Monday, November 3, 2014

 The Peninsula Tunnel

The North Portland Peninsula railroad tunnel is located between N Columbia Blvd (north portal) and Mock's Bottom (at the bottom of the cliff below Willamette Blvd).  It is owned and maintained by the Union Pacific Railroad.  The Oregon and Washington Railroad and Navigation Company built the one-mile long (5,425 feet) Peninsula Railroad Tunnel from 1909 to 1911. This concrete-lined tunnel, which cuts through the north Portland highlands, shortens freight movement north over the Columbia River to Washington State. The tunnel was originally lined with timber but was re-lined with concrete in 1916.  This was done because the tunnel had settled and lost about 2 feet of height within the first five-years of the tunnel being put into service. Before the tunnel was built, trains had to go around the bluff's of North Portland and under the St. John's Bridge.  The tunnel saved about 6 miles of track time for the trains and saved 20 mins of travel time for the passenger trains back in 1911.  The tunnel lies about 60 feet below the ground.

The Peninsula Tunnel was excavated from both ends with the use of 100 men.  The Pacific Bridge Co and the Portland Bridge and Building Co were the contractors.  The tunnel and approaches cost just under $1 million to construct at the time.  The worker's averaged about 15 feet of tunnel per day.  On the south side, the excavated dirt from the tunnel construction was used to build an elevated track platform that runs across Mock's Bottom.  At the time of construction, this was a wetlands (today it is filled in with industrial property). The tunnel was subsequently acquired by Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), and it is still in use 100 years later.

Picture above shows tunnel path (yellow line) 60 feet under the N Portland neighborhood.  On the surface, the RR tunnel is aligned directly under N Dana Avenue and also passes under Columbia Park (Annex).  At the top of the picture, you can see the unique diamond shaped junction (just above where the yellow line stops).  Also seen (upper left) is the North Portland railroad cut.  This is the dividing point of St Johns and the University Park, Portsmouth and Kenton neighborhoods.  It is interesting that the 2 railroad routes use different methods to traverse the area.  One route is an "open cut" rail line thru St. Johns while the other is underground, by the tunnel method. This was due to the public outcry during the construction of the St Johns "Cut".  There was so much opposition to the open cut railway that the railroad didn't have the strength to try a second cut thru North Portland and settled for a tunnel.

The North Tunnel Portal

Picture above is a view to the north above the north portal of the tunnel.  You can see the large diamond-shaped junction at the top of the picture. N Columbia Blvd passes right thru the junction.

The Peninsula Tunnel South Portal

 You can see daylight at the other end of the tunnel.

The south portal is surrounded by commercial and private property.  There is a large Budweiser distributing building adjacent to it, and it is fenced off.  The portal is just below Willamette Blvd.  There is a path leading down to it from Willamette Blvd. 

If you plan on visiting the south entrance, I recommend parking on N Woolsey Ave (next to Columbia Park) and taking the path down the hillside from Willamette Blvd.  Access is pretty easy, but the path is a little steep.

 Tunnel Time Line

1898  Union Pacific buys majority interest of OWRR&N 
1908  St Johns railroad cut completed
1908  St Johns RR bridge completed
1909  Work on tunnel begins 
1910  Austrian workman dies after being electrocuted by 2000 volts in the tunnel 
1911  Jan 15, the tunnel opens
1916  Tunnel re-lined with concrete
1922  Railway conductor dies due to gas fume inhalation inside tunnel
1936  Union Pacific absorbs OWRR&N
1979  Accident in tunnel involves 4 freight cars tipped over 
2010  9 year-old boy has foot run over by train in tunnel

Pictured below is a 1935 photo of Mock's Bottom/Swan Island.  On the upper left you can see the RR track enter into the side of the hill. This is the south entrance to the Peninsula Tunnel.  Note how the area was a wetlands prior to industrialization and the infill/buildup for the track.  I wonder if the tunnel ever flooded?  Also pictured is the old Swan Island Airport.  You can also see where the track splits showing the route of the trains before the tunnel was built.