The Tunnels of Subterranean Duluth

Forgotten Train Tunnels

Downtown’s Soo Line Tunnel

Construction began on the Wisconsin Central Railway terminal at 602 West Superior Street in early 1907, when the company was relatively small, only operating on about 1,300 miles of track. The station was Romanesque in design and just two stories in height, but engineered to bear the weight of additional levels if traffic demanded more capacity.

Bringing trains into the middle of downtown was not straightforward. To carry service to its new platforms, Wisconsin Central planned a 1,600-foot long tunnel. It would be 16 feet wide, 22 feet tall, and run 16 feet below the height of Superior Street.

Workers began excavating stone from both sides in November 1907 using explosives and air hammers. Shortly after excavation began, the Soo Line Railway acquired most of the shares of the Wisconsin Central and took control of the tunneling operations. It would now be the Soo Line Tunnel for the Soo Line Depot.

A 1961 view of the depot. Notice that the trains are below street level.

The two crews met in late 1909, uniting the two halves of the project, with plenty of time to lay track for the station’s opening, set for June 17, 1910. All told, the last mile from the yard to the new depot cost $2.5 million: the bottom line of removing more than 50,000 cubic yards of rock. The superintendent in charge of blasting made a slight miscalculation, and the two tunnels did not meet as planned. The mistake was corrected at significant cost: money, labor, and the superintendent’s life, by suicide.

The first train through the new tunnel. (Duluth Public Library)

The Soo Line Tunnel made little news, except for an almost continuous stream of complaints of ever-worsening street conditions above the tunnel, which the railroad was aggravatingly slow to address.

Aside from this, there were a few colorful incidents. Once, in 1915, a conductor found a strange man passed-out in the tunnel. The railman reportedly told the police, “There’s a man down in the tunnel here with all Ireland in his voice and he is as black as Africa. Come and get him.” According to the report, “he was too dirty to be handled; so dirty, in fact, not a white or light spot showed on him… even his hair had ‘lost’ its color.” He was later identified as Rod Ogra, and held for drunkenness, after a long rest at Police Headquarters.

Another dramatic moment for the Soo Line Tunnel came on November 6, 1922, when Duluthian Ralph Marotta’s car brakes failed, sending him hurtling toward the tunnel’s eastern portal. Thankfully, the vehicle became partly lodged on the fence over the tunnel, causing Marotta and the car to teeter, balancing on the edge of a big fall. It gave Marotta just enough time to crawl to safety.

In another incident in 1909, a train crew member was struck and killed by a falling rock while he was clearing the tunnel ceiling; he was on a ladder and could not move out of the way. The Soo Line Tunnel was also the site of another suicide when a depressed homeless man shot himself above its east portal. He would die a half hour later in a hospital bed.

By 1964, the terminal sat vacant and awaited demolition when it was evaluated for reuse to become the Saint Louis County Heritage and Arts Center. Sadly, though, its long period of neglect ultimately doomed the building. A flooded basement undermined the depot’s foundation, influencing city planners to push the project into the Union Depot—then slated for demolition—where the Center remains today.

Duluth’s Soo Line Depot was razed in 1972 as part of the Gateway Urban Renewal Project. It was then that the tunnel was filled, destined to forgotten. Today the west portal is buried under a retaining wall below West Superior Street near the Glen Place Apartments; the east portal is under the middle of Gateway Plaza near Gateway Tower and the Union Depot’s parking ramp.

DWP Short Line Park Tunnel

There are two ways to get to the other side of Duluth’s hills, said the rail man to the dock man: over, and through. The Duluth, Mesabi & Iron Range Railroad delivered iron ore to the West Duluth ore docks through its yards in Proctor—essentially, over the hill. This left the Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific (DWP) with the second option when it arrived in Duluth in 1910.

Because Duluth is surrounded by glacial cliffs formed out of basalt and granite, it would be no easy task for the DWP to link its iron ore yards in Virginia, Minn., with its planned yards in West Duluth. While engineers cut many trenches as the grade arose, one section of rock had to be bored through completely. For this tunnel, the DWP contracted Wick O’Connell & Company of Houghton, Mich., to cut and blast a two-track-wide hole through solid granite roughly 20 miles from downtown Duluth.

About 60 men worked from both sides of what any Minnesotan would call a mountain, near a rail stop known as Short Line Park and Nopeming Sanatorium. The tunnel would have to be about 500 feet long to match the grade on both sides and 18 feet wide to accommodate two sets of track. To make things more complicated, the tunnel would have to include a seven-degree curve through it to match the swing of the ridgeline, or the tunnel would open to a shear cliff face.

Work began in August 1910 with a mix of drills, hammers, rock bars, and dynamite. A News Tribune writer described what he saw as crews worked to shatter one layer of the granite at a time: “There is a cry of warning, the men scurry to cover, and with a roar that shakes the ground for a mile, a section of the hillside is rent in fragments and scattered far and wide.”

Posing for scale–I’m over 6 feet tall, by the way.

Progress was an incredibly tedious 10 feet per day as autumn turned to winter. Waste rock removed from the tunnel was used to help smooth the bed for the rails that would lead to the city. As the work around the tunnel was coming to an end in the spring of 1911, its completion became a priority. In the final months, the number of men on site doubled. Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific was aiming for an August 15th opening date, but that marker came and went as fast as a lit stick of dynamite.

Finally, in late September, the tunnel was properly conditioned for track to be laid. As the size of the tunnel would not allow the track laying equipment to operate inside of it, the tracks were laid by hand.

The Superior Hiking Trail is in place of the DWP tracks today.

The tunnel saw heavy use through the 1980s until, thanks to a merger with Canadian National RR (CN), it fell into disuse. When CN took management over all DWP assets in 1996, the tunnel was abandoned. Now, nearly all ore going through Duluth’s ore docks, also operated by CN today, passes through Proctor.

DWP’s former grade along Ely’s Peak, including this huge tunnel, are now publicly viewable as part of the Superior Hiking Trail.

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Story by Dan Turner. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Dan Turner. Or, visit Dan's website, http://substreet.org/.