Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Table of Contents

1.  Crater Loops, Little Gore Canyon, Flaming Aspen and Other Vanishing Splendor  

2.  Curtis Hill -- Cimarron River Valley

3.   Pecos River Bridge -- Fort Sumner, New Mexico

4.   Crozier Canyon and Truxton Canyon -- Where the Waters Flow

5.  Crookton Cutoff -- Eagle Nest,Doublea, Crookton and Seligman

6.  Loma Alta, Lucy and the New Mexico High Plains

7.  Tehachapi Loop Saved My Marriage

8.   Travels with Mighty Dog in Search Of the Kansas City Southern;  Austin, Todd and Ladd; Arkansas and Oklahoma; Kansas and Oklahoma; Avard Subdivision and Other Oddities

9.  BNSF Transcon in the Texas Panhandle

10.  Abo Canyon:  Then and (S)now


11.  Lombard Canyon and the Three Rivers

12.  Mountains May Begin With Montana, but Fugichrome Ends With Me


13.  Mullan Pass:  Mullan on my Mind

14.  Kingman Canyon:  What am I Doing up Here? 

15.  BNSF Transcon:  Not Every Meeting is a Waste of Time

16.  The Arbuckles are Worn Down, and I'm Headed There:  AT&SF and BNSF Railroad Photography From an Oklahoma Sinkhole


17.  BNSF, UP and MRL in the Idaho Panhandle

18.  Burlington Northern:  Trinidad to Walsenburg (Someone Built a Railroad Through Here?)

19.  Santa Fe on Curtis Hill (Things Ain't What They Used to Be)

20.  BNSF West of Belen:  MP 27.8 to 31.9

21.  BNSF at Flagstaff (and a little AT&SF)

22.  I Feel Like the Rock Island (Memories of a Stricken Railroad)

23.  Kansas City Southern:  Requiem for White Knights and Telephone Poles

24.  BNSF at Curtis Hill:  Where the West Begins

25.  Tennessee Pass:  Alas

26.  BNSF West of Wellington

27.  Cajon 2016:  Before the Fire

28.  Union Pacific:  Aspen Mountain Through Echo Canyon

29.  Burlington Northern at Crawford Hill  

30.  St. Louis Railroads -- as I Remember Them 

31.  BNSF Across the Sacramento Valley:  Wild Burros and Cold Bears

32. She Caught the Katy and Left me a Mule to Ride

33.  Santa Fe in the Unassigned Lands

34.  BNSF:  Another Look at Crozier Canyon

35.  BNSF:  Colorado River to Goffs Hill

36.  Cajon Pass:  After the Fire

37.  BNSF in Oklahoma:  Avard Subdivision

38.  Back East!  Lost in the Trees

39.  Union Pacific:  The Craig Branch in its Prime

40.  Union Pacific from Point of Rocks to Granger:  Wherein Mighty Dog Clashes with the Serpent

41.  Trials and Tribulations of Train Photography

42.  The Frisco of my Youth:  Both Gone

43.  When That Evening Sun Goes Down:  Ellinor After Hours

44.  Nebraska's Sandhills in Transition

45.  BNSF:  Highway 47 to Mountainair

46.  Rock Island and Union Pacific on the Chisholm Trail

47.  Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Western Pacific Potpourri:  Arnold Loop, Echo Canyon, Aiken Hill, Sherman Hill and Donner Summit

48.  Lake Pend Oreille! or The Importance of the Angle of Incidence

49.  Sunset on the Missouri Pacific

50.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part One:  Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas)

51.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part Two:  Clovis to Belen) 

52.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part Three:  Belen to Seligman) 

69.  The Graying  

71.  O,Columbia! 

73.  BNSF:  Trinidad to Cedarwood 

74.  California 2020  

75.  Belen Revisited 

78.  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part One 

79:  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part II 

80.  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part 3 

81.  The Land that Swallows Trains -- Part IV 

82.  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part 5 

83.  BNSF:  Trinidad Hill  

84.  BNSF:  Providence Hill

85.  Union Pacific:  Palisade Canyon

86.  Return to Colorado  

87.  BNSF:  Truxton Flyover to Sacramento Wash  (With Thoughts about the Desert, W.B. Yeats and the End of Life)

88.  Lawrence:  U-boats to Ditch Lights

89.  Union Pacific:  The Law of Unintended Consequences 

90.  Union Pacific:  Maricopa Mountains

91.  West of Gillette

92.  Mescal Summit and the El Paso and Southwestern 

93.  West of Dragoon

94.  East of Dragoon

95.  Union Pacific:  Steins Pass

96.  Powder River Basin:  Part One (BNSF)

97.  RIP:  Bear the Mighty Dog 

98.  Powder River Basin:  Part Two (UP)

99.  Union Pacific Along the Oregon Trail:  Farewell Bend to Hot Lake

100.  The Old Man and the Snow 

101.  Colorado in Fall   

102.  Sweet Soo

103.  My Favorite Western Grades:  Part One 

104.  My Favorite Western Grades:  Part Two

106.  Sundown:  Part Two

107.  Sundown:  Part Three

108.  Canadian, Texas 

109.  East of Tehachapi

110.  BNSF Across the Cascades

BNSF Across the Cascades


An empty oil train has crested the summit at Cascade Tunnel and is headed back to the Bakken Fields in North Dakota.

As you cross northern Washington from east to west, the Cascade Mountains rise above the arid landscape like a green shimmering curtain, rise above the ancient lava flows of basalt, in places over a mile deep, rise above the wind-blown Palouse, rise above the Columbia River, tamed now into a series of lakes sitting quietly beneath gigantic dark cliffs.

Like a spider's web in front of flowers filled with nectar, awaiting insects seeking their next meal, these mountains are perfectly situated to catch the prevailing westerly winds off the Pacific Ocean and so their western slopes receive massive rain and snow.  In the winter of 1998-99, Mount Baker received 1,140 inches of snow -- exactly 95 feet!   Many Cascade peaks (all volcanoes) record over 500 inches of annual snowfall and are white throughout the year.  

The western slopes are densely forested, but rainfall drops rapidly to the east, with foothills receiving as little as 9 inches of yearly rain.  Beyond the foothills stands an arid plateau consisting mostly of volcanic basalt that covered the land from 14 to 17 million years ago.

The Cascades extend from the southern edge of British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to Northern California and include most of the active strato-volcanoes in the contiguous 48 American states, including Mounts Ranier, St. Helens, Adams, Hood, Shasta and Lassen.  At 14,411 feet, Mount Ranier is the tallest, but all are still active. 

This map shows what your author believes to be all the active strato-volcanoes in the Cascades, though it is certainly possible (likely?) that he has missed some.  In any event, it gives a good idea of the extreme volcanic activity in this corner of the world.  All are snow-covered year-around, and the larger white spots are active glaciers.

The two most recent eruptions were Mount Lassen from 1914 to 1921 and Mount St. Helens in 1980. Minor eruptions of Mount St. Helens also occurred from 2004 to 2008.

Because human life spans are so infinitesimal in geologic time, we do not comprehend the full magnitude of living and procreating in an active volcano field.  Multiple generations wink into and out of existence as pressure slowly builds beneath the earth's surface, pressure that eventually explodes with a cataclysmic intensity beyond language and understanding.

Our civilization is like an ant hill on a dirt road.  Inevitably, a pick-up will come along and smash us flat, and then we will rebuild until the next truck, and so on.

The Great Northern Railway's crossing of the Cascade Mountains was the equivalent of ants' crawling up the side of a boulder.  On and on the ants climb, higher and higher, and when they reach the top, they start down the other side.  When wind, rain and snow knock them off, they climb back up again.  

An eastbound emerges from Cascade Tunnel, the longest in the United States.


Westbound Amtrak.

Eastbound Office Car Special.

Same location -- about halfway between Berne and Merritt.

Eastbound empty coal.

This eastbound has just left the east portal of Cascade Tunnel.

The northern Washington Cascades proved an impenetrable barrier to everything but foot travel until the late 19th century, when the Great Northern laid its first tracks over Stevens Pass -- named for John Frank Stevens, the railroad's chief locating engineer.  Stevens was entirely self-taught, a "practical engineer" to use his favorite phrase, who gained his first experience in the Minneapolis city engineer's office.  

Age 33, he became an assistant engineer for the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway, charged with surveying the line from Duluth, Minnesota, to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.  In 1889, he was hired by James J. Hill to locate the route for the Great Northern.

Stevens discovered Marias Pass, Montana, where the Great Northern crossed the Western Continental Divide, and Stevens Pass, where the railroad crossed the Cascades.  Marias Pass is arguably the easiest North American crossing of the Rocky Mountains, requiring not a single tunnel on the eastern slope, few on the west, and no bore at the summit.  Stevens Pass was another matter entirely. 

The Cascades in northern Washington rise vertically like a brick wall, with no shallow approach either east or west.  The summit of Stevens Pass is only about 4,000 feet, but the climb to the top on U.S. 2 (from either east or west, with no tunnel) is exhilarating and a little unnerving if you are driving a Jeep.  The grade is so steep that the railroad initially constructed six, thousand foot switch-backs (two on the east, four on the west) that restricted train length to 18 cars.   

This diagram shows the original switchbacks, plus both the first and second Cascade tunnels.

This image demonstrates the steep rock walls at Stevens Pass.

Likewise.  This is the DPU on the train immediately above.

Westbound stacks preparing to enter Cascade Tunnel.

The rock wall behind this eastbound is Stevens Pass.

The switch-backs were a temporary measure to allow trains to begin running to and from Puget Sound, similar to those constructed by the Northern Pacific to provide a quick route across Mullen Pass in Montana.  But "quick" is a relative term when applied to railroads.  Though trains began running, they "ran" very slowly up and down the mountain.  Freight traffic especially was cumbersome, since consists were limited to 18 cars.

So in 1897, the Great Northern began construction of the first Cascade Tunnel (2.7 miles) under one of the tallest peaks to eliminate the switch-backs.  When driving U.S. 2 on the west slope of Stevens Pass today (May 2024), if you know where to look you can see remnants of the old roadbed and switchbacks.

The west portal of the First Cascade Tunnel.  Notice the drainage ditches on both sides of the tracks.  The summit was west of the tunnel, and eastbounds climbed about a two percent grade.  Water in the ditches is flowing downhill into the tunnel.  Photo from BNSF archives.

Construction facilities at the west portal included a dormitory, kitchen and dining hall, hospital, commissary, power house, timber shed and concrete plant -- in other words, a small city.  The east portal contained the same except no hospital.  If you were hurt on the east side, the railroad would carry you across the mountain's switch-backs.  Twenty-four hour Illumination was provided by over a thousand incandescent lamps, allowing work around-the-clock.

Finding men willing to toil at the top of Stevens Pass was another matter.  The railroad planned for 600 to 800, but the monthly turnover averaged 300 to 400, requiring the hiring of what Stevens called "birds of passage." 

 At both portals immense power houses contained eight 300 kilowatt dynamos, belt driven by steam engines, which supplied all the electricity for the project, including boring of the tunnel, which was extremely dangerous because of soft granite and water-filled slate seams.  The first 500 feet at the west end were a previous landslide deposit of mud, gravel and huge boulders. Tunneling through this conglomerate was agonizingly slow, like swimming in mud.  Work proceeded approximately one foot per day.  

The new tunnel eliminated the short freights and time-consuming backward movements in the switch-backs but created a new problem -- thick smoke in the bore.  If you have ever seen a steam engine climbing a mountain grade, you know the incredible amount of black exhaust generated.  If you contain all that smoke within a narrow tunnel for almost three miles, train crews and passengers will become ill, some violently.  

The unorthodox smokestack on GN 1106 demonstrates the railroad's efforts to combat toxic smoke in the bore.  Photo from BNSF archives.

Shortly after the tunnel's opening, the Railroad Gazette reported:

A serious difficulty confronts the operating department of the Great Northern Railway in running trains through the Cascade Tunnel. . . There is a strong current of air sweeping through it from west to east at all times, and this causes the smoke and gases from the locomotives going in that direction to be carried along with the train, with the result that it overcomes the engineer and trainmen. . . . Going east the tunnel runs on a heavy up-grade of 90 feet to the mile, which makes it necessary to pull the freight trains through with two and sometimes three engines, and this increases the danger. Fully a score of engineers at different times have been taken from their engines unconscious.

This report was followed by a story in a local newspaper, The Monroe Monitor:

Monday afternoon an eastbound freight train in the tunnel got stalled and resulted in the death of engineer W.W. Bradley. The engineer either tumbled out of the engine, or climbed down and put his head into the water in the ditch, as he was found dead in the water by another trainman. The fireman on the engine was also unconscious, but revived when taken out of the tunnel. His name is J.W. Smith. 

Moffat Tunnel at the Western Continental Divide blows smoke out with gigantic ventilating fans.  Great Northern chose a different solution -- electrification of the line through the bore.

Electrification, of course, requires electricity.  The generators used during construction were not large enough to power traction motors up a mountain, and even if they had been, the railroad had to ferry coal up the mountain to power them -- not a workable solution.

So the Great Northern constructed its own hydroelectric plant (completed in 1909), beginning with Tumwater Dam on the Wenatchee River.  Water from the new reservoir was delivered two miles downstream through a pipe to three waterwheels turning three 2,000 kilowatt generators.  Power was then transferred up the mountain on overhead cables.  

If you drive U.S. 2 northwest out of Leavenworth, you will pass the dam and reservoir to the west of the road.  The dam is quite small, and the water behind it only ten to fifteen feet deep, but the flow from the saturated Cascades is constant.

The original electification was a three-phase system (a type of alternating current employing two cantenary wires)  and operated from July 10, 1909, until the opening of the new tunnel, between Cascade Tunnel Station on the east end of the original tunnel and Wellington on the west. The electrified line was four miles long with six miles total trackage including yards at both ends.

The Great Northern purchased four electric locomotives to pull passenger and freight trains through the new tunnel.  Steam power would detach at one end, electric traction would take over through the tunnel, then new steam power would couple to the train after it was through the bore -- a time-consuming process necessary to avoid the toxic fumes.  

The locomotives were the first in the United States to utilize regenerative braking, meaning that when the train was running downgrade, the electric engines would reverse.  The downward momentum would cause the engines to generate electricity returned to the cantenary. 

(Much of the information regarding the First Cascade Tunnel was taken from Great Northern Historical Society Reference Sheet 175 by W.C. Hartranft.  This document and many others are available from https://www.gnrhs.org/)

First Cascade Tunnel.

Western slope of Stevens Pass, showing the western portal of the first tunnel at Wellington, the path of the original line down the mountain and the current path of U.S. 2 (from which you can see glimpses of the old road bed and snow sheds.


Meritt, Washington.  The spur track is part of a large "Y" once used for helper sets attacking the eastern slope.  The other end of the "Y" can be seen just beyond the maintenance shed.  Today the "Y" appears to be used by snow removal equipment.

Oil train at Meritt.

More eastbound stacks at Merritt.  When your author was on the line in the summer of 2023, an eastbound stack train came through reliably every morning.

Pushers at Merritt.

Canadian Pacific at Merritt.

Electrification of the First Cascade Tunnel eliminated toxic fumes but did nothing to resolve the arduous east and westbound climbs.  The western slope was surmounted on a circuitous horseshoe on the side of a mountain with a ruling 2.2 percent grade.  To the east, the tracks followed Nasson Creek up Cowboy and Big Chief Mountains on a similarly arduous 2.2 percent.  (The eastbound grade in the tunnel was 1.695 percent.). And though the first tunnel did eliminate the heaviest snowfalls at the highest elevations, winter weather (like smoke in the bore) still proved a massive headache.

On February 23, 1910, two trains -- the Spokane Local passenger No. 25 and Fast Mail No. 27 -- were proceeding westbound toward Puget Sound. Both had passed through the new tunnel when heavy snow stopped them near Wellington, a small settlement populated by Great Northern railway employees.

For six days, the trains waited in the middle of a fierce blizzard.  Railroad employees brought food, blankets and other necessities to passengers and other employees stranded on the trains.  Your author does not have a particularly active imagination, but even he can envision the fear and desperation as men and women sat there day after day, waiting, hoping for the weather to break.  "Cabin fever" does not begin to describe the emotions.

On February 26, snow brought down the telegraph lines.  Communication with the outside world was lost.

Two days later, the snow turned to rain punctuated by lightning and thunder, a deluge that refused to stop and softened the hundreds of inches of snow on the mountain.  The night of March 1, the snow collapsed.

A survivor described the chaos:

There was an electric storm raging at the time of the avalanche. Lighting flashes were vivid and a tearing wind was howling down the canyon. Suddenly there was a dull roar, and the sleeping men and women felt the passenger coaches lifted and borne along. When the coaches reached the steep declivity they were rolled nearly 1,000 feet and buried under 40 feet of snow.  (See JoAnn Roe, Stevens Pass: The Story of Railroading and Recreation in the North Cascades [Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1995], p. 87.)

Ninety-six people died in the avalanche, including 35 passengers, 58 railroad employees sleeping on the trains, and three railroad employees sleeping in cabins enveloped by the snow.

Thereafter, because the name Wellington was associated with the disaster, the little settlement was renamed Tye.  However, as some of the images above demonstrate, Google Maps still calls the location (now deserted) "Wellington." The Great Northern also constructed 17 snow sheds on the western side of the pass (where snow and rain were heaviest) to shield the tracks from avalanches, the same structures as the railroad built on the west approach to Marias Pass.

But the snow sheds were not completely successful.  On January 22, 1916, eight passengers were killed when an avalanche swept down Windy Mountain and struck a westbound Great Northern passenger train, shoving two rail cars over an 80-foot embankment. 

This image (taken after construction of the First Cascade Tunnel) looks on the western slope and shows the three levels of track as the line horseshoes down the mountain.  Shown also is the snow that plagued higher elevations.  Notice the dead trees on the mountainside, the result of a recent forest fire.  Photo by Lee Picket from Great Northern Railway Historical Society Reference Sheet 119. 

For years there had been rumors that the Great Northern was considering construction of a 30 mile tunnel from Skykomish to Berne, which would have eliminated all grade and snow problems on the western side of the pass.  However, the intervention of World War I, including the takeover of the railroad industry by the federal government, put any tunnel plans on hold.

In the late spring of 1925, an engineering party under the direction of E.S. Jackson located near Scenic (on the west side of the pass) several proposed portals for an eight-mile tunnel. The Jackson party then repeated this operation on the east side, locating several proposed portals near Berne.

Since there had been so many rumors over the years about tunnel construction, the operating division gave little attention to the Jackson survey.  To the surprise of most, however, the railroad authorized (1) construction on an eight mile tunnel (with a descending grade from east to west of 1.565 percent), (2) realignment of tracks to the Chumstick Valley to eliminate the 2.2 percent grade in Tumwater Canyon and (3) electrification through the new tunnel of the line all the way from Skykomish to Wenatchee -- approximately 45 straight-line miles and 72 rail miles. 

I want to emphasize the immense nature of the tunnel project, especially for the early 20th century.  The mountains involved are not quite as intimidating as at Moffat Tunnel, but the terrain in many ways is more intractable.  Both east and west portals were located in narrow valleys rank with vegetation and nearly vertical rock precipices buried in snow for months.  There were no cell phones, no internet, no computers.  The project was planned with slide rules, transits, mules and luck.   

This diagram shows how the second tunnel significantly lowered the elevation and gradients across Stevens Pass.  Great Northern Railway Historical Society Reference Sheet 119.

The railroad selected A. Guthrie & Co., Inc. of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, as general contractor. The contract was executed Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1925, and required completion within three years, with three additional "grace days" to allow for unforeseen difficulties.  Can you imagine any project of such magnitude being completed in three years in the 21st century?  With all the rules and regulations in which the United States now stews, it is impossible in some states to put a new roof on your garage in three years.

Because of the new tunnel's extreme length, and the short time allowed for construction, the traditional method of drilling from each end and meeting in the middle was not practical.  Also, because the tunnel would slope down from east to west, flooding in the east bore was likely to slow operations.

The engineers therefore determined to drill a vertical shaft that would allow access in the middle of the proposed bore.  If the east end flooded, workers could enter the mountain through the shaft and begin drilling east behind rock that held back the water.  Plans also called for drilling westward from the shaft toward the west portal while others were drilling eastward.

The site chosen for the shaft was at Mill Creek, approximately 2.5 miles west of the east portal, as shown in the aerial photo below.

Location of Mill Creek Vertical Shaft

The following timeline, taken from Reference Sheet 119 of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, shows just how rapidly the project proceeded:

1. November 28, 1925. Permission was obtained from the supervisor of the Snoqualmie National Forest to clear timber from the West Portal operation.

2. December 1,1925. Clearing crews began clearing timber at the West Portal site.

3. December 4,1925. Permission was granted by the supervisor of the Wenatchee National Forest to clear sites for East Portal operations and Mill Creek operations and to clear timber for a road to the Mill Creek site.

4. December 14, 1925. The approach cut for the West Portal Pioneer Drift was started.

5. December 17,1925. Clearing began for a wagon road to the Mill Creek site.

6. December 29, 1925. East Portal adit approach cut begun.

7. January 1, 1926. Wagon road from Lanham Creek to Mill Creek site opened. Mill Creek Camp construction started.

8. January 12, 1926. Unfavorable ground conditions exist at the West Portal. Decision is made to sink an incline from the Tye River Canyon.

9. January 16, 1926. Results from test pits dug over main tunnel determine exact location of Mill Creek Shaft.

10. January 23, 1926. Sinking of the Tye River incline begun.

11. January 30,1926. Sinking of the Mill Creek Shaft begun.

BNSF 6869 East approaching Winton.

Eastbound beside Nason Creek.


Westbound climbing to the tunnel.

This eastbound has cleared the tunnel and is headed downgrade.  The mountain in the background gives some indication of the rough climb.

In 2023, a few warbonnets still roamed the rails.

Drilling of this massive tunnel was an engineering marvel, but before drilling commenced, extremely complex and careful surveys were required.  (Great Northern Railway Historical Society Reference Sheet 105, by Arnold A. Anderson, discusses surveying of the tunnel in depth.)  Initially, the tunnel axis had to be established -- the line between the two selected portals.  Appropriate angles had been computed (with paper and slide rules) and were given to Great Northern surveyors "Cowboy" Smith and Paul Piper.  Cowboy Smith drove the initial hub about three hundred yards ahead of the west portal.

Next the axis was extended in the worst of winter over eight miles.  Amazingly, the line hit so close to the selected east portal that no changes were required.  Drilling at the east portal began immediately.

In locating the axis across the easternmost mountain, they survey team became lost in a blizzard.  All members eventually came down except Cowboy Smith, who did not appear for two days.  Eventually, the storm abated and Cowboy appeared, apparently no worse for the wear.  In his honor, the railroad named the mountain "Cowboy."

Because of the short construction interval, surveying began immediately after Thanksgiving and continued through a terrible winter -- almost constant snow and fog which would lift for a few hours but never long enough for surveyors to climb the mountains and establish proper locations.  Consequently, the team built a cabin at the top of a second mountain that they named "Big Chief."  Men huddled for days, waiting for a break in the weather.  Sightings were taken only at dawn or dusk to avoid distortion from the sun.

These details come from a letter written by Mr. Piper, attached to Reference Sheet 105.  He was tasked, among many things, with hiking to the top of Big Chief with materials for a stove to heat the cabin.  Following is his description:

While the stove was made of sheet metal and light, it was awkward to handle. We used snowshoes until we reached the steeper areas where they became useless and left them sticking in the snow. The fog was so thick that you could only see a few feet ahead. However, when we were near the top of the mountain, we broke through the fog, and it was like breaking into a new world, with the mountain tops breaking through the fog and giving the appearance of being surrounded by huge lakes. 

Two tunnels were actually drilled through the mountains.  The main carried the railroad.  A secondary bore, called the "pioneer tunnel," was located about 60 feet away.  Eight feet by nine feet, the pioneer tunnel was begun at both the west portal an also at the Mill Creek shaft, was drilled in conjunction with the main tunnel and was completed in about two years.  (The pioneer tunnel did not extend east beyond the Mill Creek shaft.)  Because its dimensions were small, the pioneer tunnel moved well in advance of the main structure.  Cross-cuts were drilled from the pioneer tunnel into the path of the approaching main to allow digging to proceed on the main structure from several locations simultaneously.

The small tunnel was used to drain away water from the large one. Through it ran light trains carrying laborers, supplies and the rock hewn from the faces reached by the cross-cuts. Through it, too, passed pipes carrying compressed air for driving the drills and shovels, plus electric power lines that operated other machinery and provided illumination.  The small tunnel also provided ventilation.


This illustration shows the relation of the pioneer tunnel to the main bore.

Amazingly, the main tunnel was completed in less than three years.  The first train ran through on January 12, 1929, part of an elaborate celebration.  As heroic as were surveying and construction, the effort to transport the many rotund dignitaries through the snow of another Cascade winter to the east portal must have been almost as arduous.  

In the records of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, there is an image of officials from Great Northern and the general contractor opening the east portal.  Six men in hats and heavy overcoats look mildly cold and uncomfortable as one unlocks a temporary wooden gate placed in front of the new tunnel.  Though snow and ice have been cleared from the tracks, all save one are wearing large boots. 

East portal 2023.

West portal 2023.  Notice the slits carved in the top to allow passage of double-stacks.

Preparing to enter east portal.

Entering the west portal.

Emerging from the shadows at Berne.

Empty coal at Merritt.

Westbound stacks at MP 1689.8.

Along with the new tunnel, a new line was planned up the Chumstick Valley.  The opportunity to remove the main line from narrow and winding Tumwater Canyon led to the railroad's decision to upgrade its electrification, including extending the system at both ends.

The three-phase system was replaced by 11,000 volt alternating current using a single catenary instead of the double trolley wire of the three-phase system. Double trolley pole systems weren't designed for high speed operation, a necessity for the expanded electrified territory.

Operation began in 1927, nearly two years before completion of the new tunnel.  The main electric shops were located at Wenatchee on the east and Skykomish on the west.

New catenary was strung on the new Chumstick Cut-off to where it joined the original line at Winton, and from there to the east portal of the new tunnel at Berne.  Trains began running under the new electrification (before the new tunnel was completed) from Wenatchee through the Chumstick Cut-off to Berne. The couple of miles from Berne to the east portal on the original tunnel did not receive new cantenary.  Thus, from the time the new electric system came on line to the opening of the new tunnel, trains climbing the eastern grade would be pulled by new electric traction from Wenatchee to Berne.  Steam power then worked the trains upgrade to the original Cascade Tunnel Station, pulling along the new electric engines.  At Cascade Tunnel Station, the steam power would detach, and the old electric engines would pull trains through the original tunnel, with the new electric motive power still trailing.  At Tye (former Wellington), the old electric power would detach, and the new electric engines would take over again on the new cantenary that had been erected west on the original horseshoe line down the mountain to Scenic, then continuing downgrade on new electricity to Skykomish.  Westbounds repeated the process in reverse order.  When the new tunnel was completed, the old tracks from Scenic over the original tunnel and down to Berne were abandoned.

U.S. 2 north out of Leavenworth follows the tracks of the original line through Tumwater Canyon.  The white line north of Leavenworth shows the route of the Chumstick realignment.  Where the Chumstick line turns west, the Great Northern drilled three tunnels to reach the original line at Winton.  Two tunnels were quite short but the third -- Winton Tunnel -- took one year to complete.

Paul Piper, so intimately involved in the surveying of the Second Cascade Tunnel, also participated in the surveying and construction of the Winton Tunnel.  Richard Loudon was one of the assigned Great Northern engineers on the opposite end of the tunnel, and he and Paul Piper communicated during construction by a private telephone line strung across the small mountain.  They did not meet face-to-face until the "breakthrough" in the middle.  

Near the end of the job with the last shot at the break-through, there was only a small hole at the top of the muck pile. In trying to get through this small hole to the other side of the tunnel, I became stuck and "Dick" Loudon pulled me on through to his side of the tunnel, which initiated a celebration that lasted far into the night and launched a friendship that has grown with the years.

The new railroad from Scenic to Leavenworth through the 7.8 mile tunnel and over the Chumstick Cut-off eliminated, in Mr. Piper's words "all the troublesome railroad on the Cascade Division."  (Great Northern Railway Historical Society Reference Sheet 105.) 

Westbound in Winton Tunnel.

Same train emerging.

Westbound on the Chumstick Cut-off.

Another westbound on the cut-off.

Both the Great Northern line from Leavenworth through Tumwater Canyon and the subsequent Chumstick Cut-off were originally part of the Chumstick River and Tumwater Northern Railroad, a narrow gauge line serving mines and logging camps.  The CR & TN was operated like a huge model train loop running in only one direction -- north out of Leavenworth following the Chumstick River to Lake Wenatchee, then south to Winton where the tracks followed the Wenatchee River through treacherous Tumwater Canyon.  The river dropped precipitously, requiring the railroad to negotiate several switch backs (some of which are still visible from U.S. 2) down a ruling grade of 3.5 percent. 

In 1889, the Great Northern (building toward Stevens Pass and Puget Sound) leased trackage rights through Tumwater Canyon.  GN brought the route up to mainline standards, but the CR & TN was still allowed to use it.  Since GN was standard gauge and the CR & TN narrow gauge, the resulting tracks included three rails.  GN also replaced the switch backs with a ruling grade of 2.2 percent. 

During World War II, the Great Northern swallowed the CR & TN.  GN freights were using the Chumstick Cut-off, but the Empire Builder and other passenger trains continued to follow the electrified line through scenic Tumwater Canyon until the Great Northern installed a ventillation system in the new Cascade Tunnel and discontinued electrification in 1954.  Then the tracks through Tumwater Canyon were pulled out, and U.S. 2 took their place. 

DPU on coal load at Winton.

Amtrak meeting stacks at Winton.


Stacks at Winton.

Autos at Winton.

Amtrak at Winton.

As the Great Northern entered the diesel era, it soon became cheaper to operate an all diesel railroad than a part-diesel/part-electric line.  But abandonment of cantenary reinstituted the problem of toxic fumes in the big tunnel, albeit this time diesel exhaust.  Also, diesel engines require a certain level of oxygen to fire properly.  As they pass through the tunnel, they pull oxygen out of the bore and may stall.  So the railroad constructed a ventilation system to take effect with the discontinuance of the electrified division.

Today (May 2024) the west portal remains open, while the east portal is guarded by a red and white checkered steel door that stays shut until a train approaches, then:

1.  Remains closed when a train enters from the west.  Huge ventilation fans (operating at moderate speed to maintain appropriate pressure) blow air into the tunnel to keep the engines from stalling.  As the train approaches the east portal, the door slowly opens.  Once the train has cleared, the door closes, and the fans shift to maximum, blowing diesel exhaust out the west portal.  The first time your author witnessed smoke coming out of the bore, he thought the tunnel was on fire.

2.  The door opens when a westbound is about a half-mile from the east portal.  Once the train has completely entered the bore, the door slides shut, creaking and crashing, and the ventilation fans repeat the same process.

In your author's experience, the ventilation fans sound like 5000 vacuum cleaners running simultaneously and take about 30-45 minutes to clear the tunnel of fumes, limiting capacity to approximately 24 trains per 24 hours.  Freights are restricted to 25 mph; Amtrak to 30.  Crews carry portable respirators in case the fans fail or a train stalls.  Safety stations within the tunnel  provide additional air tanks and equipment.

The original portal door contained red and white horizontal stripes and opened upward.  In 1996 it failed to clear before an eastbound ran into it. The railroad then installed a false metal front containing the checkerboard door that opens to the right into the small building behind the signal.  The original door, since replaced, still operates upward if the newer door fails.  

The east portal was extended in 1955 and 1996 for the doors. The tall concrete structure you see today is the 1955 extension to house the original, upward-opening door.  The 1996 extension houses the new sliding door. 

If you've made it this far, you've probably noticed that almost all photographs in this article were taken on the east side of Stevens Pass.  That's because the west side is a mostly impenetrable jungle.  Vegetation on the east is not as thick, though still formidable, and photographic opportunities do exist.  Here is an image on the west side -- an eastbound is crossing Deception Creek, about 1.5 miles from the west portal.  This location can be reached on Forest Service Road 6088, which runs south off U.S. 2.

This empty coal train has received a green board at Scenic to enter the Cascade Tunnel and has passed under U.S. 2.

These eastbound stacks are entering the west portal of Cascade Tunnel.

This eastbound is waiting at Scenic for a green board to enter the tunnel.  Eastbounds often back up at this location.  Your author has seen as many as three trains waiting.

I end this article with an irony.  There are three railroad crossings of the Cascades in Washington:  (1) Stevens Pass, (2) Stampede Pass and (3) Snoqualmie Pass.  Stampede Pass was constructed by the Northern Pacific and is surmounted by a tunnel of slightly less than 3,000 feet in which the apex is in the middle, which presents unique challenges.  BNSF closed Stampede but then reopened it because Stevens Pass, with its limited capacity, had become a bottleneck.  When your author was at Stevens Pass in 2023, the only coal trains he saw (with one exception) were empties running east.  He presumes that westbound loads were running over Stampede.

Snoqualmie Pass was constructed by the Milwaukee Road in the early 20th century.  The tunnel portals are about 500 feet lower than Stampede and Cascade.  The bore is about 2.5 miles long and level from end to end.  Thus passage presented little problem to train crews who would throttle down upon entrance and allow mid-trains and pushers to do most of the work.  Also, the western grade at Snoqualmie was only 0.7 percent. 

When the interstate highway system was planned, engineers selected Snoqualmie Pass to route west from Seattle.

When the Milwaukee Road ceased operations of its Pacific Extension, Burlington Northern took title to the Snoqualmie Pass tunnel and the tracks in both directions, yet the BN never used the property.  Instead, the railroad gave tunnel and tracks to the state, and today the best route across the Cascades is used only by hikers and cyclists.  

Eastbound stacks preparing to turn south to Winton.

In the late aftenoon, BNSF 8052 East races through a tree tunnel east of Stevens Pass.

As the sun sets.

To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.