Some of it has collapsed as fire keeps smoldering

ASHLAND ' Don't expect the light at the end of Tunnel 13 to be a locomotive anytime soon.

The fire discovered Monday morning at the north end of the 3,100-foot-long railroad tunnel on Siskiyou Mountain continued to burn Tuesday evening, causing the partial collapse of the historic structure built in the late 1880s.

We don't know how long it will be before it's reopened, said Mark Wohlers, administrative affairs manager for the Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad Co.

We've yet to get the fire under control, he added. Once we've done that, we'll assess the damage, then go from there. It's going to be a while.
— Dex McCullouch agreed. He is an engineer and geologist who is director of railroad services for Shannon & Wilson Inc., a Seattle-based tunnel engineering firm hired by the railroad to restore No. 13.

Restoring it could be quite a job ' it depends on how much of it has collapsed, observed McCullouch after he and several others ventured about 1,000 feet inside the tunnel Tuesday evening, entering from the south.

Some think the fire may have starved itself of oxygen but we can't see much until we get the smoke evacuated, McCullouch said. We've got a lot of smoke in there now.

The tunnel team employed a large fan about a third of the way into the tunnel in an attempt to blow smoke out of the north entrance.

It didn't work terribly well because we have a collapse about 100 feet from the north end, he said. It's partially blocked.

Debris falling from the walls and ceiling have made access to the north end impossible, officials said.

The fire is believed to have been sparked by transients or trespassers. The tunnel is near the summit of Interstate 5 just north of the California state line.

The fire no longer roared Tuesday afternoon but continued to smolder, Wohlers said. The railroad company is now in charge of fighting the fire, taking over from Jackson County Fire District No. 5 firefighters who initially responded.

We're still concerned about the smoke and the potential for a collapse, Wohlers said.

The tunnel is supported by huge joists about two feet apart. The supports, about a foot thick, are coated with creosote, creating fuel for the fire.

An average of two freight trains, mainly carrying timber products, used the tunnel each day before the fire, Wohlers said.

Until the tunnel reopens, those trains north of the tunnel will be routed through Eugene via Union Pacific while train traffic south of the tunnel will be routed through Weed, he said.

The tunnel made history on Oct. 11, 1923, when 23-year-old twins Ray and Roy D'Autremont and their teenage brother Hugh attempted to rob a Southern Pacific Railroad train near the south entrance.

The brothers killed four people but left empty-handed. They were caught in 1927 following a worldwide manhunt.

Meanwhile, the focus on the historic tunnel has brought back old memories for some local residents.

My older brother and I used to walk through the tunnel to catch the school bus to Ashland in the late 1920s and early '30s, recalled Medford resident Harold Putnam, a retired businessman who turns 83 in 10 days.

His parents lived on property that bordered the south entrance to the tunnel.

The building the D'Autremont brothers stayed in while they were waiting to rob the train was on our property, he said. The botched train robbery was right there on the south end of the tunnel.

Walking the tunnel was a bit risky, he noted.

Sometimes we would get caught in the tunnel when a train was coming through, he said. When that happened, we'd lean in between the timbers and let the train go by.

Most of the trains chugging into the tunnel during that period were steam-powered, he said.

When we were real young we'd carry a lantern into the tunnel to see with, but the fumes from the coal or oil smoke would put out the fire in the lantern, he said.

Medford resident Keith Hassler, 70, a retired banker who worked for railroads as a young man, walked through the tunnel with his daughter and four grandchildren last month during the 80th anniversary of the train robbery.

I'm glad we did, what with this fire in it now, he said. We were able to see it before anything happened to it.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at