In digging for a tunnel entrance, the end is near
Appeal Staff Writer
Walking inside a former railroad tunnel last occupied by hippie squatters who brought about its explosive demise in the 1970s, isn’t as thrilling as one would think.
It’s actually a trying venture, said Gary Luce, a senior engineer with Geocon Consultants. He’s one of only nine people who have walked almost the entire length of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad tunnel 2 in Lyon County in more than 30 years.
That’s not counting those who have pulled back the barbed-wire fence (marked with a “Stay Out Stay Alive” sign) erected across the west entrance of the tunnel, scampered over fallen rocks and dared to peer into the darkness. The west portal is an impressive gash in the hillside, dotted with sagebrush and piñon pines. The opening is blocked by boulders the size of economy-class cars, placed there to keep people out.
Curiosity has proven insatiable, however. In January, Luce found two sets of footprints in the snow around the site.
The original 566-foot-long tunnel burned in 1872, ignited by sparks from a passing locomotive. It was reconstructed two months later for rail passage. After the line was abandoned, another fire broke out in the tunnel in 1969. According to local lore, it was started by hippie squatters. The tunnel was dynamited shut around 1970 after it was declared a public hazard.
State officials want to turn this public hazard into a historic spot along the V&T right-of-way, where they hope to run a $420,000 steam locomotive between Carson City and Virginia City.
Track has been laid from Gold Hill to American Flat. The tunnel reconstruction could cost up to $3 million, and project engineers see the tunnel passage as the best option to bring the train through the rugged terrain, which is why they are excavating it.
Luce calls tunnel 2 one of the first puzzles on the second phase of the project, which is 4.4 miles of the entire 18-mile tourist track.
But even after the west side of the tunnel that faces Virginia City was opened in late September, no one is yet absolutely sure it can be rebuilt. The excavation has already cost $40,000 and logged 400 worker hours.
Luce remains optimistic.
“I say there’s a train coming soon,” he said.
It took Luce and eight other workers, which included a mine-safety rescue team, about six hours to walk 400 feet into the tunnel before they reached a collapsed section. The Art Wilson Co. is working this week on the excavation of the east end.
The tunnel floor is littered with andesite rocks, which are angular and difficult to walk over, Luce said. As he marked the tunnel every 10 feet, he was also collecting fracture data.
Luce said he follows two important rules when walking inside a historic train tunnel:
“Don’t hammer on anything, and don’t all gather in one place,” he said.
After walking 280 feet into the depths, crew members had to climb on their hands and knees over a pile of debris that was 25 feet tall and about 50 feet across.
By Thursday afternoon the excavation into the east side of the collapsed tunnel had progressed, but there is still no sight of an opening.
“We are finding that at that the geographic east portal of the tunnel has collapsed at least 20-30 feet and maybe more,” Luce said. “We’ll continue to excavate to determine what portion of the tunnel is still intact in order to design a new portal.”
Workers could cut out the collapsed section, frame it and cover it with dirt, as a sort of imitation tunnel, if they don’t find an entrance, he said.
• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.