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Gunnison Tunnel Series: How To Build A Tunnel, pt. 3

To view additional resources and information, click HERE.

How To Build A Tunnel
Episode 3 - Construction Gets Tough

  • It’s 5am Wednesday July 3rd, 1901. We’re  12,000 feet high in the San Juan mountains in a bunkhouse at the Smuggler-Union mine just Northeast of Telluride. There’s frost on the roof, even though it’s July. We’re truly in the alpine. 
  • Two miners Robert McCullum and his friend J. Lujan are sound asleep in their bunks. They’re awakened by the sound of gun-fire, just a few shots separated in time. Maybe someone was getting a mountain goat for dinner? 
  • Lujan was from Mexico, and ran tram carts in the mine, they called ‘em “trammers”. He, jumps from his bunk, and runs out to check it out what’s going on. McCullum, thinks twice, and decides to stay inside. Things have been tense lately and he plays it safe, rolls over and goes back to sleep.  
  • Lujan runs out to find his peers all non-union miners, facing off with a group of 25 union miners. The Smuggler-Union mine was operating during a miner  workers strike with laborers that had crossed the picket line. scab labor.  All Lujan’s non-union buddies had their rifles drawn, and he didn’t see any guns on the other side. It must have been his colleagues that had fired those first shots… into the air, into the ground trying to tell the union miners to get the BLEEP outta here and off the company property. The party of union miners retreated… walking backwards.  but as his peers walked back toward him, he could tell right away that something was wrong. They don’t look proud or victorious – they instead gesture down valley and to the ridgelines with their eyes – eyes that are full of terror. The valley the mine sits in is surrounded by hundreds of union minors every one of them of them with a rifle. Then he sees that one of his buddies (the nighttime shift boss, who had been recently deputized to the sheriff’s office, and armed by the mining company) – he was limping… bleeding… from the hip.
  • Lujan – suddenly grasping the full reality of the situation and realizing they’ve been ambushed, sprints back for his rifle, and just then…. The air ignites with bullets hissing through the air. The ground, the rocks, the buildings all suddenly shatter as bullets smack all around him. 
  • Back in the bunk house, McCullum jolts awake when the bullets start flying around him and he suddenly sees of daylight streaming through bullet holes in the tin roof. It sounds like there’s an entire army outside. He rolls off his bunk onto the floor and army crawls to a corner next to the foundation, for shelter.
  • Lujan, puts up a fight, returning fire as long as he's able, but ultimately pays the price and his body is riddled with bullets. 
  • The dramatic events of the morning are the culmination of a labor dispute that that’s been brewing for the last 63 days. The miner’s union has been on strike, since May 1st, demanding a uniform workday with minimum wage instead of the contract or piecework system that the mine owners preferred. Requests that we think of as fundamental rights today. 
  • But the rich and powerful mine owners, and a few desperately poor miners had had it with the stand-off and lack of work… So a superintendent of the Sumggler-Union mine opened the mine with non-union miners, or “scabs”. The superintendent knew the unions were capable of violence, and thus armed his scab workers, and swore several of them in as deputies of the town Sherrif, and the mine. 
  • This non-union or scab mine, had incensed the local union miners, and they prepared for war… ordering 250 rifles and 50,000 rounds of ammunition to be sent from Denver, all bought and paid for by the union. 
  • And on the night before this shoot-out the union sent 300 union miners with rifles, up to the Sumggler-Union mine. The men (now really a militia) surrounded the mine and it’s buildings, and at 5am sent what they claimed was an unarmed party of 25 union miners to persuade the scabs to stop work, and join the strike. Despite the union guys claims that their party of 25 was un-armed, the non-union shift boss was indeed shot in the hip. 
  • The Scabs having received strict instruction to keep the union miners off the property fired threatening shots into the air and into the ground tell the Union miners to buzz off. (They probably used more colorful language) 
  • But that was all the union needed. The 25 union members retreated to their ranks, and together the 300 member militia opened fire onto the mine camp. 

    • BANG BANG ricoshet
  • The shoot-out and stand-off lasted about 6 hours that morning, and ultimately ended with only three fatalities. A Non-union shift boss, 1 union militia member, and one brave (maybe foolish) non-union trammer names Lujan. 
  • After the non-union miners waived a white flag, The Union rounded up the 100 or so scab miners, Robert McCullum among them,  having crawled out from his shelter by the bumkhouse foundation, put white handkerchiefs in their hands and marched them over Imogene Pass to Ouray, telling them to never again return to Telluride or San Miguel county.
  • We’ll have to save the story of the labor dispute in Telluride for another podcast. But sneek peek – it didn’t go well for the union. They ended up being crushed when the Colorado Governor order in the National Guard, the first in a string of brazen, lawless, violent union busting efforts that spread through mining towns across the state – all sanctioned by Colorado’s railroad man turned Governor at the time James Bradley Orman. 
  • But Robert McCullum, went on with his life and ended up down in Montrose running a boarding house for surveyors of the Gunnison Tunnel. He was chief cook and bottle washer of the boarding house and later became postmaster of Lujane. Robert McCullum was a fixture in town and was credited with naming the settlement built for the Tunnel Construction near the West portal. He named it after his brave Mexican trammer buddy from Telluride that had been shot full of holes at the Sumggler-Union Mine in the summer of 1901.
  • They somehow added an E to the end of Lujan, casting doube to the pronunciation. I’ve found every pronunciation and discussions of them in the historical record. Lu-Jane,  Lu-wana, Lujuan. According to Elane Hale Jones, author of several books on the Uncompahgre Valley, residents used both Lu-wana, and Lu-Jane, but according to McCullums’s daughter…(about as close to the source as it gets), it’s Lu-wan. 
  • It’s kina funny… there seems to be a theme of dual pronunciations in the Uncompahgre Valley. 

    • Locals say Ouray – tourists Oo-ray
    • Old timers say Mont-rose – later arrivals say Montrose. 
    • People not from here say Oh-lathe locals say Olathe-uh 
  • Anyway the Town of Lu-Jane – the heart of the Gunnison Tunnel project was named for a Brave Mexican Trammer, murdered by an angry mob of strking miners high in the mountains of Telluride. 
  • My name is Brody Wilson, and I live in the Uncompahgre Valley. I’m a mechanical engineer here in Colorado, and work in corporate sustainability, but having grown up right next to the primary canal that carries Gunnison Tunnel Water, my life was shaped and infused, by the water that flows through this tunnel. This is the third of four episodes in which I’m telling you the story of the Gunnison Tunnel, and associated canals, collectively known as “The Uncompahgre Project”. In the last two episodes we covered the early survey work and initial construction challenges. (If you haven’t listened to those, I encourage you to do so before listening to this.) In this episode we’ll go deep on the actual construction and engineering, and continued challenges the project faced during construction. In our 4th and final episode we’ll cover the tunnels’ operation and impact on the valley today. 
  • I’m telling this story because most of us take our water for granted, and for those of us that live in the arid Western US, there’s a story like this behind every city, town, and agricultural valley in the west. And while water is sure to remain a crucial issue for decades to come in the Colorado River Basin, I think we’ll all make better decisions if we understand just how much has gone into enabling our water use, our way of life, today.
  • RECAP

    • Before we dive back into the tunnel construction - Let’s do a quick re-cap.
    • “Previously on “The Gunnison Tunnel”. 
    • Daring early survey efforts culminated with Torrence & Fellows determining that the Gunnison River was enough higher than the Uncompahgre River to irrigate the Uncompahgre valley, and that a tunnel was feasible. The US Geological Survey, created the US Reclamation Service, and one of theirs, Ira McConnel decided on the final location of the tunnel, and construction began, but the contractor they selected, wasn’t up to the task and folded after just 5 months of construction, and just three days after that, the tunnel experienced a devistating cave-in near the West portal, killing 6 men. The cave-in was the result of water from the Cimarron Ditch being routed on-top of the tunnel.
    •  One other item to keep you oriented here. Remember tunnel boring is happening in four places known as headings, “Headings”. Heading 1 from the East or River portal Headings 2 & 3 accessed via elevator from the main shaft heading 2 going east toward the canyon, and heading 3 going west toward the valley, and finally heading 4 from the valley, near Lujane, going east. 
  • HOW?

    • Now, if you’re like me… you might still be wondering how did they actually dig this thing? And if you’ve never been on a mine tour, you probably don’t have an accurate picture in your head. 
    • So let’s dive in. 
    • First there’s what’s called the “face” of the tunnel where the tunnel is being pushed forward, and of course as you dig, the material you’re removing falls off the tunnel face and on-to the floor, and somehow that material has to get OUT of the tunnel. Well, that’s the job of the “muckers”. These are the guys that shovel the material off the floor and into the cars. “The cars” are mining carts that sit on steel rails (like a small train), and carry 35 cubic feet (about 1.2 yards for the concrete folks listening). These cars were initially pulled by horses and mules, and after McConnell took over the job, by electric trams. Then the tram drivers would haul the carts out of the tunnel to where the material could be dumped. Nothing to it!
    • Well wait a minute – we also have to make sure this tunnel doesn’t collapse down on the workers. So like in a mine – they timbered. And by this we mean placing STRONG milled timbers (picture big railroad ties) in the proper dimensions. These hold out the earth that so desperately wants to cave-in on our tunnel.

      • They actually cut the timbers mostly from federal land up the big cimarron basin, not far from where the cimarron ditch is diverted. 
    • Ok we can picture that system working – scrape away at the face, shovel dirt into cars, remove dirt, place timbers, repeat. 
    • Hold on --- this tunnel is like 13’ tall. How are you going to scrape, chip and hammer way up there. Scaffolding you say? Talk about a hassle, there’s an easier way. It’s called the “heading and bench” method, where you start digging at the top of the tunnel, and carve away a “bench” for the whole crew to stand on – they made this top “heading” about 8’x8’, and would press that smaller face forward keeping the ceiling at the proper height, even placing temporary timbers, then come back in a second pass, widening and deepening the tunnel to it’s final dimensions. Really a two step process.
    • Oh wait… as we get deeper we run into another problem… the air quality starts to gets really bad. So – ok no problem – we just pump some air back there. Good the workers at the face now have fresh air, but… oh no – now all the other workers the muckers and trammers (the guys running the cars), and the timber crews are getting all the dirty exhaust air off of the face. OK Nooo problem – let’s just run another pipe down near the face to SUCK the dirty air out. Problem solved. 
    • Buuut wait – now we’re running into rock. Like, really hard rock. Rock bars and picks ain’t movin’ this stuff. (and now we look to the process the hard-rock miners in Telluride and Ouray had been perfecting for years… using you guessed it explosives. And in the early days of the tunnel, that meant black powder. Ok so we’ve got plenty of that, but when you like black powder out on the table, it just kind burns and fizzles, if you want it to go BOOM, you’ve gotta pack it into a confined space. We need some holes in this rock into which we can pack black powder. 
    • Welp that means it’s time to pull out the rock drills. 

      • Ok hang on – we gotta go a little deeper on how rock drills worked in 1905, especially those used for drilling blasting holes. If you don’t already know this, you’re not going to believe me.
      • So you take your friend and had him a “drill” a ¾” thick steel bar. Ranging in length from about a foot a a couple feet. It has an “X” shaped chipping head on the end. So you say to your budd, “hey, Jack hold this right there against the wall. I’m going to hit the end with this big sledge hammer as hard as I can. Yea don’t worry I won’t miss.” Then you heft your 5 pound sledge and swing it for all you’re worth striking the drill and chipping a little rock out. Then your friend Jack, rotates the drill a quarter turn, and you swing again. 
      • Now remember you’re working in the dark – I mean pitch dark. But hey – no problem that’s why your brought your candle. You’ve got your, and Jack’s candles burning brightly. 
      • As say this I can’t stop thinking about a tour of the Bachelor Syracuse mine my family and I went on last summer – It’s just 10 minutes north of Ouray, and the guide takes you back about 1500 feet in an old hard-rock silver mine. Once you get all the way back, You turn off your headlamps, and the guide lights a couple candles. Then our guide, she had a volunteer (that was me) hold a rock drill against the wall, and she lifted the sledge, and said, “ok jack, here we go!”. It was awesome. She did not actually take a swing and the drill – thank God. 

        • I’ll link the Bachelor Syracuse mine tour in the show-notes.
    • Ok so you’re starting to get the picture, right? No…. Now we get to explosives. 

      • so you’ve got somewhere between 30-75 of these holes drilled in the tunnel face… It took like 8-16 hours to drill ‘em all. 
      • The method used at the beginning of the project was to pack the hand-drilled holes with black powder, blasting powder. Light a fuse, and run back a safe distance and BOOM, then the muckers go in and load up the debris. Easy peasy. 
      • No  it’s not actually that simple. First of all black powder at the time was SUPER unstable. You tamp it in the hole too hard – bad day. Make a spark with your tamping rod? Bad day. 
      • And there was lots of innovation in the approach to blasting – how deep do you drill the holes, what pattern do you use. These guys weren’t just drilling a bunch of holes at random, filling ‘em with black powder, and lighting it off. 
      • And it turns out that miners at the time worked out ideal patterns and carefully timed their explosives in specific firing patterns to loosen the most rock possible without fracturing the rock that you wanted to remain as the tunnel wall or ceiling – what mine engineers call “Perimeter Control”.
      • Look mine engineers are really into this stuff and ultimately specify very precise location of charges and control the firing pattern on the face very precisely. The charges in different places on the tunnel face have different names: cut holes, blast holes, floor holes, contour holes. It’s a science. Go to the Colorado School of Mines if you want to learn more. 
      • Ok so now the tunnel face is littered with holes, and the foreman has cut fuses in specific length to sequence the explosions just so, and he, with his candle… lights the fuse…. Now what!? You’re a couple thousand feet back in a tunnel, with no where to go. So these guys would just walk back (I don’t know how far, but definitely not OUT of the tunnel, turn their backs, cover their ears, and wait….. I’m sure they knew about how long they had, but these guys were NOT carrying pocket watches. I’m sure they knew how long their fuses were, but I picturing them walking back an counting counting one-mississippi, two Mississippi…. 92-mississippi
      • BOOOOOM
      • Later they did move to electronic blasting caps, instead of fuses that allowed for much more precise control. 
      • And hopefully the ventilation took care of most of the products of combustion, but certainly not all. These guys were NOT wearing respirators, and were breathing all kinds of rock dust -  silica dust – something we now know is murder for your lungs. The tiny quartz crystals flow way down into your lungs, all the way into an alveoli (al-VEE-uh- lai) (the tiney air sacs in our lung where gasses are exchanged with you blood. Yea, In there, where your immune system wraps around the silica, causing inflammation and ultimately scaring – forever reducing your lungs gas exchange efficiency in that spot. It’s called Silicosis, a debilitating, and sometimes fatal disease.
      • Anyway. So now your starting to get the picture. It’s called the drill-fill-blast-muck cycle to tunneling and the method was really credited to this guy from Montreal, Francis Shanley, who was awarded the contract to finish the Hoosac railroad Tunnel in Western Massachusetts. The Hoosac tunnel was actually the Nation’s current longest tunnel at the time at 4.75 miles, but not for long if Ira McConnell had anything to say about it. 

        • Create audio of drill-fill-blast-muck cycle on repeat. 
      • Ok so on the West side they’re tunneling through dangerous adobe mud and shale where they have to timber like crazy to keep the darn thing from caving in again. 
      • On the East side the rock is hard granite – cave-ins are less of a concern, but progress is slow, I mean slow… ultimately with improved tools and explosives they really got cookin’ and set a tunneling record through granite at the time which was 449 feet in one month. Still that’s just shy of 15’ per day. Other times they made next to no progress for months. On the east side they used a different tram system with bigger 54 cubic foot cars, that required the use of a derrick (a crane) to dump the cars. 

        • Ok but when the rock was hard… drilling all the holes for a blast could take from 12 to 20 hours9.
      • Ok so now you’re starting to get the picture. 

        • drill-fill-blast-muck
      • Well especially after Taylor Moore was off the job, McConnell starting optimizing things, and getting better tools into the hands of the crews. 
      •  One of the bigger advcements was the transition from Black Powder to Dynamite.  You’ve heard about the Nobel Prize, Right?
      • Yea well Alfred Nobel, after which the prize is named, and his father Swedish chemists. And they saw the potential for the use of nitroglyerine in controlled explosions, but the thing was that nytroglycerine, a liquid at normal temperatures,  was SUPER unstable. Drop a bottle of the stuff… bad day.
      • But one day Alfred (the son) was in a nitroglycerin factory in Germany and came across a cask of nitroglycerin that had leaked into its diatomaceous-earth packing material. This stuff had dried into granules. Nobel experimented with the powder finding that the material could be roughly handled without danger, but a blasting cap could cause it to explode with nearly as much force as pure liquid nitroglycerine. Being so much less sensitive to shocks the granular substance seemed ideal for handling and shipping. Nobel named this diatomaceous-earth/nitorglucerin mixture “dynamite”, from the Greek dynamis, for “power”.  Wrap some up in a paper roll, and dip the whole thing in paraffin wax to make it water-proof and now we have something MUCH safer, MUCH more predictable than raw black powder.
      • So McConnell switched all the blasting to dynamite. Good move. 
    • Power Houses

      • I mentioned in the last episode that McConnell also improved the other project infrastructure. This included huge upgrades to the air-compressors (we’ll get to those in a minute), blowers (pushing ventilation air into, and pulling exhaust air out of the tunnel), and electric generators (or dynamos) as some folks called ‘em back then. (Remember “dynamis” Greek for power?

        • “The more you know…” jingle
      • All of this equipment was powered by the same motive force that was underpinning the industrialization the the globe at the time. Steam. And the way you make steam, is by boiling water, and they way you did at the time that was… to burn coal. Lots of coal.
      • So if you look at pictures of the power house at Lujane, and at the east portal, both powerhouses have four huge smoke stakes rising out of them. These were for the boilers… and stationary engineers (as they are still called today) carefully monitored the boilers ensuring they had enough feed water, didn’t run dry an explode, and were providing as much steam as the air compressors, blowers and dynamos required. And firemen – the poor guys shoveling coal, and removing “clinkers” the hard rocks left after coal is burnt). They kept the boiler’s fire-boxes fueled and cleaned out.
      • These were SERIOUS industrial powerhouses. It wasn’t quite like the engine room in the Titanic, but not too far off. They were critical to the project, If something went wrong in the power house everyting stopped. 
      • I keep picturing McConnell and Quinton, having gotten their feet under themselves after the cave-in and not having Taylor more making decisions any more. I see ‘em sitting together in the office one afternoon being like, “Ok let’s quit screwing around. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right. Forget all these candles, hand drills, and black powder. That’s so 1890, we’re in the twentieth century now. Let’s get serious.” So they made the decision, and requested the funds to invest in these huge powerhouses, this foundational infrastructure for the project.
      • And so – candles were replaced with electric lights, hand-drills were replaced with powerful pneumatic drills, mules and horses were replaced with electric trams, Ventilation was increased, and the project really accelerated.
      • The other super interesting artifact I found when I went to the national archives in Broomfield, CO again a blueprint reeking of chemicals, but it was a huge diagram of the tunnel construction infrastructure. It was titled Diagrammatic Charts Showing Organization of Working Force and Distribution of Motive Power, Gunnison Tunnel, October, 1905.

        • Again, I’ll link to a picture I took of it in the show notes. 
        • https://photos.app.goo.gl/U6BbVNRW6GjujQUk6
      • It has a really nice diagram of the organization – McConnell is at the top, then the River portal organization for heading 1 is detailed on the left and  the “Cedar Creek Portal and Shaft Organization” for headings 2, 3, and 4 are detailed on the right. Every team has a box, and every major employee is named with their title. This is what we corporate desk jockeys call an “org chart”. 

        • Let me describe just the River Portal Crew for ya.
        • There was a Time-kepeer who kept track of everyone’s hours,  Supply and Property Agent, below him was 

          • Commissary   and Boarding House Manager
          • Weighing Clerk
          • Teams and Teamsters for transportation of good. 
          • Bookkeeper for General Accounting
        • Superintendent for the Construction and under him

          • Master Mechanic and outside foreman, under him

            • 1Carpenter, 1Blacksmith, 2 tool sharpeners, 
            • Three stationary engineers and three firemen
            • And 5-12 laborers for pipe, road, and other miscellaneous work. 
        • There was the Tunnel Foreman Theodore Grasser (yea that guy stayed on after he dug himself out of the cave-in with his fingernails, and became the foremen of the River Portal tunnelers) He had:

          • 6 drillmen, 3 drill helpers, 9 muckers, 1 engineer running the hoist and derrick, 1 trammer and 1 tram horse, FOR EACH SHIFT. That’s 20 guys, 21 if you count the horse, each shift, and they ran three shifts a day. Grasser had 60…. three workers under his supervision actually doing the digging. 
          • But we’re not done yet….
      • Now we get to the white collar jobs
      • There was an Engineer in charge at River Portal, Joseph Sargent, he did Primary tunnel levels, Alignment and Measurement, (this is the guy that kept them the digging on-course,  but also General Inspections, budgets, and progress reports to McConnell, Quinton, and the higher ups. This guy had 4 engineers below him:

        • Assistant Engineer 
        • Road Maintenance Engineer
        • and two field assistants that did River soundings, tunnel work, and topography.
      • PHEW – and that’s just the EAST PORTAL! The West portal was even bigger because they were working on three faces, and had the main Material yard, steam shovel operations for the canal, electricians, Corrals for the teams and Teamsters, Police men, even more finance and Purchasing agents, it was a HUGE Operation. 
      • Now, the coolest part of this blue-print (at least for me) where I’m getting all of this information, is that the engineer that drew it (Joseph Sargent) included schematic diagrams of the power houses at the East and West portal. 
      • And… if you’re not a mechanical person – just… plug your ears while I geek out for a minute here and I describe the power house houses. 

        • First in Lujane at the West portal, the engineer shows three settling basins, filling a 3.5 Million gallon reservoir, all “Filled with Cimarron Ditch Water”.
        • Four coal fired steam boilers producing 320 HP worth of steam to everything, including:

          • Feedwater pumps for the boilers
          • Three Leyner compound steam air compressors making 1,560 CFM of 100 PSI air. 
          • Steam from the boilers also all spun several 100 HP Erie Engine Works steam engines that turned Gardner Electric Generators (or “dynamos”) , producing a total of 275 kW at 250 volts. 
          • The compressed air left the Lujane power house in two directions.

            • To the west:

              • it was used on the 60 ton Buyers Steam Shovel working at the portal cut
              • and the Hoist Engine, yes they used pneumatic engines to run their hoists… weird. 
              • And several pumps – pumping water to the water drills in the tunnel.  
            • And to the east toward the tunnel, 

              • Of course, the air was used to run pneumatic water rock drills, but also a Jeffries Coal boring machine. 
              • Another Hoist Engine for the main shaft that dropped down to heading 3 and 4  also ran on compressed air
              • A 20 HP Blower, for ventilation and
              • Two forges
              • These guys were using compressed air all over the place. 
            • Of course, the boilers also made hot water for Lujane – so everyone could have a hot shower after their shift – that had to be nice. 
            • The infrastructure on the East/River portal was very similar EXCEPT
            • The East portal’s power house air compressor was twice as big and
            • They had a bunch of compressed air powered duplex pumps to pump out all of the water that drained toward the tunnel face. 
            • They also had HUGE blowers providing 6000 CFM of fresh air a 2psi.
            • The pumping infrastructure ended up being a major challenge, and had to be upgraded several times and more and more water was encountered as they went. 
          • I link to a few videos of people who have restored these steam engines and pneumatic pumps in the show notes -check ‘em out they’re pretty cool. 
      • OK – the non-mechanical folks can un-plug their ears now. 
    • Further challenges

      • So McConnell and Quinton got in there and really started kicking butt. 
      • But Vernal Mesa through which they were tunneling, was not giving up the fight that easily. She still had many more tricks up her sleeve to make life miserable for the tunnel team. 
    • Not drowning was the least of the crew’s concerns.

      • The Tunneling crews ran into just about everything as they dug… The Tunnel passes through a wide variety soil and rock types, and on the west side was a ton of shale. In here they’d find big pockets of combustible gasses (which it seems they never ignited thanks to good ventilation), but also other non-combustible, toxic gasses, especially CO2. Sometimes it was pockets of CO2 directly (what they called “choke damp”),other times it the result of carbonic acid in the soil coming in contact with water and producing CO2. Now, we breath CO2 in very low concentrations every day, but if you’ve ever breathed pure CO2, you know… it is TERRIBLE! It’ll kill you within a few breaths if you’re in a confined space. (This is something every brewer gets in their safety training). These combustible and non-combustible toxic gasses were often mixed in with a water flow.  There were several occasions that they’d drill into a pocket of gas/water mix and the pressure blew the drillers off their rigs. On one occasion a water jet shot 40’ back into the tunnel. Yikes. On several occasions the gas & water flow were so bad it drove the crews out of the tunnel.
      • Picture this…  the crew hits a pocket of gas & water and gets driven back from the face, and out of the tunnel, because they’re choking on CO2. Then eventually everyone, the drillers, muckers, trammers, and ultimately timber crew all get driven out of the tunnel. You just…. can’t go in the tunnel – if you do you die. 
      • So now what? McConnell and team now have literally hundreds of workers chomping at the bit to get their hours, and earn their pay, and if they can’t get their hours… these guys are gone. So, you wait a day or two, but the tunnel just keeps spewing toxic gas, no end in sight. So let’s try turning up the ventilation blowers… not enough… install bigger blowers… not enough… Well crap, now what…. 
      • Well they resorted to digging a ventilation shafts down to the tunnel from the surface above. Yea, just like the rescue effort from the cave-in in the last episode, but bigger, WAY bigger. The first ventilation shaft they had to dig was 4’x7’ and 680 feet deep!. These were HUGE efforts. I mean – that’s like.. a whole new tunnel, and it took SIX MONTHS to dig and timber. The progress on heading #2 was stopped for that full 6 months. This happened TWICE! The second time  required a 400’ tunnel and caused a three month delay.
      • Oh yea – and have I mentioned shale slacking? No? Well that’s where a soild that when dry has a nice firm texture, but when wetted, “slaks” into small granules. Yea well, much of the shale they were digging through was sea bed, ocean floor. , like ocean, 75-85 million years ago, It’s called the mancos shale, and is full of fossilized sea critters. In fact in one spot they had to use special timbering because the tunnel passed through 500’ of almost entirely fossilized clams (turns out their called brachiopods) Anyway, in all the writing they cite the “slaking of shale” causing hellishly hot working conditions, and I didn’t understand, how shale getting wet and turning to mud made heat? So I had to do some investigating – and it turns out this shale around here has a lot of Calcium in it and likely some Calcium Oxides, and when you wet calcium oxide it produces Calcium Hydroxide (baking soda) and heat…. (it’s called lime slacking). Anyway this chemical reaction was happening all around them and making the tunnel hotter and hotter, combine the heat with the humidity of infiltrating ground water and water from the rock drills and you start to get a pretty nice little sauna going in there. No kidding… actually it was terrible.
      • So yea – it’s like 90 degrees and 100% humidity, the pheumatic rock drills are loud as all get out. (I didn’t see one reference to or photo of hearing protection in my research). The air quality ranges from, “ehh pretty good, you’ll only get mild silicosis, to, take another breath and you die, and on the east side. You’re standing in water the whole time.
      • Remember when complete, the tunnel has to slope down from east to west – that’s what makes the water flow through it, but that also means that when your digging from the east side, the high side ANY water the comes in the tunnel, flows down to the tunnel face
      •  Remember, since the tunnel slopes toward the face, all the water runs to the face where you have to pump it out. So – let’s say you want to set your drill on the ground for a minute to change the bit or something… nope can’t set it on the ground. Or… maybe just set your lunch pail on the ground ‘till lunch time, nope. It’ll float away. They worked in ankle to knee deep water…. For years.  Imagine that.
    • In the fifth Annual Reclamation Service Report, McConnell says it pretty well himself:

      • Before a proper appreciation of the difficulty of this work can be realized it must be recognized that in many respects it is an unprecedented undertaking. At the present time an expenditure of nearly 100 horsepower is required for tunnel ventilation alone. Every car of material taken from the tunnel must be hauled an average distance of 2 miles before it reaches the dump. Water flowing into the tunnel must be pumped long distances before it is finally discharged. The material through which the tunnel has been excavated has been extremely difficult to handle in many places. The country in which the work is located is not self-supporting. This has required the shipment from outside points of practically every pound of supplies used. Freight are high, labor is scarce, and correspondingly indifferent; supplies of all classes are commanding the highest prices ever realized. All of these factors increase the difficulty and the expense.
  • It wasn’t just challenging in the tunnel. Work was hard outside the tunnel too, For example, getting materials down to the east portal. I described the East Portal road in the last episode. It has grades up to 22 % and descends 2000 feet in just over 7 miles, and if you drive it today you have to put your car in first gear so you don’t smoke your breaks, but I’m curious… has this one crossed your mind yet? How the heck did they get heavy wagons carrying literally two thousand  pounds of coal down the road without having runaway wagons that killed drivers and their teams? Did the wagons even have breaks in 1905, or did the horses like hold the weight back Leaning backwards into their yolks or something? No way… 
  • Well, I got the answer in a recording of a presentation that Jerry Denison gave to the Montrose Historical Society back in December 2011. Jerry was the gate keeper down at the East Portal for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users for a long time. I actually went to Highschool with his daughter, who drive over vernal mesa to Montrose every day for school. Anyway the wagons DID have breaks, but not like what you’re picturing. Every loaded wagon that went down the east portal road was provided with an iron “shoe”, that was installed on a back wheel.  This was a device that looks like a little ski the wheel rode on. The Ski has a trough the wheel sits in and there’s a chain from the tip of the ski that was fastened up to the body of the wagon… so in this way the wheel could not roll and the ski simply slid. They basically turned one of the wheels into a skid, and that was apparently enough to keep the heavy wagons slow enough to not run away from the drivers. I wonder if they made the shoes got grippier with studs or something when it snowed?
  • Ok so we’ve covered the digging but what about the lining of the tunnel. You can’t just let 1300 CFM of water rip through a wooden timbered soft dirt tunnel. Ultimately 55% of the tunnel had to be lined with concrete – basically anywhere it wasn’t completely hard granite. But how do you pour concrete in a tunnel that’s also a pathway for the trammer pulling material out from the working face? Right we can’t stop the drilling just to pour concrete. 
  • Well, they actually came up with a pretty cool system. They’d mix the Portland cement with sand and gravel aggregate, that they found and screened locally, and dumped into special shafts that went down through the main shaft of the tunnel, where it was drawn by gravity into measuring bins. The portlant cement, aggregate, and water we all mixed in a rotary mixer. They basically built a little concrete plant at the bottom of the main shaft. The finished product, wet concrete, was then poured into special tram cars and trammed to where the concrete was being poured. Where they were poring they had a hoist to lift the car and dump the concrete onto an elevated platform where it could be re-mixed by hand and shoveled into the forms. While the concrete car was up on-hoist the mucking trammers could pass underneath the whole concrete lining operation with their load from the face. Pretty cool.
  • Just about every local I run into cites how amazing it was that when heading 1 & 2 met (that’s from the East portal meeting the western face) they were only off by like 6 inches when the two faces met – so the local legend goes, and yea 6 inches in 6 miles is amazing, – but a drawing from the engineers shows they the actual path of the tunnel varied by a maximum of 3.54 feet from the true centerline, still an incredibly small deviation. Apparently it’s straight enough that if you stand at the east portal with the door closed behind you, you can see the daylight from the West Portal 5.8 miles away. It’s that straight. These guys knew what they were doing.
  • Pushing for the finish. 
  • Alright – we could go on and on about the engineering challenges, the dangers of the work, this miraculous accuracy… Truth is, this tunnel fought back at every turn, and the team of workers and engineers had incredible grit, unbelievable perseverance, fighting one. inch. at. a. time for four years, in conditions that I think are… unimaginable…. Really to most of us today. 
  • Actually a lot of historical writers cite a stat that the average stay of laborers was only two weeks – now look -  one guy, Aurthor Page, said that in an article back in 1907, but I gotta say… I don’t believe it – I couldn’t find anything in the Bureau of Reclamation’s records, or any other original source that indicated anything of the sort was true. Maybe that was specific to drillers and mucker? I don’t know but what is factual is that many of the major names on the crew, the guys on the org chart I described earlier, were there for the whole project from the first cave-in, to the ribbon cutting. 
  • These guys risked life and limb to keep the tunnel moving forward, and their continuous progress was precarious. A LOT of things had to go right for progress to be made. If a stationary engineer fell-asleep on the job, and the lights went out, the blowers stopped, it would cost lives.
  • They had to stock up the East portal, down in the canyon with coal, food, dynamite, and other supplies to get through the winter, when, after a big snow, the east portal road became impassable for weeks at a time. 
  • Imagine Grassers’ crew down there drilling and blasting. Their ventilation air and critical water pumping all ultimately provided by coal.  that had been hauled by train to Lujane, then carried by horse team over vernal mesa and skidding on a shoe and three wheels down to the east portal powerhouse. If the road slid out, no coal, no digging, if the coal delivery didn’t show up in Lujane, no digging.
  • If the pumps stopped working – no digging. 
  • If the pipe didn’t show up to extend the ventilation pipe, no digging. 
  • If the generator went down with a bad winding – no digging. 
  • If the dynamite wasn’t delivered – no digging. 
  • This was a HUGE logistical operation with so many ways to fail, yet, they kept it going, pretty much continuously, For four years.
  • I’m tellin’ ya. It’s incredible. 
  • Lujane

    • Let’s step back from the engineering and logistics for a minute. At it’s peak Lujane, at the West portal, was home to more than 800 people, and the place had to be… hoppin’. With crews rotating in-and-out of the tunnel round the clock, you can imagine that there was always someone asleep, and always someone getting ready to go on-shift. 
    • Of course, not all of these workers were bachelors, many of them, like the Belgardt’s from the last episode, came with their kids.  And every family knows, you can’t have one parent working like these guys were working without the other parent providing a ton of additional support, and families back then were BIG. 5 kids was common, some had up to 10 (10 is just too many for me to imagine). And everyone pitched in to raise the kids of Lujane and the River Portal. Both settlements had schools where all grades were mixed in a single room. Kids who didn’t live directly in Lujane rode their horses to school, or walked, but folks were poor – kids walked to school in the winter after a snow storm with burlap bags on their feet to keep their feet warm.
    • But you don’t have to be rich to have fun…. So on Friday nights, the desks were pushed to the sides of the school room, there was live music, people brought their dinners in baskets, and there was a dance party.
    • This vibrant, bustling little boomtown, had popped up, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, from… nothing… then suddenly had families from all over the world. Imagine the school room ull of a bunch of kids who are just learning English, and natively speak Italian or German, or Spanish. Those had to be some brave teachers. 
    • What blows my mind about Lujane is that if you go to visit today… there is nothing. Sure, a couple stables of the current land owner, but like, literally no sign than the town ever existed on the land. I drove by it 100 times before I knew there was anything ever there – and yet, without…  this valley that now supports the lives of 50,000 people, would be a nearly uninhabitable desert. Funny… how something that so dramatically changed the course of history, is today…. all but forgotten. 
  • Construction is wrapping up

    • Back in the tunnel, In June 1909 something amazing happened. 
    • SOUND FIRST – “Do you hear that.” It happened during a quick break, when work paused or a minute…  could it be?.  … . no way…. Yes… yes way… they could – that June of 1909 as heading 1 from the River portal approached Heading 2 from the valley, for the first time… hear eachothers drilling. 
    • Imagine hearing that sound after drilling for 4 years. And on July 6th 1909 they holed through to each other.  
    • Now it was clear there needed to be a BIG grand opening, a ribbon cutting like never before. They tried to get Teddy Roosevelt, who had approved the initial project, but he was hunting in Africa. So Instead, they got the current president Howard Taft. Everyone in town went all out for the celebration. 
    • Among dignitaries in attendance were President Taft, Richard A. Ballinger, Secretary of the Interior, Senator Charles Hughes, Jr., Representative Edward Taylor, Colorado Governor John F. Shafroth, officials of the Reclamation Service, Fellows, Torrence, McConnell and Lauzon16.

      • Remember he was the guy who twenty years earlier, everyone called crazy, when he said the idea for the tunnel came to him in a dream? Imagine how he must have felt seeing this tunnel completed. 
    • In addition, thousands of sightseers came from all over the Western Slope. A special train from Delta brought 1,500, and 300 came on a special from Gunnison. Thirty-six automobiles drove over from Delta. the occupants carrying red and white umbrellas. Ouray brought a pack train, in charge of E. A. Phinney, showing the means of transportation in the rich mines.
    • Beidleman continues
    • The event was heralded as the "biggest evet that ever happened in Montrose." Bands from Ouray, Ridgway, Olathe, Lake City, Montrose and Delta were on hand, including girls' bands with natty uniforms. The Grand Army of the Republic made a fine showing in the parade, as did the Booster's Association and the Colorado National Guard. Montrose contributed its prettiest girls, riding on horseback, to the parade. On the main thoroughfare of town there was a welcome arch consisting of products of the rich agricultural country, and telling how much had been raised during the past year and what the completion of the tunnel would mean for 1910.
    • They all crowded around the West portal and Taft touched a golden bell that was supposed to open the east portal gate, and allow the waters to flow… but guess what, the tunnel wasn’t done yet, so some guys walked back up the tunnel and built a dam, and when they got the signal – they broke the dam to allow the symbolic water to flow for the dignitaries. 

      • I kinda picture McConnell standing on the platform next to the president, rolling his eyes knowing how the water was actually released, while the crowd cheered.
    • Everything went off without a hitch, except for when… ahh… I’ll let the New York Times Reported tell ya:

      • Only one little incident marred the President’s visit. At the conculsion of the tunnel opening, one of the thirty-two Colorado Sherrifs who have accompanied the President across the State, got into an altercation with H.L. Daniels, Superintendent of the Tunnel, when the latter was trying to shake hands with the President. Mr Daniels was knocked down, and for a time trouble was threatened, as his friends were quick to resent the action of the officer, who during the scuffle, pulled and enormous pistol from his belt. The President heard the quarreling and stopped for a moment as he was making his way to the train. He was told there was nothing serious, however, and proceeded. 
    • According to the 1905 Org Chart I saw at the National Archives, H.L. Daniels was the timekeeper at the River Portal, and according to The Times, superintendent by this time in 1909. And…. Considering what H.L. Daniels and his crews had been through… how many wives had he had to tell of a fallen husband in the tunnel? I’m just going to go ahead and say… I think this guy deserved a hand-shake from the president, and I don’t blame Daniel’s friends (probably other East Portal crew) for sticking up for him. But President’s being presidents and Sherrifs being sherrifs (remember how our story started in Telluride? Sherrifs did NOT mess around back then)  H.L. Daniels was snubbed, and probably had a six-shooter colt 45 put in his face.
  • A final tragedy

    • You might think we’re done – the golden bell’s been rung – and the president is off on his way. We’re ready to talk about the canals and the system operation today, right? 
    • I’m sorry to report that… NOT YET.
    • It turns out, that the tunnels deadliest, and least studied, accident occurred almost 4 months AFTER President Taft’s visit.
    • It’s 3:00pm on Sunday January 16th,1910  time for a shift change. The 8 am crew going off shift had just fired 50 holes. The tram from the River portal carrying 24 men in the 3:00 crew had just arrived, and the morning crew clocking out had just boarded and were headed out of the tunnel on the tram. 
    • The new crew sat down about 500’ from the face to let the smoke clear away “as usual”. 
    • And then according to the official statement of the on-duty engineer at the time to the local paper, “The Draft which had been toward the West end of the tunnel suddenly changed to the east and slowly swept the whole volume of smoke back over the waiting workmen.”
    • However, “the accident was a most remarkable one, the air currents shifted twice. First they brought the deadly volume of gas and smoke past the men and within a few minutes the currents had changed and brought the gasses back again and the men were plunged into a noxious vapor shroud for the second time!”
    • The coroner performed and inquest and the jury returned a verdict of “accidental death”. But here again… just like in the first cave-in 1905… hindsight is 20/20. 
    • In the 9th annual report of the Reclamation Service that was written and submitted AFTER this accident they describe the ventilation system in this area in some length, and specifically say the ventilation pipe lines were quote “being used intermittently as suction lines and as pressure lines. Immediately after blasting the blowers were operated for about an hour as suction fans, drawing foul air from the heading. As soon as the powder smoke was well cleared out, the blowers were reversed and blew a draft of cool air into the heading.” End 
    • So this was definitly a known issue and they clearly had control over the direction of air-flow in the area – but BOTH ends of the tunnel were open, and MAYBE the wind blew really hard from one end or the other???
    • Here’s what I think happened. There’s a shift change, and that included the engineer operating the blower that was on-top of the tunnel. The new guy finds the blowers in the exhaust direction and… makes a mistake, maybe thinking the exhaust from the last blast had already cleared – maybe the hand-off communication from the off-going engineer was sloppy? Mabe he was late and there was no handoff? However it happened – I think he reversed the blowers – pushing the explosion gasses back down into the tunnel -  and over the crew the first time.
    • They, choking to death, make a call to the east portal – asking for rescue (that actually happened20) – and somewhere in there the blower operator realizes he’s made a grave mistake… and reverses the blowers again, putting them back in the exhaust mode – this time pulling the gasses over the crew a second time.
    • I don’t think anyone will ever know, but I sure don’t think the natural ventilation reversed direction TWICE in a few minutes like that. 
    • Whether human error, or natural causes… it was a tragedy. 5 died that day and 4 more in the following days from their injuries. 9 total from this tragic ventilation accident. 
  • Fatalities
  • I mentioned the Hoosac Tunnel earlier. It was the longest tunnel to date in the US and was completed in 34 years before the Gunnison Tunnel
  • But, workers in the Hoosac called it a “Bloody Pit”. Twice as many workers were seriously injured compared to the Gunnison Tunnel, and 135 died in the Hoosac, compared to 26 in the Gunnison.  I certainly don’t mean to diminish the sacrifice of those lost to the Gunnison Tunnell – I simply want to credit the management of this project as dramatically improved, over similar projects before them. They did pretty well for the time.
  • BREAK
  • I’ve covered the 9 deaths from this ventilation accident, plus the 6 from the very first cave-in, brings us to 15. 

    • The additional 11 went like this:

      • Two were killed when one of them used a metal rod to tamp his dynamite into a hole, instead of the wooden rods they’d been provided. 
      • One had his neck broken when a chain broke that had been suspending a cart (probably a concrete cart) from the roof of the tunnel, and hit him. 
      • Two guys were crushed between two cars in two separate incidents
      • Three killed from falling rock in three separate incidents. 
      • One was electrocuted
      • And one fell through the main shaft 
      • And one was crushed from a falling timber.
    • That brings the total to 26 lives lost to this project. 
  • As I record this, I’m looking out at hundreds of acres of the Southern Uncompahgre Valley – all of which is flooded with water from the Gunnison Tunnel every irrigation season. Thousands of homes, vans shuttling skiers to Telluride, behind me the City of Montrose is a healthy economy, rooted in agriculture, but growing, shaped by today’s agricultural producers, today’s entrepreneurs, today’s dreamers – and I can’t help but think… none of this would be here without this tunnel. Were it not for this water, I’d be staring at sage brush and prickly pear cactus. 
  • The Gunnison Tunnel is the primary source of raw water to the treatment plant that supplies the entire Uncompahgre Valley with potable water. In the Winter, it’s the only source. (The other source in the Summer is the Cimarron Ditch.) 
  • This project almost failed on so many occasions. Whether for it being thought crazy, impossible, too expensive, too deadly.
  • Too many people drink this water, water their lawns with this water, eat sweet corn & onions grown with this water… and have NO idea what it took to make it available. 
  • I hope that now… you know, and the next time you take a bite of Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn at a July 4th BBQ – you remember the 26 men who gave their lives, and the countless others who persevered through adversity we can scarcely imagine to turn what started out as a dream, into our reality.
  • In the next episode, we’ll learn how they intended to get all this water distributed over their planned 140,000 acres… and about how this project is operated and benefits the Uncompahgre Valley today.  
  • We’ll see ya next time.

Special thanks in this episode goes to Elane Hale Jones, whose book, West of the Divide, East of the Desert” was informative on what life was like around Jujane. I mean Lu-Jane… Thanks Elane.
Also, Richard Elsom, an Archivist at the National Archives in Denver, without him, I’d have never found the blueprinted org chart and schematics.

And to Mallory McAdams and her advisor Judith Wang at the Colorado School of Mines. Their paper on the civil engineering, and especially the references their paper steered me to, provided most all of engineering content I found for this episode. Thanks everyone.

Brody Wilson, serves on multiple nonprofit boards, has been a KVNF Listener for 44 years, and is a corporate sustainability professional and mechanical engineer from Montrose.