From the Museum Archives: ‘Big Ed’ Johnson — NW Colorado’s 3-term governor and 3-term U.S. senator
If you’re a fan of baseball in Colorado, the Denver Broncos, have driven on Interstate 70, have heard of the G.I Bill of Rights or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, you have one man to thank: Northwest Colorado’s own “Big Ed” Johnson. In fact, it’s safe to say Ed was one of the biggest influences in the growth of our great state.
Edwin C. Johnson was born in 1884 Kansas. In 1909, he contracted tuberculosis and was advised to move to Colorado, where the climate was believed to be beneficial to his ailment. He eventually landed just west of Craig near Lay. He recovered and homesteaded 120 acres in 1910.
After serving various elected positions in Craig, Johnson eventually moved up to the bigger spotlight. Ultimately, he served three terms as Colorado governor (1933-1937, 1955-1957) and three terms as United States senator (1937-1955). He is the only politician with such a distinction. Ed once said, “I went into public service because I wanted to give back to the state that gave me my health.”
Below are just a few of Ed Johnson’s accomplishments:
• The original plan for I-70 was to stop in Denver. In 1957, Ed, with an understanding of how important the interstate would be to the Western Slope, made eight trips to Washington to persuade the Bureau of Public Roads to approve 547 miles of I-70 linking Denver to the West Coast. He claimed its success was the greatest news of his life.
• Due to his extensive efforts in establishing I-70 through Colorado, the eastbound bore of the Eisenhower tunnel, when completed in 1979, was officially named the Edwin C. Johnson tunnel.
• Johnson, a Democrat, and fellow senator Eugene Millikan a Republican, financed an office of CO Affairs with their own funds to nail down the Air Force Academy bid. It won, and the academy is still located in Colorado Springs today.
• As president of the Western League minor league, Ed brought pro baseball to Colorado with the Denver Bears (later the Denver Zephyrs) in 1955. He also raised the funds to build Bears Stadium — later renamed Mile High Stadium.
• In 1959, Ed worked with son-in-law Robert (Bob) Howsam to help form the Denver Broncos. They won the first-ever AFL game over the Patriots on Sept. 9, 1960.
• Ed was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1968. The website reads, “All sports in Colorado — and baseball in particular — will forever be indebted to Edwin Carl Johnson.”
• As chairman of the U.S. Senate Military Affairs Committee, Ed was a vigorous sponsor of the GI Bill in 1944, giving many educational benefits to veterans of World War II.
• In 1954, in one of his last speeches to Congress, Ed stood up to protest sending American troops to fight in Indochina. He warned it would be “the most foolhardy venture in all American history.” He predicted it would cost thousands of lives and billions of borrowed dollars. Eleven years later, against his warning, U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam.
• President Lyndon B. Johnson affectionately called Ed “Mr. Wisdom,” saying, “To me, he has been the very image of sanity, of calm reason, of unconquerable common sense.” Their friendship, however, became strained with Ed’s strong opposition to the Vietnam War.
Ed died in 1970 in Denver at the age of 86. A portion of his original homestead still stands and is available for public viewing. There is a turnout and signage on the north side of U.S. Highway 40, about six miles east of Maybell at milepost 66.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. This article was originally published on the museum’s Facebook page. To learn more about Ed Johnson, or other colorful characers from Northwest Colorado’s history, visit the museum at 590 Yampa Ave., or follow the museum on Facebook at facebook.com/museumnorthwestcolorado.
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