Collier's impossible hole in the mountain

Randolph Collier Tunnel removed 128 turns and five switchbacks from coastal route
Opened July 20, 1963, the Randolph Collier Tunnel project turned a “jeep path” between Grants Pass and Crescent City into a modern highway. Photo by Bill MillerBill Miller

The national anthem was sung, the invocation given, and dignitaries began mounting the platform to speak. Suddenly, a small pack of ape-like men dressed in animal skins and carrying burly clubs swarmed around the platform.

There would be no dedication of the Oregon Mountain Tunnel until this prehistoric survey party, with arms in the air, grunting and hollering in protest, determined the pending celebration was being held in just the right place.

If you go

From Interstate 5, Exit 55

or Exit 58, drive south on Highway 199 about 43 miles to the California border. The Randolph Collier Tunnel is just a mile south of the California Agricultural Check Station. Continue through the tunnel to a pleasant rest stop immediately to your right.

The leader carried a large chunk of bark and, through a knothole, he peeked at a long chain of bones held by an assistant standing a few feet away.

With a nod from the leader, members of the pack gathered around him, hollering and pushing at each other in an animated argument.

The leader pulled a crayon from a pocket in his animal skin and drew a large X on the platform in front of the speaker's podium. With his nod and grunt, the Grants Pass Cavemen howled their approval. The ceremony could begin.

On July 8, 1960, 1,000 people gathered one mile into California on Highway 199, the Redwood Highway, to watch the groundbreaking of a new tunnel that would ease travel to the coast.

In attendance was Randolph Collier, a powerful California state senator who had almost single-handedly pushed the "impossible" project for seven years. The Illinois Valley News was the first to say it should be named for him.

"Don't give me any more credit than the rest of you," Collier said.

He remembered that only a few years earlier he had driven here over what he called a "jeep path" through the brush and timbered slopes of Hazel View Mountain.

"This project will eliminate miles of long and twisting road that now make transportation between the coast and the inland so hazardous," he said.

The road began as a wagon route in the late 1850s to connect Jacksonville with the Crescent City seaport. It had been improved many times, but Collier's "jeep path" was probably the last remnant of the original.

The tunnel and 23 miles of roadwork would cost more than $30 million, but would save nearly 3 miles in distance. It removed 128 turns, eliminated five switchbacks necessary to cross over the mountain and increased the current "reasonable speed limit" from 25 to 60 mph.

In addition to representatives from Oregon and California, officials from Nevada were on hand for the ceremony. They considered this part of the Winnemucca-to-the-Sea Highway, a long dreamed-of shortcut to the ocean from the deserts of Nevada.

An old Wells Fargo gold box, originally carried over this road in the 1870s, was filled with soil from all three states. Collier dug into the soil with a ceremonial shovel forged from California chrome and nickel, with a handle of Oregon myrtlewood and fastened together with silver rivets from Nevada.

"With this shovel of dirt," Collier said, "The Oregon Tunnel is on its way."

The tunnel was officially named the Randolph Collier Tunnel by California Senate resolution in 1961.

On July 20, 1963, Collier cut the ribbon, traffic flowed, and as far as we know, the Cavemen jumped for joy.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.


Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.
COUPON OF THE WEEK