For years Highway 61’s most breathtaking moment was driving along the Silver Creek Cliff, formed by volcanic activity more than a million years ago. Before it became part of the trunk highway system in the 1920s, the road actually diverted inland several miles to avoid the cliff. When the trunk highway was built, workers dynamited a section of the cliff and used steam-powered bulldozers to clear the rock, which was then carried off by horse-drawn wagons. This allowed a narrow road to pass along the lake side of the cliff, forming a giant blind corner. Little more than a small barrier separated the road—and travelers—from a significant drop to the rocky shores below. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, boulders freed by erosion would often tumble down the side of the creek and onto the roadway.
The excitement ended in 1994 after a tunnel begun in 1991 was finally completed. The initial plan to make passing the Silver Creek Cliff safer involved widening the roadway to keep vehicles further from the edge, but engineers estimated that would have required the removal of 1.5 million cubic yards of rock. The tunnel required removing only 500,000 cubic yards, and it’s a stunning piece of engineering: 1,300 feet of roadway with tile-covered walls and continuous lighting, plus entry façades that complement the rocky hillside. The tunnel has made the passage much safer for drivers, particularly for the thousands of tourists—most of them unfamiliar with the highway’s twists and turns—who travel the road each year. Of course, there are many North Shore residents who feel the tunnel has stripped the roadway of some of its charms.
During the 1950s a family of billy goats set up home on the cliff after escaping from a nearby farm. They spent four years on the cliff, peacefully grazing for food until a bobcat killed the doe and a kid born earlier in the year. The local sheriff then shot the buck, thinking it the most humane thing to do.
Further up the road Lafayette Bluff Tunnel is the only other tunnel along Highway 61. The bluff is named for the steamer Lafayette, which went down along with the barge Manila (which it was towing) during the infamous storm of November 28, 1905.