FEATURE – In today’s political and environmental climate, there is no way it could be built, but back in the 1930s the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel through Zion National park was considered both an engineering marvel and a much-needed transportation link.
The Zion Tunnel has stood as a monument to engineering resolve and interagency cooperation since its completion in 1930. Not only was it a boon to the local economy by bringing in more tourists, but it also provided a vital thoroughfare between Washington and Kane counties and literally opened up a whole new world by offering access to east Zion with its different formations and wildlife than found in Zion Canyon via the park’s south entrance.
“The Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel has to be one of the great examples of cooperation in the creation of Utah’s tourism infrastructure,” said Zion National Park Forever Project Executive Director Lyman Hafen, also an aficionado of local history, in an email to St. George News. “Obviously, there was a real ‘can-do’ spirit that pervaded not only Utah, but the whole country in the mid 1920s, and most folks in southern Utah were supportive of building roads and connecting the relatively new national parks.”
In fact, the road and tunnel project were not approved until it was certain Bryce Canyon would be designated a national park.
Before the tunnel’s construction, any visitor to Zion had to approach the park from the southwest and, once there, it was a dead end. Drivers had to return the same way they came.
The Utah Parks Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad responsible for the early development of Zion, called the bus tours it conducted through Zion, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks its “Grand Loop Tours.” The new tunnel and road made those tours a much shorter and convenient loop.
In fact, Carl Gray, Union Pacific president, remarked that that conditions in the park eight years before the tunnel and road’s completion, when he first visited it, were practically the difference between pioneer and modern times.
The tunnel and connecting highway reduced the travel time to Bryce Canyon by half and the mileage from 149 to 88 miles. Even though it only cut the distance to the Grand Canyon from 142 to 126 miles, it cut travel time by a third because of the better roads along the new route.
The tunnel climbs 289 feet from the west to east end at a 3.3 percent grade, sits approximately 800 feet above the Zion Canyon floor and 20 feet inside the sandstone monolith in which it is housed.
“The selection of the route for this road was not an easy matter,” said B.J. Finch, district engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, who surveyed the tunnel, according to a July 5, 1930, report in The Salt Lake Tribune. “The only road then existing between Rockville on the west and Kanab on the east lay by a devious route through an uninhabited section of Arizona and there was little prospect of any funds for its improvement.”
In fact, the National Park Service had expended money outside of park boundaries, a major anomaly at the time, to build the Rockville Bridge in 1924 to shorten the route between Zion and the Grand Canyon over an unpaved road now known as the Smithsonian Butte Scenic Backway.
To this day, the tunnel is the state of Utah’s as well as the National Park Service’s longest underground highway passage. Taking three years to complete between 1927-1930, the whole project cost approximately $1.5 million – $503,00 f0r the 1.1-mile tunnel and $937,00 for the connecting highway – 3.5 miles of switchbacks west of the tunnel and and 8.5 miles of road east of the tunnel to the park’s east entrance. The state spent approximately $500,000 for the 16.5 miles of road leading from the park’s east entrance to Mt. Carmel Junction.
Surveying the tunnel
In the early 20th century, some engineers tried to figure out a way to build a road from Zion that would provide access east to Kanab and what would become U.S. Highway 89 and said it was impossible. Others came and said it might be possible, but it would be extremely expensive.
It’s just a good thing that the surveyors were introduced to local stockman John Winder.
State and federal road commissioners came and investigated up and down the canyon looking for a way to build a road out the east side, Hafen said. Luckily for them, Winder, who had spent his life exploring the East Rim, had figured out the best way to trail livestock up to the summer pastures on the plateau.
“The engineers and commissioners could not come up with a suitable site or plan for a road until Winder took them into Pine Creek Canyon and told them that would be their best bet,” Hafen said. “If those outside professionals hadn’t sought out the kind of local knowledge John Winder could give them, we might not have the tunnel today.”
“The tunnel involved some new problems in engineering – problems that no engineer had ever tackled before,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported the day of the tunnel and road’s dedication. “The first of these was that the tunnel could not be surveyed by any of the usual methods. No human being had ever been at either of the points where the two portals of the tunnel now open to daylight.”
Utah Governor George Dern was very complimentary of the surveyors at the dedication ceremony of the tunnel and road. They deserved every superlative he threw at them.
Dern said the early engineers visualized a road where it seem almost unbelievable that a road could be built.
“It was necessary to scale vertical cliffs by means of ropes and ladders in order to scout the territory and find an available alignment,” he said at the road and tunnel’s dedicatory program.
The surveying took place over a four year period and involved many “tedious and dangerous hours,” said Finch. “The engineers climbed and descended impossible cliffs and by means of ropes, waded in water to their waists for hours at a time and endured temperatures ranging from zero to 120 degrees.”
Despite these conditions, the surveyors were accurate in their measurements and “conquered the difficulties of surveying the tunnel with such success that at no place were the workmen more than three inches out of line with one another in making their bores meet,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported at the time of dedication.
“The fact that workers began at each end of the mile-long project, drilling and blasting through solid rock and darkness and somehow ended up less than a foot off from meeting perfectly in the middle, is an amazing example of cooperation,” Hafen noted.
Tunnel and highway construction
Construction of the tunnel and highway commenced in September 1927. The Nevada Construction Company of Fallon, Nevada, earned the contract to build the tunnel and set up a contractor’s camp in Pine Creek Canyon that included a cable tramway traveling 1,200 feet across and 400 feet up from the canyon floor to the camp, which was then inaccessible by vehicle.
A lot of blasting took place to build the road and tunnel – blasting away sandstone that stood in the way with dynamite on both the east and west sides of the tunnel. For instance, large boulders in the path of where the roadway would be had to be blasted into smaller rocks to prevent catastrophic accidents.
Dynamite wasn’t without perils. One blast sent a 10-pound piece of sandstone inside the camp’s mess hall, prompting camp residents to run outside and stand close to the canyon walls when any dynamite went off so they could avoid becoming a casualty.
The first step in building the tunnel was blasting six galleries approximately 20 feet into the sandstone. From those galleries, workers drilled a pilot tunnel through the sandstone monolith and enlarged it using 146 tons of dynamite, removing the debris with an Erie Air Shovel, powered by compressed air to cut down on pollution and smoke.
Workers dumped the waste and debris from the formation of the tunnel through those galleries via narrow-gauge railcars. Over the years, revegetation and erosion have erased any trace of this dumping.
It seems counterintuitive, but even though they took no thought to dumping debris out of the galleries, construction crews were careful not to disturb trees within the blasting area. By the same token, plans for the switchbacks of the road leading up to the tunnel were altered slightly to avoid disturbing a striking rock outcropping known locally as “Sandwich Rocks.”
The 1.1-mile tunnel was ultimately cut to a width of 22 feet and height of 16 feet. One report noted that 10 holes were made in the mountain that were connected to create the tunnel.
Just as the National Park Service rustic architecture like Zion Lodge being built at the time, affectionately known as “Parkitecture,” the bridges and masonry walls of the highway were planned to harmonize with the surrounding landscape and often used the same sandstone as the monoliths themselves to enhance the natural beauty.
Not coincidentally, the Zion-Mt. Carmel road follows the identical route surveyed by the pioneers 35 years before as a road connecting Kane and Washington counties.
Only two crew members were killed during construction: crew boss Johnny Morrison after inhaling too much dust and dynamite fumes and Mac McClain after being pinned against a power shovel after a rock slide.
The tunnel’s original six galleries gave visitors the opportunity to stop and see the surrounding scenery, which includes East Temple and the Great Arch, in a different perspective. At the time, traffic was much lighter and cars were smaller, so it did not cause any problems for people to stop and gawk.
The first gallery closed because water seepage through the opening iced the highway in winter. A rockslide on April 28, 1958, sealed another gallery, prompting the whole tunnel to be reinforced with extra steel and concrete. Over the years, two other galleries closed, leaving only two open today for ventilation. Stopping in the tunnel is now prohibited because of increased traffic.
The dedication ceremony
The dedication ceremony, held on July 4, 1930, was an Independence Day celebration held inside the tunnel with the galleries adorned with U.S. flags. KSL Radio even broadcast a live report from the ceremony. Many governors from around the U.S. were in attendance, traveling down from Salt Lake City as part of a governors conference.
Finch and Dern spoke at the ceremony. Heber J. Grant, then president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered the dedicatory prayer.
At the dedication, Dern spoke in reverence to first National Park Service Director Stephen Mather, who he said provided “vigorous assistance” to the project and said he regretted that Mather could not be in attendance; his last official NPS trip was to inspect the progress of the tunnel in the fall of 1928 and he died six months before the dedication. Dern even said he felt it appropriate if the road had been named the Stephen T. Mather Highway, which, of course, never happened.
“The completed road over which we are traveling today speaks in its own language of the engineering skill of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads and the state road commission of Utah,” Dern said. “Well-informed highway engineers have pronounced this the most remarkable road ever built, and the road itself will prove another attraction added to Zion Canyon.”
Thomas MacDonald, then chief of the U.S. Bureau of Roads, said the road and tunnel were symbolic cooperation between government agencies and private interests.
Dern said that as drivers look through the galleries and behold “the magnificent panorama spread before them,” he hoped that they would think of the men whose vision and skill were responsible for their creation.
The dedication ceremony brought crowds that Zion had not seen at the time. The park’s superintendent at the time, E.T. Scoyen, said the park was used to accommodating about 1,000 people a day and nearly 10,000 were expected the day of the ceremony. Only through wholehearted cooperation could the park handle the traffic situation, he said. Scoyen even encouraged visitors at the time to not spend the night in the park unless they had a reservation.
To handle traffic control, the park enlisted Boy Scouts to augment its contingent of rangers.
Parties and dares in the tunnel
Many who attended local high schools tell stories of running through the tunnel in darkness, running their hands along the sides to keep their bearings in the dark, often as a result of a dare. Some even admit to running through it naked as part of a forbidden rite of passage. But that was during a different time, when Zion’s visitation was much lower and the tunnel was more inviting and friendly.
One 89-year-old woman who grew up in Springdale told of a time when she and her friends would actually have parties in the tunnel. Dolores Spendlove, whose grandfather was John Winder, who in addition to helping out the surveyors, worked on the tunnel later. She said she fondly remembers eating watermelon and chicken while listening to music on a phonograph in the tunnel. She and her friends even roller-skated in the tunnel and she got engaged there, too.
Spendlove and her friends would slip into the windows or hide in the cracks of the walls when cars would pass, she said. One time, she climbed out one of the windows and scratched her name in a rock. She said she got a letter from the park asking her to scratch out her name.
There is practically no way such shenanigans could take place in the tunnel today with high visitation and strict traffic control in the tunnel. In fact, a bicyclist was severely injured trying to ride through the tunnel three years ago.
The 2009 tunnel walk-through
On August 26, 2009, something went on in the tunnel that has never happened before and likely won’t happen again. That day, rangers blocked all traffic on either side of the tunnel and allowed 300 lucky ticket holders to walk through the tunnel on foot as part of the festivities to commemorate Zion’s centennial.
Tickets for the event were gone only four hours after they were offered in June 2009.
Those walking through donned headlamps or flashlights and some tested the acoustics by yelling or playing music. One man even brought a homemade flute and played “Amazing Grace.”
Painter Roland Lee, known for his depictions of local pioneer life through his work, brought his sketchbook and stopped at every
window to draw as much as he could in the hour and a half allotted to the activity.
Sherri Lay, who was one of the fortunate ticket holders who walked the tunnel that day, said the most memorable part of it was being able to see and experience something most people haven’t.
“Everyone was cheering when we went into the tunnel, but as soon as we officially stepped into the tunnel a hush fell over everyone,” Lay said. “It felt like seeing a part of history. I remember thinking about the people that created the tunnel and their hard work.”
Lay said she enjoyed stopping at the windows and taking in the rare view, remarking that the windows feel much bigger on foot than when passing by them in a car.
The walk through the tunnel was special for Hafen, who served as one of the guides during the event.
He said it was an amazing thing for the few people who snagged the tickets, but the limitations on those tickets was something that is tough for visitors to deal with in a national park.
“For me, the tunnel walk in 2009 was a walk through time,” Hafen said. “Not only did it take me through those ancient layers of Navajo Sandstone, but it took me back to some of my earliest memories.”
He recounted the experience in an email to St. George News:
When I was very young we used to pass through Zion on our trips to my Grandma’s house in San Juan County. Our trusty 50s Ford sedan would chug up those switchbacks and then Dad would say, ‘Get ready… here it comes.’ And suddenly we were engulfed in darkness as that mountain of solid rock swallowed us whole. We’d roll down the windows and the dank sandstone air came at us in a rhythmic beat as we zoomed past the tunnel columns. Then Dad would lay into the horn and its shrill bark pierced my soul. And the trailing echo of that horn has stayed with me all my life and I heard it again as I walked through the tunnel in 2009. I remember how as a boy I craned my neck as we passed the tunnel windows that opened into the brightness of the canyon, and how sometimes Dad would pull off and stop (because you could in those days) at the big window and we’d get out and take in all the wonder that passed through that portal. When we’d finally drive out of the darkness at the other end of the tunnel it was almost like you’d been reborn into a new world.
Sadly, Hafen admits that future generations probably won’t have the pleasure of walking through the tunnel.
“The logistics of closing the road for several hours and shuttling folks up to the tunnel and back were complicated and difficult and I don’t know if park management will ever have the desire to try it again – especially given the fact that visitation has nearly doubled since then and how much more disruption such an event would cause,” Hafen said.
It was billed as a “once in 100 years” event, he said; wile he doesn’t see it happening in the next hundred years, he hopes he’s wrong.
When one reflects on the history of the Zion Tunnel, one question that inevitably comes to mind is, “Could it be built today?”
One author, Kim Sorvig, writing in Landscape Architecture Magazine in 2002 said that the Zion Tunnel is an example of what she calls a “park paradox.” In that era, nobody saw the irony of blasting through the geological formations that attracted visitors to the park, she said.
And that paradox is exactly why the tunnel could not be built in our day and age.
Hafen said he has a hard time imagining that the Zion Tunnel would be built in today’s world.
“With today’s technology and equipment, it would be a breeze compared to the picks and shovels of the 1920s,” he said. “But I think it’s a real question whether we actually ‘would’ surmount all the bureaucratic hurdles that would have to be jumped today.”
As Hafen attests, one can easily assume that an environmental assessment to build such a project today would be a nightmare.
But that is one more thing park staff and visitors can be thankful for as they admire the one-of-a-kind tunnel – it was built at the right time.
Visiting the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel
The tunnel is reached via the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, driving straight past its intersection with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and up the 3.5 miles of switchbacks past the Pine Creek Bridge.
Pedestrians and bicyclists are not allowed in the tunnel and stopping is prohibited when driving through. Vehicles taller than 11 feet, 4 inches or wider than 7 feet, 10 inches must obtain a tunnel permit.
For more information on the tunnel, visit Zion National Park’s tunnel information page.
Click on a photo then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.
About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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