The fire still smolders, but they'll shore up the north end with steel and clear out debris

ASHLAND ' Mining crews should begin excavating debris today to get Tunnel 13 back on track within at least a month.

Timber bracing in the railroad tunnel that cuts through Siskiyou Mountain caught on fire Monday, leading to the collapse of a 300- to 400-foot section.

The fire was mostly extinguished by Wednesday. Some smoke and water vapor still escaped from the mouth of the tunnel, coated with a thick layer of soot.

It's still smoldering, said Gerald Carter, assistant general manager of Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad Co. We believe we got the fire out.
— He said his company wants to get the 3,105-foot tunnel operational as soon as possible.

We hope it doesn't take any more than a month, he said. Our goal is to restore it back to its original state.

While crews excavate debris, the company plans to shore up the tunnel with steel, getting rid of the burned joists coated with creosote.

Sections of railroad track also will be replaced as necessary because they buckled and expanded during the fire.

Crews will be conducting seismic tests to determine the stability of the tunnel, and Carter said the railroad hopes to avoid having to blast to help clear the debris.

The tunnel collapsed about 60 feet in from the north opening near Callahan's Restaurant, but how far inside it collapsed will be determined only after the excavation gets under way.

Investigators believe the fire was sparked by transients or trespassers.

Two trains used the tunnel daily and are being routed to Union Pacific tracks north of Eugene and through the Klamath area to Weed, Calif.

Crews have ventured into the tunnel about 1,200 feet at the south end, but didn't go in any further because the air was bad, said Carter. A fan has been installed about 1,000 feet in from the south end to improve circulation.

Ron Bergquist, owner of Callahan's, said he first spotted the fire Monday morning while retrieving his newspaper. He noticed what he thought was a rather strange looking white cloud.

When he went up to the tunnel opening, he said, The entire arch was burning.

The tunnel, originally built in the 1880s, has had a long and interesting history.

On Oct. 11, 1923, the tunnel was the site of the West's last great train robbery. Four were killed in the botched robbery of Southern Pacific's Gold Special train.

Former Portland police detective Johnny Howard became an authority on the robbery and the culprits, the D'Autremont brothers. For 21 years, Howard made a pilgrimage each Oct. 11 to place a wreath at the tunnel in memory of the victims.

Howard died Oct. 29.

The wreath is still lying in the portal on the ground, said Carter. It's a little charred.