Bridge builder's identity rediscovered, honored one century after death

Bridge builder's identity rediscovered, honored one century after death

By David Woodfill / ADOT Communications
November 1, 2022

Lafe McDaniel's tragic death in 1928 went largely unnoticed for nearly 100 years.

McDaniel, a 40-year-old ironworker, was working 460 feet above the raging and untamed Colorado River, building the Navajo Bridge June 12, 1928, when he must have lost his footing or suffered some sort of mishap – the exact details are unknown – that caused him to fall to his death.

Fellow workers said they saw McDaniel fall 5 seconds before hitting the water. The river was said to be flowing at a rate of 62,000 cubic feet per second that day. McDaniel's body was never recovered. He left behind a wife and two step-children.

While it was known that one person died during the construction of the Navajo Bridge, the individual's identity had been largely lost and forgotten in the decades after his death. 

On what would have been McDaniels’ 135th birthday – Oct. 3, 2022 – the mystery was dispelled forever when representatives with the Glen Canyon Conservancy and local historian Tom Martin, working in coordination with the Arizona Department of Transportation, National Parks Service and the Navajo Nation, unveiled a commemorative bronze plaque honoring McDaniel

“It seemed only fitting we honor this fallen ironworker who sacrificed everything for the greater good of the country," said Martin, who conducted the research on McDaniel for the memorial.

Martin said the memorial was the culmination of work started by bridge engineer Jerry Canno and Martin.

The two men discovered McDaniels identity when they were reviewing the history of the bridge. 

Martin found McDaniel's death certificate in the Arizona State archives.

"That document had the man’s full name, Lafe McDaniel, and date of birth (October 3, 1887)," he said. "(A) further search in census and World War I records showed McDaniel lived in Kansas City and worked for Kansas City Structural Steel, the company that erected the historic Navajo Bridge. 

"According to newspapers of the day, McDaniel was a well-liked and experienced ironworker," Marin added.

"Beyond that, they could find nothing else about his life," he said. "Ironworkers are a hard working crew that rarely receive recognition for the bridges they build."

McDaniel's death was not in vain.

Today, the Navajo Bridge conveys scores of tourists and area residents across the Colorado River. 

"The bridge was built to help tourists reach the new Zion National Park and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as connect southern Utah to Northern Arizona," Martin said. "When completed in January, 1929, it was the second highest highway bridge in the United States."

The cost of the bridge totaled about  $316,000 at the time, Martin said. 

Deanna Smith is an archivist and collections manager for the John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum, which helped fund the commemorative plaque in conjunction with its sister organization the Glen Canyon Conservancy. The museum, which is currently closed for renovations, reopens in Spring 2023. 

She said projects like this are made possible through donations from Arizona residents and visitors to the area.

She asked that anyone wishing to see more projects like McDaniels’ memorial to consider donating to the Glen Canyon Conservancy.

“Donations not only serve our public lands, but other community cultural institutions like the John Wesley Powell Museum, which will be reopening in the spring of 2023.”

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