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A storied railroad tunnel in the Cascades reopens for hikers

By Douglas B. MacDonald
Crosscut.com
The old Milwaukee Road tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass, thought to be closed for good, reopens on July 5 to hikers. It's the longest railway tunnel in the country that is a recreational trail. Here's a preview, as well as a review of railroad and cross-Cascades lore.
A storied railroad tunnel in the Cascades reopens for hikers

Hyak Tunnel

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.

Heading west from Laconia, the next regular rail stops were Cedar Falls (now gone), then Renton, then Black River (now gone), then Van Asselt (where Boeing Field is today) and then Seattle.  You could take the trip on the train from Ellensburg to Seattle by way of Laconia at the crest of Snoqualmie Pass in about five hours.  Road improvements for regular automobile travel waited until dedication of the Sunset Highway in 1915.

The Milwaukee’s inauguration of service in 1909 was a tough time to begin railroading over the Cascades.  Immediately came the legendary winter of 1910.  Snow depths at Laconia reached 46 feet. The storms in March 1910 that produced the Wellington avalanche disaster for the Great Northern just west of Stevens Pass shut down the Milwaukee Road over Snoqualmie for ten days.

Costs and disruptions of snow, then and later, persuaded the railroad to proceed with construction of the tunnel to lower and shorten the crossing.  Work began in 1912, hit its stride in 1913 at ten feet or so average advancement a day at each heading. Work moved from each end toward the middle (ultimately consuming over 300 tons of dynamite) and finished in 1914. The first passenger through the tunnel arrived in Seattle on January 24, 1915.  Electrification of the railroad soon followed.

At its height and until 1961, the Milwaukee Road operated the Hiawatha passenger train between the Midwest and Seattle, including the  classy Skytop observation cars from famous industrial designer Brooks Stevens — a pedigree the Hiawatha shared with Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the Studebaker GT Hawk, Evinrude outboard motors, and the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.

From the mid-1930s until its ski lodge burned in 1949, Seattleites, except during the hiatus of the war yeas, were probably likelier to ride the ski trains to the railroad’s Milwaukee Ski Bowl than the cross-country Hiawatha.  Reaching the local slopes by train was promoted by the slogan “Let the Engineer Do the Driving” and the round trip cost $1.25.

SUVs today pull into the parking lot of the ski slopes resurgent since the 1960s as the Hyak Ski Bowl and now Summit East, with no way to tell that they are crossing atop the old tunnel, just a snowball’s throw from the east portal. All the electric and diesel locomotives working over the pass have been gone for three decades, all the rails have long been pulled for scrap and the good old days of the  ski trains from Seattle are a very distant memory of a bygone era.

But recreational users need not be denied their day. At that very spot where railroading thrived, the tunnel will re-open from its two-year closure next Tuesday, July 5 with 11 am festivities. With a reservation and tickets available from State Parks through the summer, one-way trippers can get a shuttle ride back to their starting point with connections at Hyak and Cedar Falls, 20 miles away near North Bend.

But that’s more than is required to appreciate the enormous appeal of the tunnel itself.  As a special inducement to every child who has ever unsuccessfully tried to catch a pigeon and every adult who has futilely sought the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there is this.  Once in the dark inside the Snoqualmie Tunnel, there is a pinpoint of light far off in the pitch-blackness.  There really is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s just 2.25 miles away.

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