The underground railroad 

A strange silence surrounds the pending transformation of one of Detroit’s forgotten engineering triumphs. Though few have seen it — and security will certainly try to stop you should you want to take a peek up-close — the Detroit River Tunnel is likely to stop running trains between the United States and Canada within the next few years.

When ground was broken on the tunnel almost a century ago, it captured the imaginations of engineers all over the country. It would be the first underwater international crossing in the world. It was to be built under what was one of the busiest waterways in the world — without disrupting the ceaseless flow of ships, barges and ferries.

The idea of a tunnel linking both sides of the strait had long fascinated engineers and merchants in the area. The first serious attempt was made in 1871, boring out under the river from the bottom of St. Antoine Street. After progressing only 45 yards, however, the sandhogs hit a pocket of poisonous gas and became seriously ill. As news of this calamity spread, work on the tunnel was abandoned. Nobody could be induced to take the job.

Another tunnel was begun in 1878 to connect Michigan Central Railroad track on Grosse Ile with Amherstburg, Ontario. Though all appeared to be going well at first, the enterprise failed when engineers encountered dense formations of limestone that made costs skyrocket to prohibitive levels.

If all of these engineering obstacles weren’t enough, local shipping interests also sought to block any competing mode of transportation across the river. Despite the enduring dream of safe, year-round passage under the river, unhampered by the winter freeze, for the next three decades all commerce would be conducted on the water’s surface.

The formidable task met its match in the chief engineer of the Detroit River Tunnel Co., Wilson S. Kinnear, who was a formidable figure in his own right. Standing 6-foot-4, this barrel-chested man exuded such raw energy and seemed so absorbed in engineering that one contemporary commented, “It is doubtful if he ever read a book of poetry in his life.” With few precedents to aid him, Kinnear set about devising a plan to build the tunnel, beginning a block south of what is now the intersection of Bagley and Rosa Parks Boulevard, running underground southeast for two miles and terminating in Windsor. It would stretch for one-and-a-half miles underground, three-quarters of a mile under water.

He shrewdly resorted to a method of sinking the tunnel in sections, joining them underwater and pumping them dry. As the tunnel neared completion in 1910, the workers were still finishing the task of sinking the massive double-barreled tunnel sections of cast iron and concrete into a trench in the river’s bottom. It was one of the first tunnels constructed in this manner in the world.

Chief among the problems faced by Kinnear was how to plan for future traffic. As a local paper wrote at the time, “Once the tunnel is finished, the work is done for all time. You can’t enlarge, as you add another story to a building.”

Kinnear’s design proved practical for many years, but at last it seems that the venerable tube will succumb to the demands of today’s railroading. Though the tunnel was rebored just 10 years ago to accommodate today’s taller trains, it still poses problems for its operating railway, Canadian Pacific. Even though CP still runs about 30 trains a day through the tunnel during busy times, much of the region’s international rail traffic is routed through Canadian National’s new Port Huron-Sarnia tube, which was built with greater clearance in 1995.

The Detroit River Tunnel Partnership, a Canadian company owned partly by CP, now plans to bore a new railway tunnel under the Detroit River, next to the existing tunnel and roughly paralleling its path. Upon completion of the new tunnel, the old railroad tunnel is slated to be converted into a conduit for two-way truck traffic between the United States and Canada. This would involve laying down concrete for a dedicated truckway as far inland as I-75, completely fenced off for security.

Though CP characterizes the move as a rail expansion — certainly more trains will run through the new tunnel — the bitter irony would be that what remains of Michigan Central Station would stand in front of a bustling truck yard. At this time, some subsidies still must fall into place and environmental assessments attendant on the project have yet to be filed on the American side. Nevertheless, the private funding has been secured and company officials say the business plan is moving forward.

It was with this in mind that I sidestepped down the dirt embankment behind the intersection of Porter and Vermont, hoping to take what could be a final photo of the west rail portal. I stepped out onto a platform resting atop the massive concrete walls laid almost 100 years ago. I snapped one photo before I was flagged by a security guard who was courteous but firm: I had to leave — and no pictures.

Driving up to Bagley, I walked up onto the bridge over the tracks. Gazing down at the twin tubes, I was startled by the deafening horn of a Canada-bound freight barreling underneath, bowling down into the left tube. Behind me rose the rotting old train station. Below me lay what was once lauded as “one of the most remarkable feats in engineering annals.” I was left wondering, a bit darkly, how much longer one can enjoy the intervals of silence between the roaring trains, before a perpetual convoy of trucks queues up with droning engines. In the Motor City, I guess it’s called progress.

Michael Jackman is a Detroit freelance writer. E-mail him at

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