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Tunnel vision

Plans are underway to create an interpretive trail to the unfinished Buck Rock Tunnel
Photo by Lee Juillerat Chelsea Rose tells visitors about the Buck Rock Tunnel's history.
Photo by Lee Juilllerat The view from inside the Buck Rock Tunnel.

A would-be tunnel in the Cascade-Siskiyou Mountains never connected an intended railroad line, but a hike to the hole in Buck Mountain provides a link to a mostly untold history.

The Buck Rock Tunnel was only partially carved into opposite ends of Buck Rock Mountain, about four miles northeast of Interstate 5’s Siskiyou Summit, which connects Oregon and California. Beginning Aug. 17, 1883, Chinese laborers worked to excavate tunnels from Buck Rock’s east and west ends — intended to serve as a passage for Oregon and California Railroad trains.

It never happened. Financial woes caused work to halt Feb. 8, 1884.

It’s an easy 5.5-mile roundtrip hike to the tunnel’s east entrance, where workers used hand drills and blasting caps to carve a hole in the hill about 200 feet deep before work was abandoned. Because of its remote location — located within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument — the east entrance, and the west entrance, have been little visited.

That’s changing. The Bureau of Land Management’s Medford District is coordinating efforts with Southern Oregon University’s Laboratory of Anthropology to develop a self-guided, interpretive trail.

“We look forward to making the trail more accessible and interpretative,” explained Chelsea Rose, a staff archaeologist for SOU’s Laboratory of Anthropology.

And, because the area has cell coverage, “the goal is to not only have physical signs and an obvious trail but also a web presence.” Hikers will be able to use cellphones to listen to explanations about the trail and its history.

“It definitely helps to have some interpretation,” she says of informing visitors about what they are seeing and experiencing.

Following an informational webinar presentation July 31, Rose led groups of hikers to the tunnel for on-site talks. Along with encouraging trail use to the tunnel, the major goal is to inform visitors on the history of Chinese laborers at Buck Rock along with many other railroad-related projects.

“We just want to know what daily life was like for Chinese immigration workers,” she said of learning about life for the crews of laborers, who mostly came from southern China.

BLM archaeologists have been gathering remnants. On the hike sponsored by SOU and BLM, tables were set up along the trail — really an old logging road — with a sampling of items found near the Buck Mountain camps and other sites. Drawing the most interest was a J.H. Cutter bourbon bottle from a Portland distillery. Other finds included pieces of stoneware used as containers for soy sauce and other oils, tin cans and small spikes that were hammered into tunnel walls and used to hold lighted candles.

When the tunnel construction stopped, Rose said, work crews simply left things in place and departed. Although some objects were likely taken by visitors over the decades, many remnants — including parts of lanterns, boots, opium containers, stoves and clothing — have been preserved. She also said investigations have revealed that crews lived and worked on site, not in permanent structures.

Rose says the goal is to “provide important information on how railroads were built on the human level,” referring to the role of Chinese laborers. And, of the interpretive trail and the tunnel, “This is a way to look at it on the ground.”

When actual development of the trail will happen is uncertain. Lisa Rice, the BLM Medford District’s archaeologist, said the project “will need to be considered through a National Environmental Policy Act planning process, and transportation planning will need to occur prior to any road-to-trail designation changes. We do not currently have a time frame for this NEPA planning and transportation management. In the interim, we are offering limited interpretive hikes for the public until we can formalize the trail.”

In addition, Rice said BLM is working with SOU’s Laboratory of Anthropology on “creating a hub for the Southern Oregon Chinese Archaeology Project, which will allow the public to tour sites online and get information about the history of Chinese in Oregon.”

To get there from Ashland, take the Green Springs Highway, Highway 66, past Emigrant Lake. Turn right on Buckhorn Springs Road, and in a quarter-mile turn right on dirt road 39-2E-34. Continue on the sometimes bumpy road uphill into the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and, after about 2.5 miles, a parking area with room for a dozen cars and an official Buck Rock sign.

From the parking area, cross the road and head around the yellow pipe gate. The first half-mile is uphill and reaches a definite ‘Y’. Go right, and in less than half-mile there will be another ‘Y’. Go right, and in another half-mile there will be a small trail to the left, and the day we went, rocks formed into an arrow. Follow the trail uphill into the pines and brush to wide trench — the mouth of the tunnel.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.