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The Real Story of Tacoma's Abandoned Railroad Tunnel
By Greg Spadoni

Text Content Copyright  2014 by Greg Spadoni, All Rights Reserved
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     Tacoma’s history is peppered with rumors of abandoned tunnels.  Tales have been told for a hundred years of mysterious pathways under the city, reaching out from downtown to Stadium High School on the bluff to the north, to the city waterway to the east, even all the way to Fircrest to the west, and other destinations unknown.  Rumored purposes were as varied as Shanghaiing sailors, sneaking in Chinese labor and hiding bootlegged liquor during prohibition. Reality is much less colorful as most, if not all, of the tunnels that do  or at least did  exist had more practical origins.  One such tunnel, on the edge of downtown, was the biggest of them all.

     At the turn of the twentieth century, railroads were the biggest of big business in America.  Trains moved everything worth moving – raw materials, manufactured goods, food, people, livestock.  The first railroad into any area held a captive populace but as the economy in that area grew, so did railway competition.  In Tacoma the Northern Pacific Railroad was the big dog in town, having arrived first.  As the Puget Sound region became more populated and more developed, competition pushed its way ever closer.

Edward Henry Harriman     The Union Pacific Railroad, controlled by Edward Henry Harriman, in 1903 announced plans to expand into Puget Sound through its subsidiary, the Oregon & Washington Railroad.  Expanding their territory north from Oregon, the Harriman interests, as they were collectively known, intended to reach both Tacoma and Seattle within the next few years.  It would not be the Union Pacific’s first entry to Tacoma, the company having owned the (very) short line Tacoma & Lake City Railway in the 1890s.
     The Northern Pacific, looking ahead to the competition in Puget Sound from the coming of the Union Pacific, began exploring countermeasures to remain competitive.  The best option was to find a better route through Tacoma to replace the slow uphill chug out of downtown when heading south.  Avoiding steep grades was a major goal of any railroad, for the steeper the grade, the less freight a train could haul.  A different road with a lesser grade, even if it was a bit longer, could pay for itself in a very short time.  The only possible route south from Tacoma without hills to climb would be along the shoreline of Puget Sound.  The Morning Olympian commented, [A] proposition that will undoubtedly be taken up within a short time is the building of the line from the Tacoma smelter to Olympia, thus securing a water grade. … The advent of the Harriman lines on Puget Sound is pressing the necessity for a speedy decision and prompt action on the part of the Northern Pacific.”  The decision to build the route may or may not have been speedy, but the action was definitely not prompt.  It would be three years before serious efforts were made on the big project.

    When the Northern Pacific began buying up shore properties & surveying the water grade route into Tacoma in 1906, the Morning Olympian reported some of the details of the new road: “A main line track of the heaviest steel is to be built along the waterfront from the Tacoma mill property to the smelter, thence through a tunnel to the Narrows and thence along the shore to Steilacoom, running thence almost due south to a connection with the Northern Pacific main line at or near Tenino.  This railroad, built on a water-grade line, will eliminate the heavy grades at Nisqually hill and in the city of Tacoma.”

      At the same time, the Union Pacific determined that the most practical approach to Tacoma was from the south, nearly parallel to the existing Northern Pacific tracks.  But while the NP tracks descended from the prairie south of the city via Galliher’s Gulch, a steep grade that South Tacoma Way would later follow to connect to Pacific avenue, the UP lines would use a tunnel, roughly parallel to the gulch until turning north at Jefferson avenue.  The tunnel would be of a slightly lesser grade than the existing NP lines nearby.
     The following year, the Union Pacific announced more details of its ambitious plans for expansion into Tacoma.  It would have a freight yard just west of the big Northern Pacific maintenance shops in South Tacoma.  The yard would have a capacity of 6,000 cars and would feature two round houses costing $50,000 each.  From there the track would lead north to about South 40th street where it would begin a very long, easy turn to the right.  The curve would end with the tracks running due east at the intersection of Center street and Prospect avenue (about four hundred feet east of the present day Tacoma and Pierce County Humane Society building), where it would enter a tunnel 8,647 feet long.  At a 1.25% down grade, the tunnel would run east for 1.1 miles beneath Center street, then begin a wide, smooth turn to the left just before passing under South Yakima avenue.  The tunnel’s final two thirds of a mile would continue the leftward sweep until crossing under the intersection of South 25th street and Jefferson avenue before emerging from the hillside below the northeast corner of the crossroads.  At a reduced grade of .7%, the tracks would pass sheds for perishable freight on the east side of Jefferson, and further north, between 17th and 19th streets, a $500,000 brick and stone passenger terminal 100’ x 600’ would be built.  Leaving the terminal, the road would resume a 1.25% downgrade as it swept to the east, crossing over 17th street, Commerce street, Pacific avenue, and the Northern Pacific tracks, on a massive steel viaduct.  The grade would level out at the approach to a new drawbridge 50 feet above the city waterway at 15th street.  On the east side of the waterway would be wharves with 3,500 feet of frontage where the railroad would improve the channel for deep water ships.  (A Harriman line of Oriental steamers was being considered as another tenant of the wharves.)  On the tideflats would be a central switchyard of 16 tracks with a 3,000 car capacity, and freight sheds on ten acres, all in the general area of the current Amtrak train station on Puyallup avenue.  If all the new plans were realized, the arrival of the Union Pacific would approximately double the rail shipping capacity of the city. 
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     On April 24, 1907 the UP formally filed for a railroad franchise in Tacoma, expecting to be running trains into the city within 18 months.  At the time, Center street did not continue through to Jefferson avenue and the city council made that eventuality a condition for granting the franchise, as reported by The Tacoma Times: “The council … seems inclined to require the Harriman interests to get possession of enough additional land on the brow of the gulch to make it possible for the opening of Center street to Jefferson and if this is done there will be no dispute about the franchise.”  The company agreed to the condition but wouldn’t give the city title to the land before 1911.

     After the franchise was granted it was generally expected the project would be expedited but there were delays.  As late as October, vertical test shafts were still being sunk on the tunnel route to examine the soils that would be encountered, but no start date for construction had been announced.  By November preliminary clearing work had begun on the west approach to the tunnel but no plans to move dirt had been finalized.

     While the dirt from the west end of the tunnel would be moved by rail to the South Tacoma swamp where the freight yard would be constructed, the handling of the material cut from the north end of the bore was not yet certain.  From the November 13, 1907 edition of The Spokane Press:   
—The engineers of the Union Pacific railroad are faced with a serious problem in the matter of removing the earth that is taken from the north end of the tunnel they will bore beneath the city. This end of the tunnel will emerge from the earth in the business center, and the only place for the earth taken from the bore apparently is the tide flats, where the road will locate its ocean terminals.  The question is how to transport the earth through the congested section of the business center to the dumping spot. Negotiations are now under way with the Tacoma
Railway & Power Co. and also with the Northern Pacific railroad. The railroad company is hardly in a position to handle any of the earth, and the power company, if it attempts to handle it, will have to buy new equipment and build track, which would hardly be worth while, notwithstanding that the job is a large one."

     It turned out that securing a disposal site was not a pressing issue, as digging would not begin for more than a year.  On top of a deep economic recession that had begun in May, a major financial panic had erupted on Wall Street in October, crippling the nation’s big banks’ ability to finance industrial expansion.  While the panic would be over in a matter of weeks, it would take months more for the recession to end.

     In June of 1908 the Union Pacific’s plans for expansion into the Puget Sound area picked up steam.  The aftermath of the 1907 financial panic had mostly played out and the recession was coming to an end, allowing the Harriman interests to float a $100,000,000 bond issue, money the railroad would use for a variety of capital projects, the Tacoma tunnel included.  But the railroad was making plans to be in Tacoma before the tunnel was completed.  It already had a small, isolated presence in the west central part of Washington and in 1906 had extended a spur ten miles from Centralia to reach company coal mines, the nearest source of boiler fuel.  A branch line from the mines was then planned to be built to the Salsich Lumber Co. in Nisqually, where it would connect to a Tacoma Eastern Railroad line, providing the UP temporary entrance to Tacoma from the east.  Building tracks from Portland to connect with its Washington operations was an entirely separate matter.

     With temporary plans in place for entry into Tacoma, there remained the question of how the Union Pacific’s Oregon & Washington Railroad subsidiary would reach Seattle.  In an example of how complex track sharing agreements between railroads could be, The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad (known informally as the Milwaukee) was in talks to also connect to Tacoma Eastern lines for its entrance into Tacoma.  Already having reached an agreement for temporary use of Tacoma Eastern tracks, the Union Pacific then sought a track sharing agreement with the Milwaukee to use its lines to Black River Junction (inside present day Renton) where it would connect to the lines of the Columbia & Puget Sound Railroad, completing its Seattle-Tacoma link.  A reciprocal agreement would allow the Milwaukee to share the Union Pacific lines from Tacoma to Portland once they were built.

     The Tacoma tunnel contract was opened for bidding on November 27, 1908.    On December 15th it was reported that the Tacoma firm of Huson & Rydstrom had submitted the low bid.  The contract for temporary shoring timbers of Douglas fir was awarded to the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Co.

     The Tacoma Times, January 18, 1909:
Construction work on the Union Pacific line in Tacoma was commenced today.  Contractors Dibble & Hawthorne this morning with a large force of men started operations on the U. P. right-of-way between the Center street tunnel portal and the South Tacoma swamp.  The rails and ties for this line arrived last week, as was published exclusively in the Times.  Everything has now been cleared up for the final letting of the contract and the beginning of work on the construction of the tunnel.
City Makes Big Deal.
Saturday Commissioner McGregor completed arrangements with both the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific for the carrying of the dirt from the tunnel on the north end and down to the big gulch for the filling of the gulch at Pacific avenue. The city has been negotiating with the Union Pacific for ten days on this as it has held up the contract until the city could get authority from the N. P. [headquarters] at St. Paul. This authority came Saturday and the deal was closed.  This makes it possible for the Union Pacific to get busy at once.  By the present plans the dirt from the south end of the tunnel will be carried to the South Tacoma swamps. That in the north end will be given to the city and will be dumped under the Pacific avenue bridge to fill the gulch.  If there is more than is needed it will be used to fill up under the Yakima avenue bridge.  As soon as Dibble & Hawthorne finish laying the track to the South Tacoma swamp it is expected Contractors Huson & Rydstrom will get busy on the tunnel."

     The city had granted permission to lay tracks on Center Street under the condition they be removed in one year.  That led the newspapers to conclude that the tunnel would be completed in one year or less.  According to one of the railroad’s civil engineers, the west end dirt plan was to lift dirt with a hoist from a shaft sunk on Chandler street and fill rail cars heading to South Tacoma where they would fill the swamp 12 feet deep for the new freight yards.  The company also planned to open the west portal and have two excavations going at once.  When the time came to dig, however, they started at the north end instead.

       Although preliminary work was well underway, on the 31st of January The Oregonian reported that not everything was in order: “It was more than two months ago that bids were opened on the $1,000,000 tunnel under Tacoma, by which the Harriman line was to effect entrance into that city.  … The Pacific Construction Company, which is another name for the contracting firm of Huson & Rydstrom, was notified that it was the low bidder on the Tacoma tunnel, but the contract has not been signed.” 

          While negotiations between Huson & Rydstrom and the railroad continued over details of the contract, the Washington Pipe Company was building a 24 inch diameter sluicing pipe 1,200 feet long to carry the excavated earth from the north portal down to the gully beneath the Pacific avenue bridge between 25th and 26th streets.  The pipe was of a “peculiar” design, according to The Tacoma Times, the bottom being lined with wood blocks set on end to prevent wear, the same method used to pave several of the busiest streets in Tacoma, including the downtown section of Pacific avenue, in previous years.  (The specific design, known as Hopkirk pipe, may have been peculiar to the newspaper but it was not new, already in current use on the massive topography regrades in Seattle.)  What the newspaper didn’t mention, because it was commonplace at the time, was that the sluice pipe itself was built of wood.  The wood stave pipe was buried under the Northern Pacific’s tracks on Hood street, then routed behind the Pacific Brewing & Malting Company’s plant over to 25th street before turning east and continuing down to the fill at Pacific avenue.

     Ultimately unable to agree on details of the contract, Huson & Rydstrom withdrew their bid for construction of the tunnel in early February.  The work was then awarded to Twohy Brothers of Spokane, its bid being close to a million dollars, a good deal higher than the reported $860,000 bid by Huson & Rydstrom.  The new contractor was given one year to complete the project.

                        This Content Stolen from Greg Spadoni at

Twohy Brothers would later start a rail car building business that would evntually become Paccar, current builder of Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks

                  In addition to the railroad construction business, Twohy Brothers created a rail car manufacturing company
                  that would later merge with Seattle Car & Foundry to become Pacific Car & Foundry.   After a series of
                  mergers  and  buyouts  over  several  decades,    the  company  evolved  into  PACCAR,    the  current
                  manufacturer of Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks.

     On the northeast corner of 25th street and Jefferson avenue, where the tunnel would open into daylight, stood the four story brick building of the Pacific Glass & Paint Company, formerly the Pacific Security Storage and Warehouse building, and before that, the Peters & Miller building.  Rather than demolish the structure immediately, the railroad designed the track to run through the basement, the south wall of which was functionally the north portal.  Within a few months of the beginning of tunnel construction the Pacific Glass & Paint Company relocated to the east side of the city waterway, after which most of the building was taken down, leaving only a portion alongside the Northern Pacific tracks on Hood street.

Poor photo of tunnel through brick building, Railway Marine News, March 1, 1909

     Under the supervision of John Twohy, the project got off to a fast start.  While excavation machinery was being shipped from Spokane, a blacksmith shop was being constructed near the north portal.  Also being built was a large box into which the dirt from the bore would be dumped and from there washed into the pipe leading to the Pacific avenue fill.  Twohy Brothers’ responsibility for the dirt would end with its exit from the box, as city workers would handle the filling work at the end of the sluice pipe.

    Contrary to plans announced in January, the excavation would begin at the north end, not the west end.  A shaft was sunk in the vicinity of South 27th and E streets, about 800 feet from the north portal.  Excavation crews would work towards each other from both locations.  When the two crews met in the wide curve, one crew would then move to the next of six shafts sunk along the route, some as deep as 80 feet, and work back towards the men working the leading end 
of the bore.

     Though only preliminary construction work had started, the tunnel project was beginning to enter general conversation in the city, as demonstrated by this tidbit on the sports page of The Tacoma Times: "There will be enough grunting and sweating in two hours at the Y.M.C.A. tonight to dig a hundred yards of U. P. tunnel when the Y.M.C.A. and Tacoma high school wrestlers meet."

     When digging finally started, it was discovered that the city's 4 inch water line to feed the sluice pipe into the gully was inadequate.  It took the city barely more than a week to install a 10 inch pipe capable of delivering 1.5 million gallons per day.  While that proved to be enough water, the sluice pipe was prone to clogging, requiring repositioning to a steeper angle.

     The tunnel would be excavated beyond the finished dimensions to make room for the concrete lining which would be poured after the entire tunnel had been bored.  The excavation used a two bore method by which a smaller overhead hole was dug out ahead of the main bore.  Because horizontal passages underground are called drifts in mining language, the upper bore was referred to as the overhead drift or the advance drift, as it was dug in advance of the main drift.  The overhead drift was excavated with a steam boring machine and by hand, and was fitted with top and arch timbers to hold up the ceiling while the main core of the tunnel was excavated.

Shoring Inside the Tunnel
     This photograph on the Tacoma Public Library website shows workers shoring the tunnel roof.

     Digging was done mostly in the advance drift until April when a big power shovel arrived from Spokane to excavate the main core.  The shovel was run not by steam but on compressed air, for safety reasons, supplied by a steam-powered compressor outside the north portal.  Side timbers were placed in the main bore as the shovel progressed, at an average of 17 feet per day.  Although a small engine and train of dirt cars had arrived with the shovel, until the grade outside the north portal was reduced, the excavated dirt was taken out by a dump car and cable setup. 

      Progress in the sweeping curve of the tunnel was steady until the two crews working towards each in other in the advance drift met on May 5th.  When they broke through the last few feet between them, it was discovered that an engineering mistake had caused the two underground sections to be eight feet out of alignment.  Work to align the overhead bores caused both delay and extra expense.

     On May 25th, 1909, in a surprise in railroad circles, it was announced that the Union Pacific had reached an agreement to use the Northern Pacific’s tracks between Portland and South Tacoma.  The UP would then use its own tracks, through the new tunnel, to its Tacoma terminal, yet to be built on Jefferson avenue.  Until the tunnel was completed, the UP would use the NP’s tracks down Galliher’s Gulch into the city.  The UP expected to be running trains into Tacoma over the NP lines by August 1st.

     In June the two railroads reached a separate agreement for the UP to use NP lines from Tacoma to the Seattle tide flats until the UP’s Tacoma facilities were completed.  Being a temporary measure, it did not replace the multiple track sharing agreements with the Tacoma Eastern, Milwaukee, and Columbia & Puget Sound railroads.

     The tunnel project continued to progress until June 8th when Twohy Brothers struck water at the Sprague street shaft and work was halted.  Ground water had been encountered earlier in the bore, as had been expected, and was being handled satisfactorily, but the sheer volume of the strike  reported variously as anywhere from one to five million gallons a day  was a serious problem.  Though the Sprague street shaft was near the west end of the tunnel route, over a mile from where digging of the main drift had started at the north end, it signaled that ever greater amounts of water would be encountered as the excavation progressed.  That problem had to be addressed before excavation could resume.


     Twenty thousand dollars was spent in June to control the ground water, all of it expensed to the Union Pacific, as the tunnel contract had a water clause protecting the contractor from the unexpected costs as well as unforeseen delays.  The water problem was expected to cause a three month delay in completion of the tunnel.

This Content Stolen from Greg Spadoni at

     As for what could be done with the massive volume of water, the city just so happened to be experiencing a municipal water shortage and the UP’s water problem was the perfect solution.  “Mr. Harriman has come to the rescue of the city water service and is turning the water from the U. P. tunnel into the city pipes, so there is enough for all purposes,”  wrote The Tacoma Times on June 10th.  The tunnel water was routed to a nearby city reservoir via a 30 inch flume that “ran full to the top and slopped over.  No more water can come down the flume than is in it now.  ‘There is 100 pounds pressure all over the city now and people can sprinkle again,’ said Commissioner McGregor this morning”

    With the water problem temporarily solved, excavation continued in July.  The overhead drift now reached 2900 feet from the north portal.  The track sharing agreements negotiated with the Northern Pacific in May and June had not yet been finalized, but a spokesman for the Harriman lines stated that the agreements would be signed within the next two months.

     To reduce future congestion in the downtown area, in August the city council proposed to persuade the two railroads to jointly build the Union Pacific’s viaduct over Pacific avenue and 17th street.  It was expected that such an arrangement would mean the Northern Pacific would also enter city from the south via the UP’s new tunnel and abandon its steeper track in Galliher’s Gulch.  The railroads were apparently not interested, as the council’s idea never materialized.

     In mid-August The Tacoma Times reported that the tunnel project was “throwing gravel down into the gulch at Pacific avenue at a lively rate these days,” and that the ravine between 25th and 26th streets was more than half filled, saving city at least $100,000.

     In September Edward Harriman, the head of the Union Pacific and all its associated lines and subsidiaries, died, throwing some doubt into the future of the railroad’s expansion into Washington.  The track sharing agreements had not yet been finalized with the Northern Pacific Railroad and some observers speculated that with Harriman gone, the Northern Pacific might want to break those agreements.  As September turned into October and then November, rumors circulated accusing the NP of using delaying tactics, but the rumors were put to rest when the agreements were signed at the end of the month.

.                             This Content Stolen from Greg Spadoni at

                         First UP train in Tacoma, January 1, 1910.  From Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders; A Half Century of Activity, Volume 2, by Herbert Hunt

                             The premier history book on early Tacoma, Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders; A Half Century
                             of Activity, by Herbert Hunt, published this photograph of the first Union Pacific engine, through
                             its subsidiary, the Oregon & Washington Railroad, to enter Tacoma.  Although the UP had
                             originally expected to be running trains into Tacoma by August, 1909, various delays resulted
                             in the first entry being in January of 1910.

     Meanwhile, the city of Tacoma connected its pipes to a pump in the Chandler street shaft when its South Tacoma well suffered electrical problems, reducing the capacity of the municipal water system.  The railroad was able to give Tacoma as much water as it needed.

     As the main bore of the tunnel neared Yakima avenue, a side drift was pushed through to the steep side hill of Galliher’s Gulch where excavated material would be taken out to make a fill for the footing of a future bridge across the gully.  As more and more water was encountered in the main bore, it was routed out through the side drift to drain into the gulch.

     In mid-November Twohy Brothers was forced to stop work again.  Pumping the underground flood at the Sprague street and Chandler street shafts while draining the main bore into the gulch was no longer the solution.  The increasing flow of water into the main bore, even though it was being drained out through the side drift, was seriously interfering with the excavation.  Another solution had to be found or progress could not continue.
     The new solution was a proven mining method, though new to Washington state: increase the air pressure inside the bore.  It was a slow and expensive solution, so the contractor had held off making the decision until it had no alternative.  On December 16th The Tacoma Daily Ledger detailed the process:
    “For the first time in the history of the state of Washington men are working in a caisson under the pressure of compressed air, which holds back water while the earth is removed and the concrete work sealing out water put in.  The work is being done in the Union Pacific tunnel between Jefferson avenue and Center street.
     Two large compressors, driven by steam furnished by two large boilers, have been installed at the north portal of the tunnel and the air has been piped to the air locks in which the men work.  Actual work was begun this morning, when seven men entered the locks, under a pressure of five pounds of air to the square inch, this being all that was required to hold back the flow of water in the tunnel where it was left off about a month ago.  As the work proceeds the pressure will gradually have to be increased until it is strong enough to hold back the flow of nearly 1,000,000 gallons every 24 hours at the Sprague street shaft.
     The machinery which has been installed, together with the experts brought from the east and the maintenance, will cost in the neighborhood of $75,000, discounting the cost of labor.  This additional expense in digging the 8,000-foot tunnel became necessary when Twohy Bros. contractors struck a large flow of water at the Sprague street shaft.  Several thousand feet of the tunnel proper was bored and the temporary wooden walls put in when the big compressed air shovel reached the end of the advance drift where the workmen bad been routed by the water.
     …As fast as the dirt is shoved back out of the locks by the workmen, it is picked up by the compressed air shovel and loaded on small cars and hauled out for dumping by "dinky" steam engines, which burn coke to avoid filling the tunnel with gas.”
     The air locks were not installed at the north portal, which would have require pressurizing the entire excavated portion of the tunnel, but at the leading end of the main bore, about 2,200 feet in, somewhere near South Yakima avenue.

     By the time excavation had stopped in November to await installation of the pressurizing equipment, the filling of the gulch beneath the Pacific avenue bridge had been completed and the wood stave sluicing pipe dismantled.  No more material would be taken out of the north portal.  The side drift into the gulch near Yakima avenue would become the primary exit point until the fill in that area was completed.

     Slow progress was made in the pressurized air locks through the winter and into the spring.  The project became unsettled once more when, on May 4th, the Northern Pacific announced it was receiving bids for construction of its water grade route from the south into Tacoma.  That news fueled rumors that the Union Pacific would make a deal to use the NP’s new tracks.  If true, that would result in the UP entering Tacoma through the Point Defiance tunnel when it was constructed and as a consequence, the UP tunnel would not be used.  Neither railroad would comment on the speculation.

     Fully two weeks after the rumors surfaced, the Union Pacific officially announced that a track sharing agreement had been reached.  The Harriman lines would have no tracks north of Portland.  Work on the Union Pacific’s ambitious but problem-plagued tunnel project in Tacoma stopped for good on May 19th, 1910.

     The new track sharing agreement also meant that the Union Pacific would not build its passenger depot along Jefferson avenue, as it could not be reached from the Northern Pacific's water grade tracks.  Instead, Harriman’s trains would share the new Union Depot being built on Pacific avenue by the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads.

                          This Content Stolen from Greg Spadoni at

Approximate route of the tunnel, the blue line representing the fuly excavated portion

                The intended route of the tunnel is shown in red.  The blue line in the curve shows the approximate distance
                that was fully excavated.    The advance drift  extended to the west some distance beyond the blue line and
                was being excavated in at least one more location along the unfinished route. 

     The Tacoma Times expressed a sort of relief that at least one more part of the overall project would also be cancelled when it wrote, “The unsightly overhead steel viaduct across Pacific avenue which has been a bugbear to Tacoma people will not be built and the new bridge over the waterway will be eliminated from the company’s plans in this city.”  While the viaduct was never built, the Union Pacific did eventually build a bridge over the city waterway at 15th street, under its slightly re-named subsidiary, the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company, in 1915.

     The Times’ story also speculated on the fate of the aborted tunnel:  “The big tunnel is now in about 2,500 feet.  It may in the future be completed and as the city grows it is not unlikely that it will be utilized for a street railway subway.  It will furnish an easy grade to South Tacoma better than any surface line that can be found, and it comes out of the ground in good collation to be used by street cars.”  Contrary to the Times’ speculation, the tunnel would never be used for any purpose.

     The railroad itself was not sure of the tunnel’s fate.  The Olympia Daily Recorder wrote, “Harriman officials say that the tunnel abandonment is not absolute and that there are possibilities it will ultimately be completed.  However, so many obstacles have been encountered in making the big bore that it has turned out to be a much harder and longer task than was ever counted on.  The chief obstacle has been to get rid of the water encountered.  Local officials are inclined to think the tunnel work will proceed leisurely and that the big bore may ultimately be completed.  They have received no advice to that effect, however.”

     Only nine days after work on the tunnel had stopped, the big bore unleashed the first of many surprises on the city of Tacoma.  The Tacoma Times reported, “CITY GETTING WORST OF DEAL  Twohy Brothers, U. P. tunnel contractors, suddenly shut off the city from getting water from the tunnel at Chandler street yesterday.  With the hot season coming on and this large source of supply eliminated, the city was right up against it.  The contractors owned the pumps, and they refused to allow the city to operate them without the city buys [sic] the pumps for the rather steep price of $4,000.  This is what they cost new.
     “There was nothing else to do but give the price, according to Commissioner Lawson, so he made a deal.”  Future surprises would only get worse.

     By mid June of 1910, local newspapers were reporting that the tunnel was sealed up, the interior braced with timbers & cordwood.  Both the advance drift and the main bore had been braced as necessary with timbers as the work progressed, and while it’s certainly possible more timbers were added before closing the north portal, it’s highly unlikely cordwood was used as further bracing.  Instead, the cordwood was probably only stored in the tunnel, being the unused stockpile of fuel for the burners of the boilers that powered the air compressors used to run the power shovel and to pressurize the air locks.

     The abandoned tunnel was mostly out of the public’s mind until 1913, when the big bore began to stir.  Millions of gallons of water were still pouring into the underground road and the city remained the beneficiary, using it to fill its nearest reservoir.  In addition to the city pumps, there was an 18 inch gravity-flow pipe draining excess water into Galliher’s Gulch through the otherwise blocked off side drift near South Yakima avenue.  Erosion by the constantly moving water inside the tunnel was causing the timber shoring to collapse.  Speculation that the timbers were rotting was misplaced.  Douglas fir does not rot in three years; the timbers were still as solid as the day they were placed.  It was the soil that was shifting, being eroded from above, between and beneath the timbers by the constant flow of ground water pouring in through the top, bottom, and sides of the bore.  As the gravel roof and sides of the tunnel slowly crumbled and slumped, the shoring eventually had nothing to support.  Minor collapses of the interior would soon topple the freestanding timbers, leaving nothing to prevent the entire roof from dropping into the bore.  The first sign of trouble was minor settling of the ground above the tunnel.  In June of 1913 the city notified the railroad that measures to stop the settling were needed.

     In the fall of 1913, the tunnel suffered a series of partial collapses.  The third such sinkhole caved in a forty foot square hole eighteen feet deep at the intersection of  South Yakima & West Jefferson avenue (at the time, the portion of present-day Center street from I street to Tacoma avenue was called West Jefferson avenue) taking out a gas main in the process.  It required 1,000 cubic yards of soil to fill the void.

     Because part of a city street had collapsed, the Union Pacific was forced to respond quickly.  Within two days the company had a crew of men inside, re-shoring the tunnel.  Given that the problem was not the shoring itself but the constant erosion of the soil supporting it, new timbers could not have been expected to be a permanent fix, and indeed they were not.  The work stabilized the tunnel for just over a year before a new partial collapse took out another section of Jefferson avenue on October 30, 1914.  According to The Tacoma Times on November 9, “The Oregon-Washington railroad was today ordered by the city council to take immediate action to fill up the big hole in Jefferson avenue, caused by the cave-in last week of the old Union Pacific railroad tunnel, on threat that the city would do the work itself and send the bill to them.  The street is practically blockaded by the big hole.”

     The hole was filled, but that didn’t solve the problem.  In fact, it only got worse, as the Times explained in its November 13 edition: 

Fire station No. 2. one of the largest In Tacoma, is in danger of destruction as are several dozen residences in the district abutting on South Jefferson avenue, as the result of continued cave-ins of the abandoned 0.-W. R & N. railroad tunnel.
      Commissioner for Safety A. U. Mills announced to the city council today that the lives of firemen In the No. 2 station and those of numbers of citizens of Tacoma were in danger as a result of the threatening tunnel.

Great Cave-in.
Investigation showed that, although a large hole caused by a cave-in last week on Jefferson avenue at 25th street had been filled, the "fill” washed out completely last night, and 50 feet more of the street dropped Into the crevice of the tunnel.
     "At the rate that the cave-in is running up the street, there is danger of the entire tunnel collapsing, taking with it the fire station, which is built almost directly over the tunnel, and many homes that are over or close to the shaft,'" Mills told the council.

Street Collapsed.
Last week a 100 foot section of Jefferson avenue suddenly dropped into the tunnel, 25 feet below.
Street car traffic on the avenue was paralyzed, and the street was fenced off.   Since that time 1,400
wagon-loads of earth have been dumped into the hole, with the result that last night's rain caused
the filled-in soil to flow out into the undamaged sections of the tunnel and another large section of the street collapsed.
     The old O. & W. tunnel was abandoned immediately after it was dug.  Water has accumulated over it, until the ground has settled, causing big cracks and fissures in the walls of fire house No. 2, and endangering homes in the neighborhood.  The city council today demanded that work on filling the tunnel be pursued day and night.  It may be necessary to evacuate the fire house if the danger of its collapse becomes more serious.”

     This time the railroad agreed to fill the entire tunnel rather than only the cave-ins as they occurred.  In late December a $50,000 contract to fill the collapsing tunnel was awarded to Grant, Smith & Company out of Seattle, but it was Stillwell Brothers, also from Seattle, that ultimately did the work.

     In March of 1915, under the supervision of Cornelius Hageman, a civil engineer with the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company, backfilling of the abandoned tunnel began.  The source of the backfill material was a hill on the south side of Galliher’s Gulch at Yakima avenue.  The Tacoma Daily Ledger commented on the consequences of using the hill to fill the tunnel: “The amount of earth required to fill it up and put an end to the street cave-ins that have been frequent in the past will cause a considerable change in the landscape about the gulch at Yakima avenue.”

     Stillwell Brothers, using a water cannon, leveled the hill and sluiced the dirt 1800 feet to the tunnel through an 18 inch riveted steel pipe.  The pipe entered the tunnel at Yakima avenue behind the filled cave-in there and ran all the way to where the cave-ins at the intersection of 25th and Jefferson had blocked the north portal.  The pipe was secured to the tunnel shoring at the top of the arched roof.  Because the north portal was blocked, water had collected in the long, open section of the tunnel north of the side drift, being deepest at the north end where it reached nearly to the roof.  There, workers securing the pipe to the roof shoring were forced to work from boats.

     During the backfilling process, as the tunnel bore was filled with gravel, the standing water was forced out and eventually drained into Galliher’s Gulch.  Sections of the sluice pipe inside the tunnel were removed as the filling progressed back towards Yakima avenue.

     Heavy April rains caused another section of the bore to cave in near South Yakima avenue before Stillwell Brothers had finished, but eventually the entire excavation was filled, including the vertical shafts.  The tunnel was no more.
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     In the 99 years since it was filled, the Union Pacific Railroad tunnel under Tacoma has become fodder for the perpetuators of urban legends.  As with most baseless rumors, years of re-telling has confused the facts, the timeline and its fate.  As recent as 2011, a Tacoma print publication ran a story containing multiple errors and myths concerning the tunnel, including mixing up which railroad built the tunnel and which was already established in Tacoma. The story said the tunnel had been built because the railroad could not obtain permission to use its rival’s tunnel under Point Defiance; that it ran all the way to Fircrest, four miles from the north portal; that it had not been fully filled in; and had been used in later years by local industry as a dump for toxic chemicals.  None of those statements are true.  In reality, the tunnel construction was abandoned before construction of the Point Defiance tunnel had even started; it was planned to end two miles short of current-day Fircrest but never even made it that far; the tunnel had indeed been completely filled, later voids being the result of erosion by the ever-moving groundwater; and a series of tests commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1982 found no evidence of toxic dumping in the abandoned bore.

     An Associated Press story in January of 1982 concerning the contamination of ground water in the nearby Nalley Valley included speculation of chemical dumping in the tunnel being a contributing factor, and a United Press International story the same month outright declared that industrial waste had been accumulating in the abandoned bore for 65 years.  Such a conclusion was premature, as the E.P.A. tests were not performed until two months after those stories appeared.  The results of the tests proved the claim to be false.  The report stated in its summary, “Water draining from the area of the tunnel and samples from three monitoring wells drilled into the tunnel were checked and found to have trace levels of some priority pollutants.  No indication of the disposal of industrial waste into the tunnel was found, however.”
Arvid Rydstrom
     The false rumors about the Union Pacific tunnel actually began before it was filled.  In 1914 when the Northern Pacific’s Point Defiance tunnel was officially opened for rail traffic, The Seattle Daily Times speculated that the UP’s Tacoma tunnel may have been nothing more than a bluff to put pressure on the NP to let the UP’s Oregon & Washington line use the NP's Tacoma tracks.  The newspaper also offered the possibility that Arvid Rydstrom had deliberately flooded the tunnel after the Point Defiance route agreement was signed, in an effort to make it appear as though it had to be abandoned, which would have preserved the ruse.  Like most irresponsible rumors, this one had been started by someone ignorant of the facts.  Arvid Rydstrom could not have pulled such a stunt because Huson & Rydstrom did not do the tunnel work; they had withdrawn their bid before excavation started.  Twohy Brothers, the company that did do the work, struck water on the project nearly a year before the water grade track sharing arrangement was made, not after.  Further, more than a hundred years later, ground water is still seeping its way through the tunnel fill and is being drained off by French drains in two locations, so the ground water was, and remains, very real.

     Aside from the false tales, some of the stories about the old tunnel are true, however.  One says that the owner of the Blue Note Tavern, built over the tunnel, dumped garbage into a hole in the dirt floor of a back room for years without ever filling it.  The hole was one of the vertical shafts sunk along the tunnel route that, along with all the others, had been filled in 1915, but had experienced major settling in the decades after.

     Another true story is that the Yakima avenue bridge crossing over Center street and South Tacoma Way, built in 1960, needed an enormous concrete saddle beneath the north foundation to span the tunnel core because test drilling had discovered a void in the filled underground bore at that spot.  The void is the same one encountered by contractors working on a redevelopment of the Goodwill Industries building next to the bridge in 2007.  According to soil engineers, the void was formed after the tunnel was filled, caused by the great volume of ground water eroding the fill material and carrying it out through the 18 inch pipe installed in the side drift in 1909 to drain off the excess water encountered in the main bore.

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     While the facts may take some of the fun out of the wild rumors that have perpetuated since the first one was published by The Seattle Daily Times in 1914, the real story of the Union Pacific's tunnel under Tacoma is every bit as intriguing, if not more so.  The competition between railroads, the extension of Center street through to Jefferson avenue, the filling of Galliher’s Gulch at Pacific avenue to eliminate the bridge between 25th and 26th streets, the city water shortage, the search for a water grade route into the city, all add to the understanding of the history of Tacoma beyond the tunnel itself.  Who needs baseless rumors when reality is so interesting?

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More Stories of Local History by Greg Spadoni:

Long before Emerald Downs and long before Longacres, Tacoma had a commercial horse racing track in the north end.  It was Tacoma's second professional track.  Featured in the summer 2014 issue of Washington Thoroughbred magazine,
The History of Commercial Horse Racing in Tacoma

Gig harbor's first big industry was lumber, and its mill was one of the biggest on Puget Sound.  For three years it shipped lumber to ports around the Pacific Rim but by 1891 it was bankrupt.
The Gig Harbor Lumber Company

Govnor Teats: His Public Life in Tacoma

The Griffin Wheel Murder
  The true story of the Gino Spadoni murder trial in 1925 Tacoma.

The Last Logging Job: The Tangled Story of the Gig Harbor Timber Company
(Gig Harbor's only logging railroad.)

An Enduring Myth: Old-growth Timber on the Gig Harbor Peninsula Was Not So Gigantic

Saddles, Sulkies & Kites

Selectively Logged Stories of History: Unraveling the Mystery of the Rosedale, Washington Logging Railroad

The Crash of B-17 #42-29932

The Gig Harbor Railroad that Never Was

The Meadows: Washington’s First Great Racetrack

The Rainier Logging Company of Elgin, Washington
Professor Knox: A Master of Elocution, Oratory and Impersonation
Peoples Ship Building and Construction Company of Gig Harbor, Washington

The Gig Harbor Brickworks 1907-1910

Content Copyright  2014 by Greg Spadoni

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