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Daylight at tunnels end

Oneonta Tunnel to reopen as part of Historic Highway restoration
by: John Klicker, Crews drill through the rubble that filled in Oneonta Tunnel in 1948 on Monday, Aug. 21, along the Historic Columbia River Highway. The tunnel is being excavated so it can be restored. The span will be reinforced with metal rods, steel plates, a layer of shotcrete and lined with Western Red Cedar.

Last week daylight beamed through the Oneonta Tunnel for the first time since 1948.

The tunnel, just east of Multnomah Falls, was built in 1913 as part of the Columbia River Highway. Plugged with rubble in 1948 when it became too narrow for modern-day traffic, the tunnel and the bridge leading up to it - called 'the bridge to nowhere' - are being reclaimed as part of the restoration of the Historic Columbia River Highway.

When the $1 million project is done next June, visitors to the popular Oneonta Gorge will park in a new area east of the site, enjoy a walk through the timbered tunnel and enter a plaza at the mouth of Oneonta Creek Gorge much like the one that Sam Lancaster designed when he created the scenic roadway.

Seeing the first daylight through Oneonta last week was a big thrill for Gresham resident Dave Sell, who spent four years guiding the project before his retirement from the Federal Highway Administration. It takes a ton of paper work before you get to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Sell, a photo and postcard collector, is a highway fan and wrote an article on the historic highway for the autumn 2005 edition of 'American Road.'

Sell and Jerry Lairson, project inspector from the Oregon Department of Transportation, are like kids at a birthday party as workers from Oregon City's PCR Construction open the historic package.

The only treasure, so far, said Lairson, was an old rusty can bearing two sets of letters, KER and in another spot, ATE.

Lairson took it back to ODOT offices where workers played a kind of 'Wheel of Fortune' game and came up with a possible solution, Quaker State (as in the motor oil). Workers also are finding telephone line conduit that was placed in the tunnel years ago.

The restored tunnel will be reinforced with long metal rods, steel plates, a layer of shotcrete and finally, a timbered lining of Western Red Cedar. The Oneonta Gorge Creek bridge is being reinforced with fiber beams. At its west end is an old staircase that leads down to the creek, a popular hiking/wading trip in late summer.

The new parking lot and plaza also will solve safety issues, Sell said. Previously, visitors parked near the west end of the tunnel and pulled back onto the highway on a blind curve.

The original historic highway boasted four tunnels. Restoration opened the Mosier twin tunnels to bicycle and occasional historic vehicle traffic in 2000. Oneonta is third on the list and a replica of the fabled Mitchell Point windowed tunnel, destroyed during freeway construction, is a gleam in planners' eyes.

The Historic Columbia River Highway was the first scenic highway in the United States. Officially opened July 6, 1915, it was considered a marvel of highway engineering but was quickly outdated as cars and trucks became bigger and traveled at higher speeds.

In 1948 when Oneonta Tunnel was closed, the railway line was moved to the north to allow the highway to curve around the basalt cliff at the mouth of Oneonta Gorge.

Construction of the water-level, four-lane highway up the Columbia Gorge beginning in 1949 left two long driveable sections of the scenic road, one from Troutdale to Ainsworth and the other east of Mosier.

Other abandoned sections of the highway have since been reclaimed for bicycle and hiking use, and highway buffs would like to see the remaining segments of the road linked by its 100th birthday in 2016.