Railroad workers started cutting through the andesite hill near American Flat 139 years ago. It took them about a year to cut through 500 feet, that would become tunnel No. 2, on the route used to transport precious ore from the Comstock Lode to the mills along the Carson River over the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.
This week, a new cadre of workers for the tourism rail industry is reinforcing that labor, which had been blown out, burned, and scavenged. Contractors have worked for about a year straight after reopening the tunnel in September 2005.
"We're working now at the same time they were," said Gary Luce, a senior engineer with Geocon Consultants. "But I think I'd rather have our gear and equipment than what they were dealing with."
With end-to-end of the historic tunnel opened, project engineers are looking forward to bringing the first train through the tunnel in about a year.
Standing at the gaping west geographic portal of the tunnel, Luce said Wednesday that this is a landmark accomplishment for all those involved - even those who did not live to see a locomotive pass through the tunnel once again.
The engineering team involved in the reconstruction of the V&T Railway lost surveyor Mike Donovan this week. Believed to have died from a heart attack, Donovan was a lifelong Comstock resident who first surveyed the reopened tunnel and parts of the first phase of construction. Phase I included reconstructing track from the Gold Hill Depot to American Flat.
"It's kind of heart-breaking," Luce said about Donovan's death.
Drilling reverberates inside the 350-foot tunnel and across a metal form that is being built to stabilize it. Jagged rocks and debris have been mucked out. Light streams in through clouds of dust stirred by workers bolting wire mesh to the interior rock walls that arch far above their heads. Excavators took out about 190 feet of the historic tunnel to find the openings.
The $1.5 million contract has been difficult because of the amount of falling rocks. But no accidents have occurred.
"I just want to ride on it once the train comes through," said Kelly Thompson, of Pinehurst, Idaho, a driller with Hardrock Tunnel Contractors Inc., of Vancouver, Canada.
Next week tunnel contractors will reinforce the tunnel lining with concrete. In 2010, tourists will pass through concrete portals on both ends treated with wood to give them a historic look, Luce said.
The entire tunnel No. 2 project is expect to cost about $3 million.
• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.