LS: HISTORY HERE AND NOW, November 27, 2009

1884 Bridgeport tunnel still used by railroad

DAVID McDONALD/Special to the Sentinel
Bridgeport Tunnel was built in the winter of 1883 and 1884.

The existence of the Bridgeport railroad tunnel, built in the late 1800s, was news to me until I learned of it from John Hocker, a longtime Grand Junction resident and Air Force retiree.

John e-mailed me, asking if I would be interested in reading about the tunnel. When I told him I would be, John brought me two stories from the Grand Junction News, one published in December 1883 and the other in February 1884.

I liked this bit of history so much I wanted to share it with Daily Sentinel readers.

The tunnel was started on Sept. 15, 1883. Apparently this important leg of the railroad had gone mostly unnoticed for the first three months of construction until the Denver News ran a story, which was picked up by the Grand Junction News in December of 1883.

As the builders pushed the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad west toward Utah, they debated whether it might be necessary to construct a series of bridges about 25 miles east of Grand Junction on the Gunnison River. This portion of the Gunnison River is extremely twisty as it flows downstream through a wall of solid, red sandstone cliffs.

With the spring runoff of 1883, the builders realized that there were only two choices to handle this section of the raging Gunnison River. One choice would be to build six iron bridges that would rest on solid rock piers sunk into bedrock. However, there would be no guarantee that the bridges could withstand the strain of high, fast-flowing water, and one or more might be washed away. The alternative was to bore through the red sandstone, making a tunnel to complete the line.

The decision was made to build the tunnel.

The first step was making an incline bore down to the center of the line of the proposed tunnel and opening each way so that the tunnel could be worked both from the west and east. The cliff was so sheer that when the first shots were put in the men had to be lowered by rope down the 500-foot cliff.

 The Grand Junction News reporter who was on site the day east met west in the tunnel described the scene:

“The opening is 16x20 feet and is carved in solid rock. On all sides men were working, some drilling, some using the pick and shovel. Seven hundred feet from the western entrance was an incline. A track ran to that point and the rocks were loaded in carts then pushed out and dumped.

“Twelve-foot holes were drilled in the form of a wedge and it was hoped that this would blow the hole through the remainder of the wall. The crew on the east side had done the same thing and each was waiting for the other to set off their blast so their crew would be the ones who broke through.

“The blast on the west side didn’t make the hole nor did the one on the east, however both produced great volumes of dust shooting out of each end of the tunnel.

“The men on the west side quickly went into action drilling 11 more holes, filled them with powder and at exactly five minutes after 3 p.m. On Feb. 10, 1884, the blast went off, the dust cleared and lamp light could be seen from the east side and the men were shouting and dancing around like lords in celebration.”

The  tunnel was 2,256 feet long and, at the time of it completion, was the longest in the state of Colorado.

One thousand men worked in 11-hour shifts to complete the tunnel in an impressive five months. A main camp was set up at the construction site for the workers. Although much of the work was done in midwinter, the weather didn’t slow the workers down because they were underground.

The tunnel is 125 years old and still in use by the railroad.

Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel and involved in many preservation efforts, including the Avalon Theatre, the railroad depot and the North Seventh Street Historic Residential District.

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