Coeur d’ Alene’s Railway Tunnel

Written By Don Pischner

Showing the Milwaukee Railroad cut and the tunnel under Garden Ave. The Courthouse is under construction in 1926.
Government Way is not built. The house in the upper right corner would become 627 Government. KC-1-10

A concrete abutment located just off of the southeast corner of Garden Avenue and Government Way (near the front door of the “Hitching Post”) identifies the southeast portal of an abandoned railway tunnel. The tunnel remains today, in place and intact.

Actually, it was a subway, built as a concrete arch within a deeply excavated trench called the “Big Cut.” The structure is buried beneath the avenues’ intersection. Dumping of fill material closed off each of its ends in the mid-1950s.

This article tells the story of the earth removal and lakeshore fill – a railroad construction project in 1910. Nearly a mile in length, a trench, as deep as 35 feet, bisected the city. The “Big Cut” began at the intersection of Lincoln Way and Idaho Avenue, headed southeast (adjacent to Milwaukee Drive) to the intersection of Government Way and Garden Avenue (site of the tunnel); then dug south (along the west side of First Street) to Sherman Avenue. The removed and hauled dirt filled in the lake, extending the shoreline some 600 feet (site of the Coeur d’Alene Resort).

Throughout the era between 1910 and the mid-1950s the “Big Cut” scarred the landscape. The first train used this spur in July of 1913 a freight line only. The last train made the passage shortly before C.C. Mudge purchased 3.47 acres of the railroad property for $13,000 on March 24, 1953. One year later Mudge made “application for a permit to build an apartment house and commercial building on land north of Sherman Avenue and adjacent to First Street formerly owned by the Milwaukee RR. Co.”

Now filled and developed, the path of the “Big Cut” today is home to the site of the Spokesman-Review Bldg., the Kootenai County courthouse north parking lot, the County Plaza Offices, the Pioneer Title Company, the Coeur d’Alene North Condos, the new One- Lakeside Condos, and the Chamber of Commerce.

Locals – Richard Barclay, Jim Hawkins, Dick Shern, Pat Hurrell, Mike Hurrell, Archie McGregor, Sandy

Emerson, Charlie Nipp, myself, and others – remember the place as a playground, a hideout, and an opportunity for mischief, much to the chagrin of our parents. Many copper pennies were smashed when laid on the rails ahead of the passing iron wheels. There were lots of rocks to throw, moving freight cars to hop, and for the very brave (perhaps none of those named above) jumping from the tunnel portal onto the top of a slow-moving train car for a short ride.

When Coeur d’Alene was a village, Sherman Avenue from the east terminated at Second Street. The entrance to the Hotel Idaho, constructed in 1905 (later named Desert Hotel; destroyed by fire in 1972), fronted the lake shoreline between First and Second Streets. Northwest Boulevard was still 15 years distant. When Fort Sherman was abandoned in 1905, a 200-foot wide diagonal parcel was set aside for railway use. Recognized in recent days as the “educational corridor,” this strip of land first held the trackage for the Spokane and Inland Empire electric rail linen serving the steamboat docks at the southeast corner of the park.

By the early 1900s, two other rail lines entered the city down to the lake: Northern Pacific via Third Street and the Spokane International via Hubbard Avenue. Then a fourth railroad company sought to place track to gain access to the region’s abundant lumber freight market. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul had completed its transcontinental connection to the west coast in 1909. In May of 1910, the Milwaukee began work at the Washington/Idaho state line (near today’s I-90 and Spokane River) on a branch line toward Coeur d’Alene. The Milwaukee named this branch line the Idaho Western Railroad, incorporated in Idaho in December 1909.

View of the remains of the tunnel, 2020.

Matters moved rapidly as nearly all the necessary right-of-ways were purchased within one year’s time. Specific to the path of the “Big Cut,” Kootenai County record books reveal more than one hundred deed transactions, purchases, exchanges, and street and alley abandonments each naming the Idaho Western Railroad as a party to a multitude of property owners and the city. At least 36 deed transfers in the Forest Heights subdivision record where the railroad sliced through more than 75 residential lots, plus streets and alleys.

In addition, a dozen land parcels in the Reserve Block south of the tunnel (a subdivision strip of land between the east-line of the abandoned Ft. Sherman military reserve and First Street) were purchased by the railroad.

Beginning in May of 1910, a Seattle construction firm, Jones & Onsured, began working two 10 hour shifts per day. Their largest steam shovel would be used to excavate an estimated 150,000 cubic yards of dirt. Because of the large width and depth, the required excavation would be done in layers. Loaded into “dinkeys” (small motorized carts), 1,000 cubic yards of dirt would be moved per day to construct the lake fill. As a huge scar crossed the city, little reporting of the work progress is found. However, on the last day of June, one story tells of a loaded “dinkey” traveling down grade that came within a few feet of colliding with a freight train where it crossed the Inland Electric Line tracks at Sherman Avenue. It seems the signalman fell asleep.

The Milwaukee Railroad cut on the left next to First Street. (Notice the small wooden walk bridge crossing the cut) In the
center is the Hotel Idaho (Desert Hotel) on Sherman Ave. and the Milwaukee depot on the right, 1932. CDA-9-87

The project was not without conflicts. Politics intervened namely, competitive struggles and even issues related to the Socialists Party being voted into local government power. Several land acquisitions were challenged in lengthy court proceedings. Value exchanges, street abandonment, and limited public access were major concerns of residents. City council meetings were lengthy and discussions often heated, “lively sessions.”

Proposing some resolve, the railroad offered to build a forty-foot wide dock at the base of First Street and deed it to the city. A number of taxpaying citizens protested as to the exchange “not getting value received in return. J.C. White spoke a few words saying that he thought that the city was ‘doing the right thing’, but W. T. Stoll of Spokane, owner of the Stoll Block thought just the opposite.”

Initially, no “Big Cut” crossings were planned. At city council meetings, Forest Heights folks demanded better. O.H. Shern and George F. Steele, “protested vigorously.” They along with others argued, “that if the streets in question were vacated it would be necessary to make round about tours in going from Forest Heights to the parks, electric dock, or in other words getting from the north part of the city to the south.” O.A. Arndt “protested.”

Later, city council minutes reveal that Claude Thomas and W.A. Thomas, “entered a stirring protest.” Each argued, “that the railway company asked for the vacation of seven streets and that it proposed to give but three crossings between Sherman Avenue and the city limit…entirely inadequate…not specified in the agreements.’’ They were supported by 27 citizens and letters by R.S. Parker, F.W. Reed, M.G. Whitney and others.

Finally, on August 8, 1910, the city did accept a “proposal of the Idaho Western Railroad Company in regard to the vacating of a number of streets by the city, in return for which it is to dedicate a street and build two bridges.” The street would become Milwaukee Drive from Idaho Avenue to ‘A’ Street. It included sidewalk and curb.

As for the two proposed bridges, a small wooden bridge was built to cross at the alley between Coeur d’Alene and Indiana Avenues. Of small size and poor quality, it only lasted a few years until being replaced at Wallace Avenue in 1929. With Roosevelt School on the First Street side and the county jail on the Government Way side this concrete arch replacement bridge with sidewalk and steel railings, provided a connection to Mullan Road then to River Avenue and continuing on State Highway #95. Mayor, at the time, George Natwick, expressed pride “that during his term of office the cornerstone for a new courthouse was laid, the Blackwell Bridge and Wallace Street Bridge [were] each built.”

The railroad’s second bridge proposal – a large elevated wooden bridge diagonal at the point where Garden Avenue and Government Way intersect – was “strongly rejected by citizens.” Protestors stood firm by demanding concrete versus wood and a level grade crossing. They won out.

An agreement was reached for a more permanent structure. Being as the trench was already dug, a concrete subway would be built at that spot and then back-filled with dirt.

Described by the Coeur d’Alene Press, December 12, 1910: “The wall of the arch is nine feet at the base or pedestal and this extends four feet, where the wall becomes seven and a half wide. From there the walls are upward in a tapering four and a half feet wide to four inches at the top. Width of the space between the walls of the arch at the subfloor across the rails, is eighteen feet and eight inches and that width goes fifteen and one-half feet up before the walls commence end. The total height of the entrance of the arch is twenty-three feet. The main arch is 176 feet long. One-half inch reinforce rods and about 3,000 cubic yards of concrete used. Arch cost about $20,000… 65 men employed…” The article concluded: “The structure will certainly be one of the most substantial arches in the country…”