“There are two ways to get to the other side of Duluth’s hills”, said the rail man to the dock man: “Over, and through”.
The Duluth, Mesabi & Iron Range Railroad delivered iron ore to the West Duluth ore docks through its yards in Proctor—essentially, over the hill. This left the Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific (DWP) considering the second option when it arrived in Duluth in 1910.
Because Duluth is surrounded by glacial cliffs formed out of basalt and granite, it would be no easy task for the DWP to link its iron ore yards in Virginia, Minn., with its planned yards in West Duluth. While engineers cut many trenches as the grade arose, one section of rock had to be bored through completely. For this tunnel, the DWP contracted Wick O’Connell & Company of Houghton, Mich., to cut and blast a two-track-wide hole through solid granite roughly 20 miles from downtown Duluth.
About 60 men worked from both sides of what any Minnesotan would call a mountain, near a rail stop known as Short Line Park and Nopeming Sanatorium. The tunnel would have to be about 500 feet long to match the grade on both sides and 18 feet wide to accommodate two sets of track. To make things more complicated, the tunnel would have to include a seven-degree curve through it to match the swing of the ridge line the track had to follow.
Work began in August 1910 with a mix of drills, hammers, rock bars, and dynamite. A News Tribune writer described what he saw as crews worked to shatter one layer of the granite at a time:
“There is a cry of warning, the men scurry to cover, and with a roar that shakes the ground for a mile, a section of the hillside is rent in fragments and scattered far and wide.”
Progress was an incredibly tedious 10 feet per day as autumn turned to winter. Waste rock removed from the tunnel was used to help smooth the bed for the rails that would lead to the city. As the work around the tunnel was coming to an end in the spring of 1911, its completion became a priority. In the final months, the number of men on site doubled. Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific was aiming for an August 15th opening date, but that marker came and went as fast as a lit stick of dynamite.
Finally, in late September, the tunnel was properly conditioned for track to be laid. As the size of the tunnel would not allow the track laying equipment to operate inside of it, the tracks were laid by hand.
The tunnel saw heavy use through the 1980s until, thanks to a merger with Canadian National RR (CN), it fell into disuse. When CN took management over all DWP assets in 1996, the tunnel was abandoned. Now, nearly all ore going through Duluth’s ore docks, also operated by CN today, passes through Proctor.
DWP’s former grade along Ely’s Peak, including this huge tunnel, are now publicly viewable as part of the Superior Hiking Trail.
To check out the tunnel yourself:
1. From Highway 35, exit south on Midway Road.
2. Follow Midway Road 2.23 miles until you see a bridge. Right before you cross the bridge there’s a parking lot on the left side of the road.
3. If you pass 123rd Avenue, you’ve gone too far.
4. Remove valuables from your car and make sure it’s locked tight; there have been a few car break-ins here.
5. Follow the wood chip trail from the parking lot away from Midway/Becks Road toward the cliff face.
6. Take a right on the hiking trail at the top of the rail bed… follow this to the tunnel!
7. Enjoy, and watch your skull. Rocks fall often.