Historic 3,100-foot tunnel above Ashland expected to open next month after repairs from November fire are complete

The light at the end of Tunnel 13 grows brighter for the Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad Co.

After battling a tunnel fire that began Nov. 17, then removing huge timbers and tons of rock and dirt from the collapsed sections, construction crews expect to reopen it early in June. They are now shoring up the tunnel and laying new rail lines in some areas to replace those that twisted and buckled in the fire.

The historic 3,100-foot tunnel above Ashland connects the rail line between the Rogue Valley and Northern California.

Removing the debris and everything that collapsed from the fire has been very time consuming, observed John Bullion, area railroad train master.
— We had to make sure the ground is safe before anyone could go in there with a machine, he said. Hauling it all out with a loader or dump truck, four or five yards at a time, has been quite a job.

Crews have a little more than 1,100 feet to complete the restoration project, he said.

In addition to the mountain of debris, the work was delayed by the fire which continued to smolder into February as well as heavy snow that fell this past winter, he said. About four feet of snow covered the ground outside the tunnel's north entrance in January.

The site is about 4,100 feet above sea level.

Built in the 1880s under the Siskiyou Summit, 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.

Although it was once used to provide passenger service, the route is now used only by freight trains. The tunnel's closure caused a delay in lumber and other freight deliveries that had to be rerouted between Weed, Calif., and Eugene. About 20 timber companies use the local rails to move their lumber.

Trains have been rerouted north to Eugene, then south to Klamath Falls, taking 10 to 13 days for products to reach California destinations, instead of five.

The tunnel's closure has also reduced the freight revenue for the Yreka Western Railroad Co. by more than 60 percent, according to company spokeswoman Karla Killion.

That revenue has been used to support operational costs for its popular Blue Goose steam train trips, she said. Until its freight operations resume, the Blue Goose trips are canceled, she said.

Its steam locomotive No. 19 did not operate last year because of mandated federal Railroad Administration requirements to upgrade boiler standards, she said. The estimated cost to upgrade the boiler is at least &

36;150,000, she said.

Dan Lovelady, general manager of the Central Oregon and Pacific, has predicted its losses will be some &

36;5 million, including the cost of rerouting the trains and tunnel work.

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

The fire is believed to have been sparked by transients or other trespassers. No one has been charged.

Remnants of the fire can still be seen in the mountain of scorched redwood timbers, many of them 14-by-16 inches thick, piled near the north entrance. Although they appear to have been soaked in creosote, they were actually smoked over the decades by emissions from coal-powered steam engines followed by diesel engines, Bullion said.

The railroad company is checking into the value of the old timbers which are difficult to find today, Bullion said.

The huge redwood timbers are being replaced by a special concrete mixed with steel fibers. Using high- pressure nozzles, crews spray the mixture on the tunnel walls and ceiling until it's about six inches thick.

We are covering the entire tunnel wall with it, Bullion said. That's what they use nowadays. Nobody does the timber tunnels anymore.

Steel joists were used in only a small section of the tunnel, he added.

Crews from LRL Construction, a firm based in Tillamook that specializes in rebuilding tunnels and clearing landslides throughout the nation, are doing the work.

Like Bullion, Nick Laviolette, the firm's superintendent for the work under way on the north end, said removing the debris has been difficult.

Obviously, when you come in from one end of a tunnel, there is only one way in and one way out, he said. It's been very time consuming.

Laviolette, whose family has owned and operated the firm for three generations, says the work has been a challenge, beginning with putting out the fire.

We've worked on larger tunnel projects, like one in Chicago, he said. But this is the largest emergency tunnel project we've ever done.

We've had a tough time estimating when it was going to be fixed because no one has ever seen what was in the middle, he added.

The tunnel collapsed in several places, apparently in areas where the fire burned hottest, he said.

We've run into areas where the track was completely bent by the heat, he said.

While the crews worked, they did find a memento left by the builders of the tunnel more than a century ago.

We found an old hand-wrapped explosive stick from when they first mined it, the superintendent said. The wax paper and everything was still there but it was open at one end.

It didn't have any 'nitro' in it, he added. It had all drained out.

The stick was likely used when crews dug the tunnel back in the 1880s, not during the infamous D'Autremont train robbery, he said.

Meanwhile, Bullion figures another tunnel fire is highly unlikely.

When we're done, there won't be any wood left in there, he said.