The First International Tunnel (and its replacement)
Column for May 2, 2005
I bet you didnít know that transportation history took place under the St. Clair River between Port Huron and Sarnia when the very first international tunnel was opened by the Grand Trunk Western Railroad in 1891. Called the St. Clair Tunnel, it was also the first tunnel dug in North America underneath a river and used what was then new tunnel techniques which include the "shield" method of tunneling, the use of compressed air and a cast iron lining to successfully tunnel under the soft earth of a river bed. This solved a huge bottleneck in rail traffic. It also caused great concern to Detroit business leaders who feared the St. Clair Tunnel would divert commerce from Detroit to Port Huron so they demanded that a rail tunnel be dug under the Detroit River which was completed in 1910.

The digging of the St. Clair Tunnel was a marvel of 19th Century technology. It was designed by Joseph Hobson who also supervised the tunnelís construction. The circular shields at both ends of the tunnel were pushed in by hydraulic jacks. Workers hand dug the earth who were followed by workers who lined the tunnel with circular cast iron sections. The shields met on August 30, 1890, almost in perfect alignment.

The tunnel originally used steam locomotives, but after a crew was asphyxiated because of an unforeseen delay inside the tunnel, the tunnel was electrified and electric locomotives were introduced in 1908. The electric locomotives were used in the tunnel until diesel locomotives were introduced 50 years later in 1958. During World War I, a plot to blast the tunnel was foiled. The tracks were lowered in 1949 to accommodate larger freight cars.

Eventually, even larger freight cars including double decker cars were introduced which could not fit in the tunnel so the cars were uncoupled and placed on barges to the other side to be recoupled. In 1992, plans were undertaken to build a replacement tunnel next to the century-old tunnel which would accommodate the largest freight cars. Again, Detroit objected to this tunnel but to no avail. In constructing the new tunnel, the latest technology would be used including tunnel digging techniques perfected for the tunnel under the English Channel connecting the United Kingdom and France. A gigantic boring machine 31 feet in diameter or three stories high called the Excalibore was used for the actual digging. Excalibore broke through on December 8, 1994 and the new tunnel was dedicated on May 5, 1995. The old tunnel was retired and filled in with sand. On November 30, 2004, the new tunnel was renamed in honor of Paul Tellier, the CEO of Canadian National Railway (CN) from 1992 to 2002 and the man who had the new tunnel built. A close up of the tunnel entrance is at http://www.cn.ca/images/content/pmt_tunnel.jpg

Both the old and new tunnel also carried passenger trains which were first operated by the Grand Trunk Western and its parent Canadian National Railways and later by the USA and Canadaís passenger rail services, Amtrak and VIA. But the terrorist attacks of 9/11 forced unwanted changes. After the terrorist attacks, the Amtrak/VIA train was stopped in Sarnia and the passengers and their luggage were forced to board a bus which crossed the Blue Water Bridge and went through customs before reboarding the train at Port Huron. This helped lead to the end of Amtrak/VIAís "International" service between Toronto and Chicago. On April 22, 2004, the last Amtrak train crossed 16th Street in Port Huron and entered the tunnel to Sarnia for the final time. The International was replaced by the Blue Water from Chicago to Port Huron which was also the name of the Amtrak line which was introduced in 1974 before it was extended to Toronto. The official reason I was told was that Amtrak and VIA couldnít agree on a compatible schedule. So I now have to drive to either Sarnia or London to catch a train to Toronto. I prefer London as thatís an easy two-hour drive from Flint assuming that there are no problems at the Blue Water Bridge and there are six trains a day leaving from London as opposed to just two from Sarnia.

Another unwanted effect was the removal of a viewing platform in Sarnia above the two tunnel entrances which was built for the public to see the construction of the new tunnel. I took a picture of the tunnel from the platform in 1995. This year, with no parking signs and no trespassing signs all over the place, I quickly took a new picture by letting my car stand on St. Andrew Street between Vidal and Christina with the motor running and the flashers on and walked to the fence where the two historical markers ( http://www.ontarioplaques.com/Locations/Lambton/Webpages/W06.html ) still are to quickly take the picture before calmly walking back to the car to leave. That was my thrill seeking for the day to take the picture without getting caught. There is one historical marker for the original tunnel on 16th Street in Port Huron in front of the Amtrak station ( http://www.michmarkers.com/startup.asp?startpage=S0081.htm ). Since I can still dream, Iíll take the train from Sarnia through the tunnel back to Michigan and head to an historic stop which celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year where the Blue Water train still makes a stop. Thatís the planned subject of the next column.