The Great Northern Railway Eight-Mile Tunnel is dedicated on January 12, 1929.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 1/06/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10705

On January 12, 1929, Great Northern Railway begins service through its newly constructed Eight-Mile Tunnel, running between Scenic (elevation 2,247 feet), on the west slope of the Cascade Mountains, and Berne (elevation 2,881 feet) on the east slope. The tunnel, bored through 7.8 miles of solid granite, is built in the record time of three years and costs $14 million to complete. Now called the Cascade Tunnel, it is owned and operated by the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway and remains the longest railroad tunnel in North America.

Smoke and Snow

The original Cascade Tunnel, 2.63-miles long, was built by the Great Northern Railway between 1897 and 1900. It was intended to eliminate persistent problems with a series of eight switchbacks laid over Stevens Pass (elevation 4,016 feet) in 1892. Winter posed the biggest challenge for the railroad where snowfall of 50 feet or more was not unusual. Avalanches sometimes delayed trains for days at a time until rotary snowplows and maintenance crews could clear the tracks. To keep trains operating on schedule, civil engineers found it necessary to protect the equipment with massive snow sheds. These cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to maintain and snowplows cost thousands more to operate.

The tunnel reduced expenses and traffic delays but there was a serious problem. It trapped the noxious smoke emanating from the coal-powered steam engines and became a major threat to train crews. In 1903, a train, carrying 103 passengers, stalled inside the tunnel and the engine crew lost consciousness while trying to rectify the problem. An alert fireman, deadheading to Seattle, saved all aboard by managing to release the brakes and coast the train out of the tunnel to safety.  The problem was finally eliminated in 1909 by electrifying three miles of trackage between Wellington Station (renamed Tye in 1910), at the west portal, and Cascade Tunnel Station at the east portal. These two stations had side tracks where steam locomotives were exchanged for Baldwin-Westinghouse Z-1 electric locomotives to pull the train through the tunnel.

But avalanches and landslides at both ends of the Cascade Tunnel continued to cause major difficulties. On March 1, 1910, an avalanche at Wellington destroyed two Great Northern trains and killed 96 people. It was one of the worst railroad disasters in American history and closed the route for three weeks.  On January 22, 1916, an avalanche struck a passenger train near Corea, killing eight people and injuring several others. To keep trains on schedule and bolster public confidence, Great Northern added more snow sheds along the route, increasing the annual cost of maintenance and repair.  By 1918, snow sheds and tunnels covered six miles of the nine miles of rails between Wellington and Scenic.

The New Tunnel

In 1921, Great Northern officials finally decided to bore a new Cascade Tunnel beneath Stevens Pass to eliminate wintertime difficulties. The project, officially known as The Great Northern Eight-Mile Tunnel, had been proposed in 1890 by civil engineer John F. Stevens (1853-1943) and ran 7.8 miles between Scenic (King County) on the west side of the of the Cascade Mountains and Berne (Chelan County) on the east side. Great Northern President James J. Hill (1838-1916) considered the cost prohibitive at the time, opting for the much shorter but higher (original) tunneling project. In hindsight, it proved to be a decision that over the ensuing years cost many lives and millions of dollars.   

Great Northern President Lewis W. Hill (1872-1948) finally authorized the new Cascade tunnel, 502 feet lower in elevation than the first tunnel, on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1925. Tunneling operations began 32 days later. The contract went to A. Gutherie and Company, Inc. of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and was due for completion within three years. It would be a single-track tunnel, 26 feet high, 18 feet wide, lined throughout with reinforced concrete and rigged for electric locomotives. Construction costs were initially estimated at $1 million per mile, exclusive of electrification expenses.

To Bore a Tunnel

Work started with crews clearing the right-of-way and building construction camps at Scenic and Berne, and one in the middle in Mill Creek valley. From the beginning, civil engineers realized that to complete the project within three years, it would be necessary to attack the projected route at several different locations simultaneously. To accomplish this, Gutherie recruited hundreds of hard-rock miners, mechanics, carpenters, electricians, and laborers from across the nation.

In January 1926, work began on the construction of a 622-foot vertical shaft at Mill Creek, two and a half miles from the east portal. When completed, the shaft would intersect with the tunnel route and create two additional working faces in the main bore. In February, miners began tunneling into the granite at Scenic and Berne. The plan called for the construction of a work tunnel, eight feet high and nine feet wide, running in advance of and parallel to the main route.  From it, 21 connecting passages would be dug to the main bore, creating an additional 42 working faces.  Although it necessitated the removal of more earth and rock, paradoxically it would speed up the work by facilitating the movement of men and materials into and out of the main tunnel.  The work tunnel would also carry pipes that furnished ventilation and compressed air for the pneumatic drills and shovels, and electric power lines for illumination, water pumps, conveyor belts, small work trains, and a host of other machinery. 

Once the drilling operations started, some 1,750 skilled workmen attacked the granite 24 hours a day, seven days a week in three shifts for 35 months. The advance crew drilled powder holes in the face of the granite, which were then packed with explosives. Special excavating equipment cleared away the loose rock and loaded it into ore cars, each capable of holding 50 cubic feet.  When a car was full, it was moved away and an empty car was lifted into position with a crane.  Each round took about five hours to complete and advanced the tunnel by eight feet. Five rounds in 24 hours was considered excellent progress.

After supporting the bore with heavy timber, finishing crews widened it to full size. Concreting of the walls began on Wednesday, April 27, 1927, and by the day of the east-west breakthrough, Saturday, October 20, 1928, 6.5 miles of the bore had already been lined. Another mile of the tunnel had been enlarged to full size and was ready to be walled. Mucking crew had had already removed the debris through connecting passages to the work tunnel, allowing concreting operations to advance without interference. Collapsible forms were placed in front of the timbered walls and the void was filled with cement. Once the concrete set, the forms were taken away and moved forward. The arch was made by pumping cement between steel forms and the timbered top heading, using a pneumatic gun. As distances from the mouth of the tunnel increased, sand, gravel and dry cement in correct quantities were loaded into rail cars and shuttled to the mobile mixing plant at the work site. Concrete was laid at a rate of about 400 feet per week.

On the heels of the cement layers came railroad construction workers, who laid down the roadbed and permanent trackage between Scenic and Berne, and the linemen and electricians who installed the overhead trolley wires and signals. The high-voltage power lines traveled through conduits embedded in the tunnel’s concrete walls. 

Meanwhile, Great Northern Railway had two major improvement projects due for completion at the same the time as the new Cascade Tunnel. The first project was the construction of new route, called the Chumstick Cut-Off, between Winton and Peshastin in Chelan County, which relocated 20 miles of trackage, eliminating six tunnels and eight miles of snow sheds on the east approach to Berne. The new roadbed was made from crushed rock from the tunneling project.  The second project was the electrification of 73 miles of track between Skykomish and Wenatchee. In 1928, Puget Sound Power and Light Company installed new power stations at Wenatchee and Skykomish, supplying 7,500 kilowatts of power for railroad operations over the new route. Great Northern also built a new repair shop at Appleyard Terminal in South Wenatchee to handle the maintenance on its eight new 259-ton, 3,300 horsepower, American Locomotive Company-General Electric Y-1 locomotives.

Death on the Job

Although site safety was paramount, the job of tunneling was inherently hazardous and cost the lives of a number of workers. The last fatalities, reported by the press, took place on Thursday, November 8, 1928, when two rock slides inside the tunnel killed four workmen.  The first slide occurred at 6:30 a.m. in the Mill Creek section of the bore, burying six men of a mucker crew.  Boulders crushed to death Gust Thomas (1899-1928), age 36, the straw boss, and gravely injured Justin C. Roberts (1881-1928) age 47, Andrew Wilson, (1899-1928) age 29, Joseph O’Neill, age 19, Barney Ray, age 21, and George P. Smith, age 26, all laborers. 

Four hours later, a smaller rock slide occurred at the Scenic portal, killing Pete Kobich (1890-1928) age 38, a laborer. All the victims were taken by special train to Seattle General Hospital, where both Roberts and Wilson succumbed to their injuries the following day. The Gutherie Company contracted with a Seattle mortuary to ship the remains of the four victims to relatives at company expense.

On Tuesday, November 13, 1928, William J. Jones, King County coroner, announced that no inquests would be held regarding the four fatalities. The decision was based on a report by a Washington State Department of Labor and Industries safety engineer who determined the deaths were entirely accidental. "During construction of the tunnel, these things have occurred with great frequency," said Dr. Jones. "Investigation in every case has disclosed that all possible safety measures have been taken. The geological formation of the ground through which the tunnel is being driven is such that these hazards exist. Slides cannot be foreseen nor compensated for with extra bracing of the bore in every case" ("Four Tunnel Deaths Called Accidental"). 

A Marvel of Engineering

The Great Northern Eight-Mile Tunnel (new Cascade Tunnel) was declared complete and fully functional on December 28, 1928, three days ahead of schedule. The official opening and dedication of the tunnel occurred on Saturday, January 12, 1929. The ceremony was broadcast live on the National Broadcasting Company network of radio stations. It began at 6:00 p.m. with President-elect Herbert C. Hoover (1874-1964) delivering a brief speech from his home at Washington D. C., reflecting on the significance to the nation of the momentous accomplishment.  Afterward, a special Oriental Limited passenger train, carrying hundreds of Great Northern officials, dignitaries, celebrities and prominent businessmen, entered the east portal at Berne. On board for the inaugural trip, were Washington State Governor Roland H. Hartley (1864-1952), John F. Stevens, the civil engineer for whom Stevens Pass was named, and Ralph Budd (1879-1962) president of the Great Northern Railway. The trip through the tunnel took 25 minutes.  Hundreds cheered as the passenger train exited the west portal and glided into Scenic for a celebratory banquet at the construction camp’s mess hall. The grand finale was the cutting of a giant cake portraying Great Northern’s new route through the Cascade Mountains in bas-relief.

Shortly before the dedication ceremonies began, the last Great Northern train climbed up the mountainside to Tye Station (formerly Wellington) and passed through the old Cascade Tunnel, heading east toward Spokane. The following day, the old tunnel was closed and the stations along the old route abandoned and later burned. The employees working at Tye, Embro (formerly Alvin), and Corea, and at Cascade Tunnel were reassigned to other stations in the railway’s Western Division.

The excavation of The Great Northern Eight-Mile Tunnel cost $14 million and the electrification of the route and relocation of 20 miles of track at the east approach to the tunnel added another $11.6 million. During construction, 750,000 electric blasting caps were used to fire approximately 2,500 tons of water-gel dynamite, manufactured at E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Company in Dupont (Pierce County), Washington. Some 923,000 cubic yards of rock and earth were removed from the bore, replaced by 264,000 cubic yards of concrete as lining for the tunnel. The fast construction of the new tunnel was considered a marvel of engineering, breaking all world records for completion of such projects. The new Cascade Tunnel remains the longest railroad tunnel in North America.

In 1956, electrification was removed and a powerful ventilation system was installed in the new Cascade Tunnel to allow the use of modern diesel-electric locomotives. Today (2014) the tunnel is owned and operated by the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad. The original Cascade Tunnel, abandoned in 1929, is now part of the eight-mile Iron Goat Trail, managed by the U.S. Forest Service with the assistance from the Volunteers for Outdoor Washington. 


Sources: Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Becky Wandell, The Iron Goat Trail (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1999); Railway Wonders of the World, Vol. 1, Part 2 ed. By Clarence Winchester (London: Amalgamated Press, 1935), 47-52; "Great Northern Begins Work on Cascade Tunnel," The Seattle Times, December 5, 1925, p. 1; "8-Mile Tunnel To Be Finished in 12 Months," Ibid., November 13, 1927, p. 2; "3 Men Dead, 4 Injured in G. N. Tunnel Rock Slides," Ibid., November 9, 1928, p. 2; "Tunnel-Slide Toll Increased to Four," Ibid., November 10, 1928, p. 2; "G.N. Tunnel To Be Completed December 28," Ibid., November 11, 1928, p. 5; "Four Tunnel Deaths Called Accidental," Ibid., November 13, 1928, p. 22; "First Train Will Traverse Great Tunnel Saturday," Ibid., January 6, 1929, p. 7; "State Leaders Join Tomorrow in Tunnel Fete," Ibid., January 11, 1929, p. 1; "First Train Makes Trip; Barrier to West Falls," Ibid., January 13, 1929, p. 1; "Slides Kill Three in Railway Tunnel," Oregonian, November 10, 1928, p. 1; "Tunnel Opening Date," Ibid., November 11, 1928, p. 10; "Records Set in Tunnel Construction by Cascade Bore of Great Northern," Ibid., December 9, 1928, p. 10; "Railway Proposes Faster Train Time," Ibid., December 29, 1928, p. 7; "Trains Use Giant Bore," Ibid., January 14, 1929, p. 2.

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