckily the natural acoustics have strong convincing power all their own and the music lovers who believed in the project were steadfast, precise and financially successful, socially successful or both.

 

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Photo courtesy of the Denver Library Photo Archives

When a person visits the mountains, the Redwoods, Niagara Falls, the oceans, or any massive aspect of nature, they often often realize their own minuscule insignificance. These people in the early 1900’s must have felt like tiny giants as they carved a masterpiece out of a mountain. Still this was not a project involving instant gratification. Denver architects Burnham Hoyt and Stanley Morse took years to develop the plans. After which, there were years of construction before Red Rocks would look anything like the amphitheater we know and love today. Fortunately, the Library of Congress & The Denver Library Photo Archives have some amazing pictures that give a modern person some perspective as to the scale of this enormous undertaking. Nature had invested literally millions of years forming this landscape and in less than a decade, man would transform it again.

“Before the Rocky Mountains rose west of present-day Denver, Colorado, the massive red sedimentary formations that give Red Rocks Park its name formed from the ancestral Rocky Mountains. Three hundred million years ago, the predecessor to today’s range stood thirty or forty miles west of the current Front Range of the Rockies. During the Pennsylvanian Period, water, wind, and ice began to erode these mountains, and eastward-flowing rivers deposited their sediment in large alluvial fans, called the Fountain Formation. Sixty- five million years ago, when today’s mountain range began to rise during the Laramide orogeny, the Fountain Formation bed was uplifted on its edge, creating magnificent “rock gardens” along Colorado’s Front Range.” Red Rocks Park, Mount Morrison Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, 300 Union Avenue, Morrison, Jefferson County, CO. Historic American Landscapes Survey

The first person to own the Red Rocks area was John Brisbane Walker, likely purchasing many small plots of land from various landowners. He vigorously promoted the concept of using the Red Rocks area as a community park and performance venue. He constructed roads, hiking trails and a tea house before the City of Denver acquired the land in 1928. However, even a city as large as Denver could not take on such a gigantic project alone. Luckily, President Roosevelt’s New Deal had funded the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Project Administration to help America recover from the Great Depression and to preserve beautiful natural areas for future generations. Although technically situated as  the jewel of the Denver Mountain Parks, The U.S. National Park Service played a prominent role overseeing the development and construction of Red Rocks Park. Together, these federal programs cooperated with local Denver organizations to design and construct the most beautiful natural amphitheater in the world. And of course, none of  this would have been possible without the strength, fortitude and skills of hundreds of manual laborers who were the real creative force behind Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

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Photo courtesy of the Denver Library Photo Archives.

In 1929, workers spent a year constructing a road with steam shovels, dynamite and mule drawn wagons that would stretch 5 miles through Red Rocks Park. In 1936, after official approval by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, construction of the Amphitheatre began in earnest. First more roads and bridges were built or resloped, then parking areas needed to be leveled. Next, the stage area was constructed and then demolition of the mountainside and construction of a seating area occurred. Approximately 200 workers earned a dollar a day to help construct this masterpiece, those were considered good wages during a time of few employment opportunities. The men, mostly veterans, lived near the construction site in temporary barracks and after the original efforts of manual labor, were able to continue on as craftsmen learning specific trades such as carpentry and stone masonry. Still, the massive amount of manual labor is not to be easily dismissed. Red Rocks is a testament to the value of individual work and the momentous accomplishments possible when we cooperate with one another.

 

“The amphitheatre project required them to remove 25,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt and used 90,000 square feet of flagstone, ten carloads of cement, 800 tons of quarried stone, and 30,000 pounds of reinforced steel.” Building The Ampitheatre

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Photo courtesy of the Denver Library Photo Archives.

Besides the stumbling block of unearthing immovable rock ledges by Creation Rock and needing to revamp the seating plans to be asymmetrical, there were no major tragedies or misfortunes during construction. This was due in part to the painstaking revision process by architect Morse who was reputed to visit the site daily and revise plans throughout the construction phase. He is even noted as remarking that the plans for the theatre were not fully complete until the construction was finished. Due in part to the phenomenal size of this project, it was broken up into many small pieces which were completed and the master plan was reevaluated and progress continued thusly. Without the revision process, construction could easily have been a disaster.

Red Rocks is a fascinating study in the possibility of great accomplishments resulting from many individual efforts. This gorgeous wonder could not have been created by one person or even one state. It took multiple government agencies and countless individuals to create Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. The story of Red Rocks is as intriguing as the venue itself. I can only imagine the awe some of the workers must have felt during the years they lived next to the giant rocks while they created a space where millions of people from future generations would be able to commune with nature and each other for decades, if not centuries, after the builders themselves were long gone. How can we ever thank our predecessors and ancestors for the gifts they have created for our viewing and listening pleasure?

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

 

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