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HomeNL-2010-05 Rio Grande RR Tunnel

Rio Grande River - Railroad Tunnel
March 27, 2010
by John Rich

For four days at the end of March a trio of Houston Canoe Club members; Louis  Aulbach, Linda Gorski and John Rich, traveled to Comstock, Texas, to do some volunteer work for the Shumla School. The event was an international conference on ancient rock art by an organization called ARARA, and the Shumla School experts were arranging hikes for the attendees to see local Pecos River area cave art. Linda assisted with organization of the operations, Louis and John served as assistant guides to help the members over the rough terrain on the hikes. 

But, while we may have put down our paddles long enough to help out on land, we did have two free days on our own. And one of those free days was spent paddling from the Pecos River, to the confluence with the Rio Grande River, and then upstream to an 1880's railroad tunnel, 1500-feet long, carved out of solid rock. 

There are many reasons why people paddle - scenery, wildlife, exercise and friendship are just a few. Another good reason that I really enjoy is... History! And that's what this paddle was all about. While it had all those other elements too, the main purpose was to go visit a site in a place that is accessible only by boat, in order to appreciate the amazing history of it. 

   Location within Texas

The location of this historic railroad tunnel is on the side of a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande River, three miles west of the junction with the Pecos River. (See the red star on the map to the right.) To get there from Houston, you simply drive west on Interstate-10, and when you get to San Antonio, you continue west on Highway 90. That takes you all the way out through Del Rio and to the turn-off for the Pecos River boat ramp. The drive can be done in six hours, and Seminole Canyon State Park is only a few miles away, providing a convenient camp site. 

Road and River map   

This map (left) shows you the detail of the area, and relationship of the highway, the State Park, the rivers, and the railroad tunnel. From the Pecos River boat ramp, it is about a half-mile down to the Rio Grande, and from there about three miles "upstream" to the railroad tunnel. Now, you're probably wondering why I put the word "upstream" in quotes. This part of the Rio Grande can be considered part of Lake Amistad, which backs up behind a dam in Del Rio at the border with Mexico. So the Rio Grande River at this point isn't really flowing, its actually lake water. The same is true of the Pecos in this area. You have to go a dozen or so miles upstream on either before you get to naturally flowing river water. At least that's true right now, often the water level behind the dam is high. In recent years past, low water had made these parts of the rivers look much like they did historically, just like when the railroad line was built. Back then, the canyons were deeper, and the river more narrow down at the bottom of 
the canyon. 

   Terrain close-up map

This terrain map (right) zooms-in to give you an idea of the topography. For orientation, the U.S. is on the right, and Mexico on the left. The Pecos flows into the Rio Grande at the bottom-right from right to left, and the Rio Grande "flows" from top-left to bottom-center. The rail line had to not only follow a precarious route along the cliffs, but also had to span all the deep canyons with bridges, and then bore through a limestone mountain that was in the way. It was the most expensive section of railroad line ever built, at the time. So why did they choose such difficult terrain to cross? For that answer, we'll need a quick history lesson. 

At that time in American history, the race was on to build trans-continental railroad routes running east-and-west across America. There were two routes used: The northern route cut through the Rockies running from Missouri to northern California. They built from east to west, as well as from west to east, simultaneously. And where the two lines joined up to complete the transcontinental crossing in 1869, a gold spike was driven as the last spike to complete the rail line. Likewise, a second route was built to cross the country, running from Houston to Southern California through the desert around the southern end of the Rockies. Once again, being built from both directions at once, and reaching completion right here in Texas 14 years later. 

The preferred path for the southern route would have been to cross the Pecos River a few miles upstream from the Rio Grande River, where the canyons are more narrow and less deep. However, the Pecos was still a formidable obstacle: the river canyon was 321 feet deep and 2,180 feet wide. There was no bridge-building technology yet in existence at the time to span such a chasm. Their only alternative was to route the rail line south to the Rio Grande, go downhill along the side of the cliffs, cross the Pecos with a low bridge, then climb back up the cliffs on the other side of the Pecos, back up to the top of the desert mesa. 

This path required the construction of many bridges to span side canyons which  entered the Rio Grande, and to obtain an acceptable grade for the rail line, it was necessary to build two railroad tunnels, each 1,500-feet long. Work on the tunnels began in December, 1881, with a 500-man crew, cutting holes in the rock by hand with chisels and sledge hammers, inserting explosives, and blasting away the rock. Men were killed in mis-timed blasts, and were called "tunnel unfortunates". The workers were paid from $2.00 - $2.50 daily for this dangerous work. It took roughly 500 50-lb kegs of black powder per mile of rock work construction. The railroad tunnels were completed in July, 1882, becoming the first railroad tunnels ever built in Texas. The completion of this second trans-continental railroad route was celebrated with the pounding of a silver spike, to symbolize the finish of the work. The joining of the east-west tracks took place on a bridge over a canyon, just a mile east of the No. 2 railroad tunnel. 

Engineering grade map     Period tunnel photo     Silver spike ceremony


That's enough of the history lesson - now its time to go see what the area looks like today. 

Pecos River / Amistad Lake
boat ramp


The weather forecast looked good for one of our tvvo days off from volunteer duties, so we took advantage of it for our canoe trip. The day was to start with calm winds, with higher winds in the afternoon coming from the northwest. As long as we got to the tunnel before the high winds, the wind would be at our backs on the return trip, and we wouldn't have to fight it. In this photo (right), you see our puny 15'8" tandem canoe at the boat ramp, alongside a power boat about to run up on their trailer for extraction. 

You can see the breadth and depth of the canyon, and in the background, the modern Highway 90 bridge across the Pecos. On the left side canyon wall you can see where the old road snaked up the side of the cliff, after crossing the river on a low bridge. The problem with those low bridges was that every time there was a large rainstorm, a gully-washer would come roaring down the canyon and wash them away. 

   Gargoyle watches
over the water 

As we paddle out of the Pecos to go around the corner into the Rio Grande, a beaked gargoyle seems to hang from the rock ready to attack. 

Around the corner into the Rio Grande, and three miles ahead is the tunnel mountain. This area is very popular with fishermen in high-speed boats, so we clung to the U.S. side, staying out of the center, and weaving our way hrough clumps of dead river cane sticking up out of the water. A border patrol airboat buzzed by like a jet airplane. None of them slowed down to show our small craft any courtesy from their wakes. Several times we turned our bow into the wakes rather than take them sideways. The rail bed is now underwater in the Pecos River area, but after about a mile of paddling, you could see it rise out of the water and begin its climb alongside the cliff. Some of it was built atop natural talus and the rest was blasted out of the side of the cliff. The further we paddled the higher the rail bed climbed above the water. After crossing that last canyon on a bridge, the rail line actually ducked behind that first ridge, before starting to tunnel through the mountain. 

Here we are entering a watery cove at the canyon on the east end of the tunnel, to park our boat and begin our hike. The rail line goes through that cleft between the finger ridge on the left, and the cave shelter on the right. You can see a bridge footing still there, which supported the bridge structure spanning the canyon.

Tunnel mountain
     Cove at east
end of tunnel

We huffed and puffed our way up the hillside from the cove, to arrive at the rail bed. In this photo (right) you can see the bridge footing, the narrow rail bed alongside the cliff on the other side of the canyon, and the Rio Grande below. This must have been quite an exciting train ride! 

After beating our way through the dense, thorny brush which has grown up on the rail-bed, we're into the entrance!

Bridge footing overlook-
ing Rio Grande River
    Tunnel entrance     Inside the tunnel

The tunnel seems barely wide enough for a train to fit through. I suppose that as a train-rider, you didn't want to stick your arm out the window at this point. The ceiling is still dark from the exhaust soot of the coal-fired, steam-powered trains that ran this route 120 years ago. The trains had to stop every 30-miles to replenish their engine's water supply, making for slow progress by today's standards. We had brought along flashlights to light our way through the tunnel. It was 1,500 feet long - three-tenths of a mile, and curved with the curvature of the river, so there were stretches that were pitch black with no light visible from the other end. You couldn't see the person walking along right beside you. The tunnel contained some animal bones, most notably a goat skull, complete with horns. The devilish sight lent a creepy feel to the darkness. The surface of the floor was covered in several inches of bat guano, but it didn't really smell bad - it was just like soft, rich soil. No bats were present hanging from the ceiling, as it was not their season here. But it was fairly obvious that they occupy this tunnel for at least part of the year. 

Because of the tunnel's length, the engineers cut two horizontal air shafts from the river into the tunnel. Here you see my fellow hiker silhouetted against the sunlight where the air shaft opens up over the river. 

And here (right) you see the outside of the air shaft. The workers took advantage of a natural cave in the side of the cliff, starting the shaft from there, to save themselves some digging through solid rock. 


Air shaft, from
inside looking out
    Air shaft, from
outside looking in

Bore holes for
explosive powder


The explosives holes vhich the workers dug by hand with chisels and sledge hammers were visible everywhere. These holes were then packed with gunpowder, and a fuse lit, followed by fast scurrying to get out of the way. A chunk of rock would be blasted off to shape the tunnel or air shaft, and then the debris removed and dumped over the side of the cliff. 

   Carved inscription

Another feature of this tunnel was the carving of many names and dates into the rock walls, mostly where sunlight was present at the entrances on both ends. This one reads; "J. Clark 1883", the earliest one we saw, and was done only one year after completion of the tunnel. Mr. Clark didn't plan ahead very well, and started running out of room near the end. Other names and dates covered virtually every decade since. 

Tunnel exit    

And finally, after hiking through the darkness, and past two air shafts, we could see literally "the light at the end of the tunnel". This photo shows the west end, where the rail bed once again resumes its course alongside the cliff. 

And with that, our adventure back through time was complete. We hiked back through the tunnel to the boat, and found that the predicted high winds had in fact arrived, in full force. In our little cove the winds were blowing about 40 mph, blowing our hats off and the boat sideways, and we feared we might be in trouble even though the winds would be at our back. But we reasoned that the wind speed was only being magnified because of the little canyon we were in, and would subside once we exited out onto open water again. Fortunately for us, that turned out to be true. Although the winds were still about 20 mph, kicking up a chop on the surface, and occasionally a set of waves would pass by that rose as high as the gunwales. But the wind was at our back as forecast, and other than the waves, did not present a problem. We returned to the boat ramp, safe and sound, following our same strategy of weaving through the reeds to stay away from the occasional speedboats. 

   Pecos River Viaduct

And now for "the rest of the story". Only 10 years after completion of this rail line, a "high bridge" was built for the railroad across the Pecos River, about three miles upstream from the Rio Grande. Bridge-building technology had finally progressed to make this possible. An engineering marvel at the time, the Pecos River Viaduct, as it was called, spanned 2,180 feet and towered 321 feet above the river.  

For years, the metal structure ranked as the highest bridge in the United States. This bridge eliminated the need for the treacherous Rio Grande River route, so the timbers, ties, spikes and rails from that section were dismantled and removed, to be re-used on the new route. This shortened the line by a considerable amount, making the route more direct and efficient.  The old rail bed has lain silent ever since, but the new route is still in active use to this day, with an even newer bridge. 

The author, John Rich
(Pecos River, Lewis Canon)