Save a tunnel, gain historic ambiance
Appeal Staff Writer
Along the Virginia & Truckee Railway right-of-way, in the desert of Lyon County, is an archway carved into a small mountain dotted by piñon pines.
Nearby roads are traveled by few, mainly those coming to clandestinely dump garbage in the nearest mine shaft. The desert stillness is broken only by rocks and dirt occasionally caving into a gaping hole at the top of the archway.
This is Tunnel No. 2. The original 566-foot-long tunnel burned in 1872, ignited by sparks from a passing locomotive. It was reconstructed 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. Declared a public hazard, the tunnel was dynamited shut around 1970.
The tunnel is where V&T officials hope to run a $420,000 steam locomotive carrying tourists between Carson City and Virginia City. The endeavor 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.
But even after the west side of the tunnel was opened in late August by a team of engineers and specialists, no one is yet sure it can be rebuilt.
The fate of the tunnel is as mysterious to the public as its dark recesses. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Folks raised in Storey and Lyon counties, off-roaders and desert wanderers have undoubtedly seen it.
Some know the history, some don’t. Others mistake it as a mining scar. This is the Comstock, after all. Historic and active mining claims surround the tunnel.
Even though the opening and possible daylighting of the tunnel is a public project, the public has purposely been kept in the dark. Geotechnical engineer Gary Luce, who heads the Tunnel 2 project, is worried people will get curious, come snooping and get hurt – badly. Then the Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railway would be liable.
“It’s not a safe excavation,” Luce said.
On Aug. 30, the tunnel looked like a construction site. A Caterpillar front-loader pulled bucketloads of dirt and rock from the 18- by 14-foot west portal, the side closest to Virginia City. Dust swept out the gaping hole in the top like a chimney. The hole was left by the dynamite blast that closed the tunnel after the ’69 fire. Excavated timbers from the original V&T tunnel frame were piled near the entrance. Spikes, a piece of drill steel and L-shaped ties were also found in the tunnel.
Today the tunnel entrance is covered by rocks and a gate. The area is surrounded by a fence and “No Trespassing” signs. The old blast hole is the opening archway, about 60 feet back from where it had been.
From this excavation engineers know that about 80 percent of the tunnel is standing. They don’t yet know the condition of the east portal, closest to Carson City.
“We got within 100 feet of the opening but we ran into a big collapse so we couldn’t tell how much of it was standing or not,” Luce said. “We’re putting in applications now to try and excavate the other portal. The first exploration was to determine if we had a tunnel and, yes, we have a tunnel.”
A small portion of it may have to be daylighted, which means removing the top, but that’s still unknown. One option was always to go around the whole thing – but that’s the last resort. Luce said there are many problems associated with that option. The grade around the tunnel is steep. On the other side of the tunnel is a small canyon, roughly half the size of the Overman Pit, that would have to be filled. A retaining wall could be built, but that would be big money.
“I hope we can save the tunnel,” said V&T commissioner and Carson City Mayor Marv Teixeira. “That’s an added ambiance to the ride and we can’t go around it. We have to go through a tunnel or daylight it and go through. We’d like to save it.”
Since 1970 only Luce and his team have entered that tunnel to collect geologic data. His report is brief: The entire inside of the tunnel is coated with charcoal. The inside contains burned timbers and pieces of tin lining.
And it’s dark.
Tunnel 2 history
Construction on the original V&T Railroad began at the American Flat tunnel, or Tunnel 2, in February 1869 because it was the biggest obstacle in the way of the train, according to 71-year-old V&T expert Dale Darney.
It wasn’t called Tunnel 2 at the time because rail officials used site designations. When the Reno tunnel was built in 1872, that became Tunnel 1 and the American Flat tunnel became 2, even though it was built first.
“They started with 40 men working, and by the end of the month they had 1,500 men working on the entire railroad and 400 on the tunnel,” Darney said.
By July 1869 the 20-foot-high by 14-foot-wide tunnel was holed out and “a man could walk from one end to another.” They worked on the tunnel until August, stopped briefly because the rail hadn’t arrived yet, and then continued in early September.
The tunnel was completed in mid-September and the construction train ran through Nov. 16 after laying the new rail. The entire railroad was completed in 1869.
The legendary fire that first destroyed the American Flat tunnel was believed to have been started by sparks from a locomotive that ignited the interior wood frame. Darney said the fire was discovered Oct. 17 by John Bartholomew, engineer of the No. 11 Reno.
“He entered one end and found the other end burning and it was too late to stop, so he kept going,” Darney said. “And he was successful.”
It took a week to extinguish the fire. The 566-foot long tunnel was a dangerous place for a fire. It repeatedly sparked and the ends collapsed, keeping firefighters from reaching the blaze.
Until it reopened on Dec. 16, the engine had to go around the hillside using temporary tracks. Horses pulled the freight cars around, Darney said.
The Reno tunnel was built, which became Tunnel 1. This collapsed tunnel can still be seen from Highway 395 on the Carson City side near the Washoe County and Carson City border on the top of Lakeview Hill.
The last train ran through Tunnel 2 before the line was abandoned and the tracks pulled.
1969 and/or 1970
For most of the year the tunnel was open, except the portal facing Carson City. Darney remembers because he had walked in it and taken a picture of it from the outside three weeks before the second fire broke out, which led to the closing. The cause of the fire is a mystery. Darney said he heard it was from a “beer bust.” The V&T commission has repeated the rumor that a hippie family lived there and caught the inside on fire.
There are contradicting stories on which collapsed first – the east or west portal. Some engineers associated with the project believe the east portal, which faces Carson City, could’ve naturally collapsed or collapsed because passersby scavenged the timbers. The tunnel is mostly on Bureau of Land Management property.
BLM spokesman Mark Struble said he was told that both ends of the tunnel were dropped at the same time because of the fire. Nobody seems to know who flipped the final switch on the tunnel.
“Back then no one had the vision to put the V&T back into service,” Struble said. “It wasn’t a BLM action. Probably the fire department decided to do it to help put the fire out and keep it from being a future safety hazard, but that was four or five decades ago.”
V&T Management, a nearby property owner, owns a small section, maybe about 100 feet, of the west entrance, said the company’s former president Julius Bunkowski.
— Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.