A 'lost' tunnel revisited
by Joseph Popper
Early last month, a small group of surveyors and engineers found a buried doorway in the hillside near the corner of Eighth Street and Washington Avenue in Downtown Kansas City. When they opened the door, they walked into the past.
What they had uncovered was part of the filled-in entryway to a historic streetcar tunnel that runs through the high bluff above the West Bottoms.
The tunnel, built in 1888, had been essentially lost for 40 years. It was rediscovered by the engineers studying a proposed building site for the DST Realty Co.
"We knew it was there, but we weren't sure where," said Roy Leonard, a geotechnical engineer. "There were really no documents to help us find it."
They located the entry on Dec. 4. As they unsealed it, a rush of air rose from inside.
"The air coming from the tunnel was moist and humid, which created a fog as it met the cold winter air," wrote Leonard shortly after the event. "...It had the faint odor of rotting wood."
As Leonard and the others peered through the opening, they saw the tunnel floor far below. They saw glimpses of the intricate brickwork covering the tunnel walls.
The next day they returned with long ladders and made the descent.
"I was in awe of the whole thing," Leonard said. "When you're actually down inside the tunnel, you can't help but be impressed by what damn good construction they did more than 100 years ago."
Ties, rails remain
On Tuesday afternoon, a small group of visitors went through the same entry to explore the tunnel.
It was damp inside. Water dripped down the walls from natural springs in the bluff above. Ancient light bulbs, some perhaps 90 years old, dangled from wires on the high ceiling.
The old wires were bare in places and covered with cloth in others. They were linked at regular intervals to glass insulators.
Haunting flashes of brilliant red--the original color--were visible here and there in the intricate brickwork covering the walls and high vaulted ceiling.
A few rotting crossties lay about, still studded with old railroad spikes. The spikes are now an eerie white, heavily crusted with lime that has dripped down through the ceiling.
"There were still some old crossties in place when we opened it," said Tom McGee, a spokesman for DST Realty. "And pieces of steel rail down in the lower tunnel."
Born of competition
The tunnel was the brainchild of one D.M. Edgerton, a railroad magnate who built the first elevated line in this area.
By the mid 1880s, Edgerton's "el" was fighting a bitter "traction" war with Ninth Street Incline Co. The incline ran cable cars on a steep wooden structure, carrying passengers on a heart-stopping ride straight up and down the bluff.
Edgerton decided to undermine his competitors--literally. He formed a partnership with Robert Gillham, the young engineer who had built the incline. Now Edgerton asked Gillham to do something far more daring.
Gillham, a New Yorker, arrived in Kansas City in 1878 en route to Colorado, where, he said, he intended to do "something big."
But as he sat in the old train depot staring at the great bluff above the station, he saw his future in Kansas City.
His incline project was hailed as a triumph, but his tunnel plan, announced in 1887, was labeled "absurd," and "impossible." Gillham was unfazed.
On May 10, 1887, hundreds of workers wielding picks and shovels began digging into the bluff. They dug deep into the soft earth until they hit solid rock.
And then they blasted, using more than 25,000 pounds of dynamite in all.
They built the 810-foot tunnel in 348 days. They painstakingly covered the walls and 18-foot-high arched ceiling with heavy red bricks, backed by portland cement. They laid two lines of track. The total cost was $700,000. [missing line] weighed 36,000 pounds.
It was so massive because the tunnel was so steep--dropping 8½ feet for every 100 feet in length. The grade placed a great strain on the wire rope.
Too great a strain, as it turned out. Within three months the cable had to be replaced at a cost of $4,000. Maintaining the cable remained a problem for years.
To remedy the situation, a new tunnel was blasted out in 1903-04, this time at a gentler grade. It was bored directly beneath the first, intersecting it at the west end. The upper tunnel was closed.
In all, the tunnel was used for more than 60 years. Millions of passengers passed through it.
But it was abandoned in 1956 to make room for widened Downtown streets. Its great portals were sealed, the entry stations filled and forgotten.
Curiously, the city honored Gillham, who died in 1899, by naming a street after him.
At the western end of the tunnel, the portal is now plugged with cement. There is no noise there despite the fact that the interstate runs just beyond the sealed exit.
Strange pale-gray stalactites hang from the ceiling down in the lower tunnel. Weirdly shaped stalagmites climb from the floor. The impressions of the old crossties are still clearly visible in what remains of the gravel railroad bed.
Last week, as the tunnel tour climbed back toward the Washington Street exit, the silence was suddenly broken by an alarm that began shrieking behind them.
The oxygen may be getting a little thin with so many in here," said an electrician named Ron Gibbons.
Then, as the last of the visitors exited through the east doorway, Gibbons flipped a modern light switch and the old tunnel was returned again to the darkness of the living rock.
DST Realty says it intends to preserve the tunnel because of its historic importance. The site is not open to the public.