Old railroad tunnels connect trail users from Snoqualmie Pass to Thorp
There is a series of man-made structures scattered across Kittitas County — from a few miles outside of Thorp to the Cascades near the border with King County — that people may be unaware of. Yet, in the early 1900s, the structures were an essential piece of the mining and logging industries that fueled the region’s economy.
These structures are tunnels — relics of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad — and they are now available for recreational use at Iron Horse State Park.
“They’re just a huge draw for the public,” Iron Horse State Park Ranger Keith Wersland said. “It’s just such a unique feature.”
The crown jewel of the Iron Horse tunnels is the Snoqualmie Tunnel, a 2.3-mile-long pathway underneath the pass. Trains passed through the tunnel on the route called the Milwaukee Road from the time it was completed in 1914 until 1980.
Wersland said, to him, one of the most fascinating aspects of the tunnel is how crews were able to build the massive structure, considering the limited engineering technology available in the early 1900s. He said this called for crews working from either side of the tunnel, blasting away more than two miles of earth until they met in the middle.
“The coordination of that, it’s pretty amazing,” Wersland said. “The historical significance is always important to why people came here.”
Structural damage forced the Snoqualmie Tunnel to close to in 2009, but it was reopened to the public in 2011 after $700,000 in repairs, which Wersland said was funded through state capital project funds.
“(The tunnels) basically didn’t have any maintenance since the ’70s,” Wersland said. “When that happens, nobody — including the parks — wants anyone to get hurt.”
With the Snoqualmie Tunnel now open for recreational use, each spring and summer is an opportunity for people looking to ride their bikes or horses across the same path the railroad once ran.
“Typically, what I get from people is ‘That’s really cool,’” Wersland said. “The curvature (inside the tunnel) is pretty amazing.”
One group that has always advocated for public use of the tunnels at the Iron Horse State Park is the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. Amy Brockhaus, coalition director for the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, said navigating the Snoqualmie Tunnel is an uncommon experience that outdoor-lovers seek out.
“It’s a pretty unique experience to go through a two-mile tunnel,” Brockhaus said. “You see this pinprick of light at the end as it slowly gets larger and larger.”
Five tunnels open
The Snoqualmie Tunnel is just one of five tunnels open to the public in Kittitas County — tunnels No. 46, which is near Thorp, through tunnel No. 50, which is the Snoqualmie Tunnel. Brockhaus said opening the tunnels offers people the experience of traveling the greenway in its entirety, which she says is exciting for trail-lovers in Washington.
“Opening these five tunnels opens the cross-greenway trails,” Brockhaus said. “The people that I’ve talked to have been thrilled.”
While these five tunnels may be open to the public, only the Snoqualmie Tunnel received renovations. This is why anyone wishing to travel through the Thorp tunnels must sign a waiver before entering.
Wersland said the idea of the waiver originally came from the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association, which wanted to access the Thorp tunnels during its annual cross-state trek. He said once the group worked out the waiver process with the state Attorney General’s office, the park decided to use waivers to allow the general public to access the tunnels.
“It’s actually worked out pretty good that we got the tunnels open,” Wersland said. “So far it has worked, and it’s actually been pretty fluid.”
Wersland said crews will be surveying the Thorp tunnels this fall to determine the scope of the improvements needed — a renovation Brockhaus believes is much needed and long overdue.
“These are historic structures,” Brockhaus said, “and they need to be repaired.”