Today in Transportation History – 1886: The Stampede Was On to Build a Tunnel

Construction began on a tunnel for the Northern Pacific Railway in the Cascade Mountains of the Territory of Washington. (A little less than four years later, Washington became the 42nd state.) The site selected for the tunnel was just south of Stampede Pass. Work on the Stampede Tunnel commenced with the operation of hand drills on the eastern end of the planned structure; work on the western end began with hand drills that April.

Photo courtesy of Washington State Library, Ellensburg Heritage, TRN371

The ambitious project, which had been undertaken to help make train travel through the Cascades region a lot easier, attracted the attention of many beyond the Pacific Northwest. Over seven months after construction began, the British newspaper Iron reported that “the tunnel is being made at the rate of between 11 and 12 feet [3.4 to 3.7 meters] per day.” The newspaper also noted, “The rock is blasted away every six hours, and the debris loaded by gangs of men into cars and drawn out at the rate of 100 cubic yards [76.5 cubic meters] per day.”

An engineer named J.Q. Jamieson oversaw the project until October 1887. He was succeeded by Edwin Harrison McHenry, who later became chief engineer of the Northern Pacific Railway and then the Canadian Pacific Railway. McHenry remained in charge of the Stampede Tunnel construction project until the structure was completed. The contract for building the tunnel was awarded to Nelson Bennett. His brother Sidney J. Bennett was superintendent on the eastern end of the project, while N.B. Tunder served as the superintendent on the western end.

As an incentive for helping to get the Stampede Tunnel built on a timely basis, the Bennett brothers offered a prize of $1,000 to the first man to make his way through the bore where both ends of the tunnel met. In addition, the crew on the winner’s side would be treated to whiskey and a steak dinner. As it turned out, the worker coming from the west side butted heads with his counterpart on the eastern side while trying to get through the bore first on May 3, 1888. The westside man, who found himself bloodied as a result, was declared the winner.

At the time of its official debut just over three weeks later, the 1.86-mile (3.0-kilometer) Stampede Tunnel was the second longest U.S. tunnel. The Stampede Tunnel remains in service today and is operated by the Northern Pacific Railway’s successor BNSF Railway.

For more information on the Stampede Tunnel, please check out

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