It was a sad day for mountain bikers, horseback rider, hikers, and Northwest railroad history buffs in January 2009 when Washington State Parks announced the closure of the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass. Closure came for fear that the torrents of water leaking through its roof presaged safety risks from falling slabs of overhead concrete liner.
Unused for railroading since 1980, State Parks acquired the tunnel in 1989 and it had become the star attraction of the Iron Horse State Park Trail that stretches 110 continuous miles mostly along old railroad right-of-way from Vantage on the Columbia River to North Bend. News reports suggested that millions of dollars would be required for repairs and there was no light at the end...oh, you get the idea!
Seemingly by a miracle, the tunnel will re-open to recreational users on Tuesday, July 5. It’s a cause for celebration. I took a preview tour earlier this week, and learned that the tunnel is in fine fettle. Virtually dry. Dark, of course (those glitzy LED headlamps are just the thing)! Pretty cool, meaning that the in-mountain temperature under as much as 1,400 feet of mountain directly overhead is around 35 degrees even on a warm summer day. Unique views: namely no views at all inside except the imprints of the plank forms used decades ago when the concrete lining was placed, and the modern communications cable strung high along the tunnel wall that carries Qwest/CenturyLink through the mountain. Those cables are a reminder that even as recreational users trek through, soon the tunnel will enter its second century of service as a vital link across the Cascade Range.
But, for glorious views, just outside the west portal, 2.25 miles from where the tunnel begins at Hyak, there are stunning vistas of the valley of the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River where I-90, 300 feet below, sends up the roar of traffic climbing its way toward the top of the pass.
State Parks pursued the recovery of the tunnel with the assistance of geotechnical consultants who found its problems mostly located near its two portals where streams overflowing the structure had seeped behind the concrete lining, rotted out old timber lagging, and with the assistance of seasonal freeze-thaw cycles had attacked the integrity of the liner. According to Jim Miller, the consultant from GeoEngineers in Seattle and one of the tour companions for my visit, otherwise most of the tunnel was in “remarkably good shape.”
The repair contract was won by LRL Construction Co., a Tillamook Oregon contractor that specializes in tunnel reconstruction and repair and carried out at a cost of $672,000 about $50,000 of which comes back to the state as sales tax. With all the engineering and other costs included, the total project price tag was about $900,000. The credits for that kind of Academy Award results include State Parks employees in Wenatchee, capital projects director, Christine Parsons, and project engineer Tony Rapoza.
When one values the return on public spending on historic preservation projects — of which old buildings, not old tunnels, seem to garner most prominent attention — it is noteworthy that in the tourist season before its closure, Ranger Tim Schmidt from State Parks estimates 250,000 people enjoyed one or another portion of the Iron Horse Trail, and 80 percent of them went into or through the tunnel. He is confident that the numbers, now that the tunnel is reopened, will be that high or higher in the future.
At 11,888 feet in length, it’s the longest railway tunnel in America that has been repurposed to a recreational trail, fully 25 percent longer than the equally justly celebrated Taft Tunnel on the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho, also a rails-to-trails conversion from the old Milwaukee Road. Since the re-opening was rumored and then announced, State Parks has been fielding enthusiastic inquiries from around the country about the renewed opportunity to enjoy the Snoqualmie Tunnel.
Of course, where there’s a railroad tunnel there’s always railroad history. For example, there’s the story of the Hoosac Tunnel for the Troy and Greenfield Railroad in western Massachusetts, remembered today wherever modern tunnel boring machines, as in Seattle today, capture public imagination. The first tunnel boring machine, 100 tons of cast iron parts shipped in 1853 from South Boston to the tunnel site in horse-drawn wagons, ground ten feet into the rock, froze in place, and never moved again. It took 20 years, largely caused by political machinations, to finish the job, first by resort to the old techniques of hand-hammered steel drills and black powder, and ultimately with pneumatic drills and nitroglycerin, the initial large-scale application of the new blasting technology.
Meanwhile, tunnel boring machines, like a lot of technology, have come a long way since 1853. Politics, maybe not so far. Anyway, the Hoosac Tunnel still carries rail freight today.
Railroading at Snoqualmie Pass got a late start and then an accelerted construction program. Two railroad lines through the Cascades to Puget Sound preceded the Milwaukee Road. The Northern Pacific at Stampede Pass first opened its line in 1887 and completed its tunnel in 1888. The Great Northern followed, opening service over Stevens Pass in 1893 and completing its first (now superseded) tunnel in 1900. In 1906, with its furthest west point then at the Missouri River in central North Dakota, the Milwaukee Road began construction of its link with Puget Sound. It began passenger service to Seattle just two years later in August 1909.
The Milwaukee Road first laid rails for the last few miles from the east over Snoqualmie Pass by pioneering what today is now the short State Highway 906 now relegated to connecting ski areas and businesses ever since the widened I-90 over the pass was completed. An old cross-Cascades Indian trail generally preceded that rail route. The first recorded crossing of Snoqualmie Pass by a party of whites in 1854, coming from the west, reconnoitered roughly the same route near the pass to locate defenses against feared raids on the west from the Indian conflicts then enmeshing eastern parts of the Washington Territory.
The first wagon track pushed across the pass to and from a barge landing at the head of Lake Keechelus in 1865. Seattleites proposed a toll road to pay for improvements in 1869, but the wagon road was so damaged by runoff in 1869-70 that it was rendered impassable for ten years. In 1883 it came the turn of Kitttitas County farmers, eager to get agricultural produce to Puget Sound markets, to propose a toll road.
When it eventually opened to North Bend, according to Yvonne Prater’s Snoqualmie Pass from Wagon Trail to Interstate (1981), the toll in 1884 was $4 dollars for a wagon and four horses, $1 for a man on horseback and 50 cents for a packhorse. But once the Northern Pacific began train service a few years later at Stampede Pass, freight diverted to the new route and toll revenues dried up.
The first two automobiles somehow struggled over the deteriorating wagon road in 1905. By 1909 the Milwaukee construction had reached the summit to what it then called the Laconia Depot. The next automobile crossing the Pass then came on a railroad flatcar as far as Laconia from Ellensburg. Though today the highway reigns, wonderful layouts and old photos of Laconia show nothing but rail and depot in a landscape where all the vistas will be familiar and recognizable to today’s Snoqualmie Pass denizens.
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