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Snoqualmie Tunnel gives cyclists, riders cool new link

By Lynda Mapes
The Seattle Times
The Snoqualmie Tunnel on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail is reopened, to the delight of hikers, bicyclists and backcountry horsemen.

When Missy Day, of Redmond, rode Cricket, her horse, into the Snoqualmie Tunnel on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail on Tuesday, you could see Cricket's breath in white puffs.

The surprisingly cool tunnel was irresistible to the duo and other outdoor enthusiasts on a hot, sunny day.

And for the first time in more than two years, the tunnel was open to them.

With fanfare and celebration, Tim Schmidt, park manager of the Washington State Parks Lake Easton Area, which includes Iron Horse State Park, helped cut the ribbon on the trail Tuesday. In streamed its fans: outdoor enthusiasts ready to use the nearly 100-year-old tunnel as part of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.

The more-than-2-mile-long Snoqualmie Tunnel is a crucial link, connecting the Puget Sound Basin to the Kittitas Valley. The trail winds for 116 miles through the state park, inviting exploration.

The tunnel was closed in January 2009 for repairs after chunks of concrete started falling from the ceiling. Now, the damaged portions of the tunnel have been repaired with a new 4-inch layer of concrete sprayed on a welded wire fabric lining its walls and ceiling, and a smooth, new walking surface of crushed rock. Repairs cost a little less than $700,000 and took about 11 months.

About 200,000 people a year enjoy the trail, including the tunnel, Schmidt said. Four tunnels to the east of it remain closed but can be bypassed on trails. The tunnel also is an important access to a regional trails system in the 1.5-million-acre Mountains to Sound Greenway.

"It's right at the heart of the greenway," said Cynthia Welti, executive director of the greenway, which celebrated the reopening by adding a trip through the tunnel as one of the legs in its 20-year anniversary trek, now under way from Ellensburg to Seattle.

Hundreds of cyclists and hikers along for the nine-day trek, including several teams of parents and children, joined with backcountry horsemen — even some in horse-drawn carriages — to celebrate the reopening.

The Snoqualmie Tunnel — which passes 1,500 feet under the Cascade Mountains — has a storied past. From 1909 to 1980, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad ran trains through the tunnel, with the east portal at Hyak, in Kittitas County, and the west portal at Rockdale, in King County.

Survey work began on the 11,890-foot tunnel, the longest in the railroad's system, in 1908.

About 2,500 men known as "tunnel stiffs" removed 180,000 cubic yards of rock, detonating 340 tons of dynamite, blowing it up 100 rounds at a time, Schmidt wrote, in a brief history of the tunnel he prepared for the reopening.

Boring was completed in August 1914, and the first train went through in January 1915.

The last train traveled through the tunnel in April 1980. BNSF Railway purchased the right of way but then abandoned it, and the tunnel remained closed until 1995, when it was reopened with a combination of everything from volunteer to prison labor.

The old railroad grade makes the trail perfect for anyone who wants a hike, cycle or horseback ride without paying the price of hills. Karl Forsgaard, a board member and secretary of the greenway, said he bicycles seriously — about 1,500 miles in the past 15 weeks — but that he finds the trail great for children and casual riders, too, with its nearly flat grade.

He took a Boy Scout troop through before the tunnel closed and it was a hit, "because it's so easy to do, and it's the ability to see the lay of the land; it's a different perspective than the freeway."

Right after the ribbon was cut, Craig Burlingame, of Bellevue, hopped on his bike to give the tunnel a test ride.

"I was so excited to get this opportunity; it's the continuity, the ability to access the trail system on both sides," he said. "I ski this in the winter and bike it in the summer, so I value it highly.

"It's unique; you feel like an engineer in a train coming through a mountain pass," he added. Then, he clicked on his light, and with a ring of his bell and a whoop of joy, he zipped into the velvety dark.

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