Two holes in a mountain

After less than six months of digging and blasting, the Oregon and California Railroad abandoned work on the Buck Rock Tunnel in 1884.

They put some holes in a mountain nearby, called it a tunnel, and then they walked away.

It was the end of a 30-year dream and two years of surveyors scrambling through the Siskiyou Mountains.

If you go

A visit to the Buck Rock Tunnel's west entrance is best done in late summer or early autumn when the grass is low and the trail easier to find. If you can, it's best to go with someone who's been there before.

From Interstate 5, Ashland Exit 14, drive east on the Greensprings Highway (Highway 66) to Buckhorn Springs Road (just past mile marker 9). Turn right. Continue three-tenths of a mile straight onto Forest Service Road 39-2E-34. After climbing 2.3 miles, look for the parking area on your left.

The trail begins beyond the yellow barrier, opposite the parking area. It requires some effort. You walk mostly uphill for just over 1.75 miles. Do not take any of the side roads branching to the left.

Shortly after passing a shallow, greenish, spring-filled pool that covers the trail, you'll see a matted-down grass trail in a small open area to your left. Follow the trail a few yards uphill until you see a wider dirt and stone trail to your left. Follow this trail .15 mile to the tunnel and a metal commemorative sign placed in 1977 by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

No one could have been more disappointed than Joe "Shorty" Neal, who had just set up a restaurant and saloon near the construction site. Stocked with the "best wines, liquors and cigars available in the market" and offering "guaranteed good treatment and a square meal," Neal had expected months of money rolling out of the pockets of the rough-and-tumble railroad workers.

In 1882, nearly a decade after the southbound construction of the Oregon and California Railroad had stopped in Roseburg, rails were again being laid, mile by mile, to Jackson County.

John Quincy Adams Hurlburt, a highly respected, self-taught surveyor, had been with the railroad almost from the day the first tie was laid in Portland. In early September 1881, headquarters ordered him to immediately stop survey work southwest of Roseburg and, as quickly as possible, get his crew into the Siskiyou Mountains.

It would be more than 21/2; years before the railroad would reach Ashland, but before it did a way had to be found to cross over the mountains and meet up with the railroad already being built northward from Redding, Calif.

The engineering obstacles were overwhelming for Hurlburt. The rail line would climb from Ashland to the summit in such a steep grade that well over a dozen switchbacks might be required, and the tunnel at the top would have to be more than 4,000 feet long. That would cost the railroad a small fortune, a fortune they weren't willing or able to pay.

The solution was to send the tracks on a long, gradually climbing, nearly 9-mile curve to the east, then cut a 1,600-foot tunnel through Buck Rock Mountain before returning to the summit, where a shorter tunnel of about 3,000 feet would be dug. It was quicker and safer to blast out two tunnels instead of one long one, and because of the lower grade, once the line was in service operating expenses would be less.

In September 1883, a gang of Chinese workers was transferred down from the summit tunnel to begin working with railroad crews on construction of the Buck Rock Tunnel.

They started simultaneously at each end and began blasting toward each other, using the latest technology, the compressed-air-powered Burleigh Drill that could bore dozens of holes simultaneously into rock. Each hole was packed with powder, a fuse was lit, and the shattered rock was mucked out of the tunnel and dumped.

Winter snow brought water into the tunnel and slowed work. Then, in February 1884 and without warning, all work on the uncompleted tunnel stopped and speculation began. It was the fault of Congress, some said. The railroad was up for sale, said others. The survey was flawed. Maybe it was the weather. Things will be fine in the summer, right?

In fact, the railroad was out of money. The tracks ended at Ashland, just a few dozen miles and a mountain away from the California rail line.

With two unfinished holes on each side of a mountain, the Buck Rock Tunnel would never see a train pass through.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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