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Remembering the steel worker who died during the construction of the Navajo Bridge

Navajo Bridge under construction in 1928. The bridge spans Marble Canyon and is constructed above Lees Ferry where river rafters start their journey on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. (Photos/ADOT)

Navajo Bridge under construction in 1928. The bridge spans Marble Canyon and is constructed above Lees Ferry where river rafters start their journey on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. (Photos/ADOT)

Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) shares the story of Lafe McDaniel, an iron worker who lost his life during the construction of Navajo Bridge in northern Arizona.

Lafe McDaniel’s death was tragic, but his legacy lives on in the 800-foot Navajo Bridge that rises 470 above the mighty Colorado River.

The 40-year-old ironworker was perched high above the raging waters when he fell to his demise in 1928.

His passing went largely forgotten for nearly 100 years until 2022 when representatives with the Glen Canyon Conservancy and local historian Tom Martin, working in tandem with ADOT, the National Parks Service and the Navajo Nation, unveiled a commemorative bronze plaque honoring McDaniel.

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Navajo Bridge under construction in 1928. The bridge spans Marble Canyon and is constructed above Lees Ferry where river rafters start their journey on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. (Photos/ADOT)

“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. 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.”


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