Lost Soo Line Tunnel
Duluth, MN

Construction began on the Wisconsin Central Railway terminal at 602 West Superior Street in early 1907, when the company was relatively small, only operating on about 1,300 miles of track. The station was Romanesque in design and just two stories in height, but engineered to bear the weight of additional levels if traffic demanded more capacity.

Bringing trains into the middle of downtown was not straightforward, however. To carry service to its new platforms, Wisconsin Central planned a 1,600-foot long tunnel. It would be 16-feet wide, 22-feet tall, and run 16-feet below the height of Superior Street.

A cross-sectional view of the tunnel, when it was still for the Wisconsin Central RR. Image from 'Engineering Record'.
A cross-sectional view of the tunnel, when it was still for the Wisconsin Central RR. Image from ‘Engineering Record’.

Workers began excavating stone from both sides in November 1907 using explosives and air hammers. Shortly after excavation began, the Soo Line Railway acquired most of the shares of the Wisconsin Central and took control of the tunneling operations. It would now be the Soo Line Tunnel for the Soo Line Depot.

The two crews met in late 1909, uniting the two halves of the project, with plenty of time to lay track for the station’s opening, set for June 17, 1910.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1907.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1907. Pre-depot.

All told, the last mile from the yard to the new depot cost $2.5 million: the cost of removing more than 50,000 cubic yards of rock. The superintendent in charge of blasting made a slight miscalculation, and the two tunnels did not meet as planned. The mistake was corrected at significant cost: money, labor, and the superintendent’s life by suicide.

The Soo Line Tunnel made little news, except for an almost continuous stream of complaints of ever-worsening street conditions above the tunnel, which the railroad was aggravatingly slow to address. Aside from this, there were a few colorful incidents. Once, in 1915, a conductor found a strange man passed-out in the tunnel.

The railman reportedly told the police, “There’s a man down in the tunnel here with all Ireland in his voice and he is as black as Africa. Come and get him.” According to the report, “he was too dirty to be handled; so dirty, in fact, not a white or light spot showed on him… even his hair had ‘lost’ its color.” He was later identified as Rod Ogra, and held for drunkenness, after a long rest at Police Headquarters.

The lost depot, Soo Line, seen in 1961. Duluth News Tribune shot.
The lost depot, Soo Line, seen in 1961. Duluth News Tribune shot.

Another dramatic moment for the Soo Line Tunnel came on November 6, 1922, when Ralph Marotta’s car brakes failed, sending him hurtling toward the tunnel’s eastern portal. Thankfully, the vehicle became partly lodged on the fence over the tunnel, causing Marotta and the car to teeter, balancing on the edge of a big fall. It gave Marotta just enough time to crawl to safety.

In another incident in 1909, a train crew member was struck and killed by a falling rock while he was clearing the tunnel ceiling; he was on a ladder and could not move out of the way. The Soo Line Tunnel was also the site of another suicide when a depressed homeless man shot himself above its east portal. He would die a half hour later in a hospital bed.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the tunnel and depot, once they were complete.
A closeup of the east portal of the tunnel. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.

By 1964, the terminal sat vacant and awaited demolition when it was evaluated for reuse to become the Saint Louis County Heritage and Arts Center. Sadly, though, its long period of neglect ultimately doomed the building. A flooded basement undermined the depot’s foundation, influencing city planners to push the project into the Union Depot—then slated for demolition—where the Center remains today.

Duluth’s Soo Line Depot was razed in 1972 as part of the Gateway Urban Renewal Project. It was then that the tunnel was filled, destined to forgotten. Today the west portal is buried under a retaining wall below West Superior Street near the Glen Place Apartments; the east portal is under the middle of Gateway Plaza near Gateway Tower and the Union Depot’s parking ramp.

DWP’s Short Line Tunnel through Ely’s Peak

Also see the former Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific Railroad tunnel through Ely’s Peak, sometimes called the Short Line Tunnel.

References »

"Duluth Passenger Terminal of The Wisconsin Central Railway." The Engineering Record 60.13 (1909): 357-59. Print.