Murray C. Morgan Nelson Bennett and the Stampede Pass Tunnel
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Copyright, 1960, Murray Morgan All Rights Reserved
Nelson Bennett and the Stampede Pass Tunnel
On January 22, 1886, Captain Sidney Bennett, temporarily resident in Yakima, received a telegram from his younger brother Nelson, then visiting in Philadelphia. The wire said the Bennett brothers had won the contract to drive a tunnel 16 feet wide, 22 feet high at the crown, 9,850 feet long through the north shoulder of Mount Rainier. "Get going," said the kid brother, who was boss. Sidney Bennett needed no urging. Haste was imperative. He and Nelson were not only undertaking an assignment of formidable difficulty, but they were betting more than they possessed that they could finish the job in twenty - eight months. Their contract pledged a one - hundred - thousand - dollar performance bond plus 10 percent of the contract price if they failed to have trains rolling under the Cascades by May 22, 1888. Back in Philadelphia where the bids had been opened, the defeated contractors, who numbered a dozen, were predicting that the Bennett brothers' victory would not make them but break them. Their bid had been so low - less than half that by some of their more experienced rivals - that even if they beat the deadline they could still lose a fortune. But if anyone could get the job done on time, it was agreed, the Bennetts were the ones. Nelson Bennett was forty - three years old, five feet nine inches in height and almost as wide: put a mustache and goatee on a bulldozer and you would have a reasonable facsimile. Born in Canada, left fatherless at six, Nelson quit school at fourteen to work on a farm. He came to the United States during the Civil War, helped build Army barracks for a time, then caught on as a brakeman on the Dixon Air Line. Nelson was in Detroit in 1864 when he received a letter from one of his brothers In Pennsylvania: "I have found the Eldorado - Come at once. I am boring for oil and we can slip into a fortune as easy as eating mince pie." Nelson could not draw his railroad pay until the end of the month, so he got himself fired on his next run. He arrived in the oil fields with two dollars, worked four weeks as a day laborer, then passed himself off as a contractor and agreed to bore a six - hundred - foot well (" I hired a competent man to manage then stood round looking wise until I learned something"). He sank twenty - seven wells before the boom tapered off. He took a small fortune west but lost it in land speculation in Missouri and Iowa. Next he taught school in Missouri (he had gone through the sixth grade), fought Indians (twenty personal acquaintances were killed in the race wars of the West), prospected in the Dakotas, organized a mule - train freight service in the Southwest. He was in Salt Lake City, broke again, when the copper rush to Montana began. Bennett contracted to move a quartz mill from Ophir, Utah, to Butte, six hundred miles, on mule back, and did it. He put the profits into building Butte's first street railway and the profits from that into moving a steam sawmill into the Lost River region of Idaho. He was rich again. His Rocky Mountain activities brought Bennett into contact with Washington Dunn, who was building the Utah and Northern for Jay Gould. Bennett teamed up with Dunn, doing the outside work while Dunn hustled contracts. They undertook to dig a thirty - five - mile irrigation ditch in Idaho to carry Snake River water to 270,000 acres. The job required six hundred men, twelve hundred horses, and an arsenal of drilling and blasting equipment. On this project Sidney Bennett, Nelson's leaner and meaner older brother, a cavalry captain in the Civil War, demonstrated what an admirer called "a peculiar genius for slave-driving." Dunn died, and Nelson Bennett went into the negotiating end of the business, leaving Sidney to direct field work. The Bennetts won the contract for the first 134 miles of the Cascade Division, Pasco to Ellensburg, before securing the Stampede assignment. A human bulldozer and a slave - driving genius were needed on the Stampede. just getting men and machines to the work site required prodigious effort. Nelson shipped west five engines, two water wheels, five air compressors, eight seventy - horsepower boilers, four large exhaust fans, two complete electric arc-light plants, two miles of six - inch wrought - iron pipe, two miles of water pipe, two fully equipped machine shops, assorted tools, thirty - six air - drilling machines, several tons of steel drills, two locomotives (named "Sadie" and "Ceta" after his daughters), sixty dump - cars, two sawmills, and a telephone system. On the east side of the Cascades, the rails toward the mountains ended just beyond the village of Yakima; on the west they had been run from Tacoma through Buckley to Eagle Gorge. Beyond the railheads only vague pack - trails twisted through the forests, up to the mountainsides, to the portals. An even sketchier path went up through the pass to connect the east and west work sites. It was so indistinct that the veteran John McAllister and a companion lost their way and their horses in a snowstorm, and survived for a week on nothing but boiled oats. When a search party reached them McAllister was shoveling a path down the mountain through ten feet of snow. "Have you any grub?" McAllister asked his rescuers. "Yes." The old settler sat down and wept. Through such country, in the dead of winter, Sidney Bennett had to move an industry, a work force, and living facilities, against a deadline. The first wagons started from Yakima only eleven days after the contract was signed. In the dry, rocky hills around Yakima the crews chipped away at the road with picks, but as they approached the mountains they came to a stretch of fifteen miles where a warm Chinook wind had melted the snow. The wagons sank above the axles. So they built a moving roadway of planks. Boards were laid end to end across the bog, the rear boards being hand - carried forward as soon as the back wheels of the wagon cleared them. It proved impossible to keep the wheels on the planks with the horses hitched in the normal way. They rigged block and tackle, fastened one end of the rope to the wagon tongue, the team to the other end, and drivers slogged ahead of the wagon shouldering the tongue to guide it. When all went well they could make a mile a day. Things were worse in the mountains. The trail led along gorges five hundred to a thousand feet deep; it crossed creeks and rivers; it threaded through a tangle of forest. Where the grades were steepest and not even double - teaming could move the wagons, the block and tackle was rigged from trees to allow the horses to pull downhill. In some stretches the machinery was put on scows that could be skidded across the frozen snow. The weather was awful, alternating rain and snow. The winds could knock down a horse. An advance party under Master Builder W. H. Buckner reached the east face on February 9. "Before we could get to the portal," he reported, "we had to shovel a road through snow 800 feet long and eight feet deep. At the face of the tunnel there was 200 inches of water falling from the top of the bluff 170 feet, which had to be turned. There was ice eight to ten feet deep across the cliff. We made a cut through snow and ice twenty feet wide, eight to ten deep and 150 feet long just to get at the portal at the east end. In order to reach the west portal it was necessary to shovel a trail through snow four to ten feet deep, four feet wide, and four miles long." Hand - drilling on the approach to the east face began February 13. Entries in Sidney Bennett's work journal are laconic:
Feb. 15. Work on excavation on approach to tunnel will be prosecuted until point of heading is reached.
March 15. 36 inches of snow fell within the last 36 hours.
March 21. Rained for last 24 hours.
March 27. Began work on the "bench" inside east portal.
March 31. Commenced timbering; put 12 sets in - the first used.
April 1. Sixty men worked in east end. Completed excavation of the approaches to the heading at west end.
April 2. Commenced running the heading of the west end. The extent of the day's work was 51/2 feet by hand drills. The excavators at the east end have made to this date 200 feet.
April 6. Harder rock - blue trappite in the west end.
May 1. Snow retarding the work in the east end.
May 5. The first man injured. It was by falling rock.
On the trail, organization replaced improvisation. A hundred wagons were moving men and machinery up the roads. Stations had been built every twelve miles. These were "rag shows" - tent camps - where teamsters could get food and sleep. It had been found that sleds that worked on the slanted snow fields could be hauled across mud as the freezing line rose with the temperature. At the portals the men lived in real houses, though on the east side workers had to shovel away fifty feet of snow to reach solid ground for the foundation of what was called Tunnel City. The first compressor boiler left Yakima on February 22. It was eight weeks reaching the portal but on June 19 the equipment was assembled. Sidney's notes say triumphantly, "Two Ingersoll drills started in the east end - the first machinery that started." If the Bennetts were to beat the deadline, it would be with the help of technology. They planned to attack the rock with six Ingersoll Eclipse drills at each end of the tunnel, the power to be generated on the east side where six large boilers were installed to supply four 480 - horsepower compressors. A pipe 12,500 feet long was run over the pass to carry air to the drills at the west face. Captain Sidney hoped to drill 400 feet of rock a month when under full steam. More than 122,000 cubic yards of rock were to be chipped out of the mountain. Just finding a place to put the debris was a problem. On the west end the rock was run down a spur for a quarter of a mile, then dumped into a ravine that was eventually filled and used as roadbed for the track. A visitor who rode one of the dump trucks reported that it went downhill "with a speed that made a person's hair rise like the quills of a fretful porcupine." Reporters trooped "to the front." Those from Tacoma tended to be enthusiastic, those from Seattle and Portland dubious. A favorite rumor was that there had been an engineering miscalculation and when the east side and west side meet in the middle they'll be a mile apart." Tilton Sheets, a civil engineer and surveyor, visited the digs in July to assure readers of the Tacoma Ledger that all was well. His tone was that of a recruiting sergeant: Any man who will work can find employment and command from two dollars all the way to three per day according to how he can work. If he is worth three he can get it. How do the men live - their board and all that? Very well - as cheaply and well as they could live in Tacoma. The contractors have built camps and the men are well fed - plenty of beef and good food otherwise, for all of which they pay $4.50 a week. Of course it's roughing it a little - that's understood. Every man provides his own blankets. Good meals can be obtained at points along the road towards Ellensburg at two - bits, but up towards the summit they come higher, naturally enough - say four - bits. For parties visiting the scene on a flying excursion it is advisable to take provisions along. Saloons? Oh, yes - too many of them. That's one trouble. Many of the men get caught by them every pay day and don't work till they have to. Another Ledger reporter met a professional gambler coming down from the west portal. He was in complete agreement with Surveyor Tilton about the opportunities for diversion on the mountainside: His smile was contagious even across a hundred feet of space. He carried only a little hand satchel such as ladies affect. Shaking this and smiling over the clash of ivory and what - not within, he asked: "Poker? Roulette? Chuckluck? Try your hand. Anything you wish." Pleased at the reception of this sally, he continued. "What's your racket? I can tell you, it's no good up there. I've been all through it, from Ellensburg to the Gorge, all through. It's worked out. "There's saloons and restaurants every fifty feet. You can get a good meal for two - bits - as good as you can at Tacoma. There's nothing left in it for us. What's your game? Whiskey?" Such prosperity and luxury proved more than some men could stand. The week that Tilton Sheets' effusion appeared in the Ledger, Captain Sidney penned an unusually long entry in his daily journal: About 150 men in east end struck for nine hours as a day's work. [They were working twelve - hour shifts, seven days a week.] It lasted two days but did not prevail. In this matter the sheriff of [Yakima] county was called upon the ground to prevent disorder and injury to persons or property. One man was shot by him in his attempt to escape arrest on a criminal charge. In a letter to Nelson, who was at company headquarters in Tacoma, Sidney remarked that they were using three crews at all times, "one coming, one drilling, one quitting." But the work went on.
August 9. Electric lights were extended in the west end, having previously been placed in the east end. The rock in the east end is getting so hard it has to be blasted with No. I Giant Powder.
August 18. One man killed and another injured by blasting.
Sept. 1. Three Ingersoll drills started for the first time in the west end.
At this point Sidney added up progress and estimated what remained to be done to meet the deadline. They would have to average 13.58 feet a day through May 21, 1888. The crews had yet to make as much as 13 feet on any day.
Sept. 5. Work was advanced so far that the smoke and gas incident from blasting had to be remedied, and the steam fans were applied, which helped clean the tunnel thereof.
Sept. 25. Drilling delayed because of the breaking of rock above the face of the tunnel caused by blasting shots. Five days to remedy.
Oct. 1. The end of this month found us 33 feet short of the daily average required.
Oct. 15. Air boxes were extended 265 feet in the west end.
Oct. 29. The tunnel is in bad shape. The roof is cracking and rock is falling, which causes delay.
Oct. 31. This month showed a gain of 17 feet over the daily average required.
Nov. 1. A Foreman and five men have quit because of some grievance and left camp.
Nov. 18. Snow sheds over the dump track to be built.
Nov. 29. A land slide into the crib became so extensive we had to stop work in the east end for a week, which delays progress.
Nov. 30. This month work fell behind 231/2 feet.
Dec. 1. Work delayed by rain which caused east end of tunnel to be flooded.
Dec. 31. There was a loss of the required average in December of 9 feet. Five months of machine work in tunnel during year. 48 feet behind schedule.
The delays in construction and the increasing stridency of the campaign in Congress for forfeiture of the unearned land grants caused NP President Harris early in 1887 to decide to lay a temporary switchback track through the pass. That way train service could begin before the tunnel was complete. A thousand more men were hired in March to shovel snow off the mountain above the tunnel so that rails could be zig - zagged over the summit. With the realization that they would have a direct connection with the east a year ahead of schedule, Tacomans were caught on a rising tide of enthusiasm. Tourist excursions were organized to visit the end of the line and applaud the workers as they marched off to the front, shovels on their shoulders. "Beyond the end of the track," wrote the Ledger's front line correspondent, a clearing very like a new country road extends along the edge of the river and fringes the hill and is soon lost at the turn. A few men may be seen lifting and letting fall their shovels here and there where the road leads over into full view. Columns of blue smoke rise above the trees at irregular intervals. A few workmen are building a footbridge across the river back of the station. The large tents are in the midst of a partial clearing and about 30 horses and mules stamp and whinny under the trees while pack men are binding to their backs bales of hay, barrels and bundles of every description, while for every switch of the tail or misstep of the burdened animal his heart is sent to perdition forty times in the loud prayers of the drivers. They are leaving now, as late as 11 A.M., starting away by the trail, which, a mere pathway, begins at once a precipitate ascent of the mountain. They go in single file, the drivers or pack men more noisy than before, keeping the horses in line. A few laborers have just come in and are directed on toward the picks and the new dirt and the smoke in the shadowy gap further along. A sound, as of distant cannonading, seems to shake the earth as it rolls down from out of the mysterious shadows of the gulch and beyond. Every few moments a thunder and crash through the woods tells of the blasting rocks and the fall of giant trees. And this is the front. By March 28, 1877, the shovel brigade had cleared enough roadbed for the start of track - laying above the tunnel. The rails sashayed up the slope in a series of three switches on each side of the mountain. At each switchback the train would run up to a dead end and back onto the track climbing to the next switch. This Z - route reduced the grade to 297 feet per mile. The last spike on the switchback was driven at two minutes past six on the afternoon of June 1. Assistant General Manager J. M. Buckley (for whom the Northern Pacific named the town of Buckley) served as master of ceremonies. Mrs. H. S. Huson, wife of the assistant project engineer, made the final tap on the spike with a bottle of champagne. An experimental first train - two locomotives, a baggage car, caboose, and a wooden - seated coach - was sent from Yakima to Tacoma on June 6. The route having been tested, Charles Wright was carried over it in triumph the next day in his private parlor car. Scheduled traffic over the Stampede began July 3. The first regular overland train to the east - four coaches, with twenty passengers - left Tacoma at 1:45 P.m. The first westbound passenger train arrived at 7:15 - seven hours late. On the Fourth of July Tacoma for the second time celebrated the completion of the transcontinental. President Cleveland was invited to speak but the celebrants had to settle for lank, scruffy Eugene Semple, the governor. A grandstand was built at the present site of Stadium High School. The papers claimed that eighteen thousand visitors came to town, which would have been more than the combined populations of Seattle and Olympia. Festivities lasted three days, marred only by a dispute in the hose - laying contest between the Seattle and Tacoma fire departments. Somebody recognized one of the Seattle volunteers as a professional sprinter who specialized in running at carnivals with the handicap of a fifty - pound flour sack on his shoulders. The switchback served more as a symbol of the Northern Pacific's intention to complete the route than as a serviceable means of transportation. The track had been laid so hastily on frozen ground that much of it had to be replaced after the first thaw. The grade was too steep to permit heavy freight. Crews drew hazard pay for running the huge decapod lokeys that were hooked fore and aft to trains of five passenger coaches or five light - loaded freight cars for the eight miles between Martin on the east side and Stampede on the west. There was a brakeman for every two cars. Notwithstanding the precautions there were accidents. Engineer Harvey Reed was taking a decapod over the pass with a load of heavy bridge timbers. The engine broke down. Reed tried to jockey the load over the top with a little Baldwin, Engine 457. He pushed the freight car up the first leg of the switchback but, as he backed up the second leg, snow jammed into the sand pipes. When he called for sand, none spilled onto the track. The wheels of the Baldwin began to spin on slick steel. Engine and car slowed, halted, and, after a desperate wheel - spinning pause, slipped backwards, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Reed and his firemen jumped, landing safely in snowdrifts. Engine and car sped down the slope, rocking around curves until they came to a curving trestle where two men were working. The engine struck one man killing him instantly. His companion dropped face down on the ties. Just as it reached him the engine lumped the track, hurtled over the side without touching him, and plunged into the ravine. Engine 457 was restored to service, as was Engineer Reed. He was at the throttle of the little Baldwin three months later when it was overtaken and rammed from behind in a tunnel. The coal tender was knocked loose but there was enough water left in the boiler for Reed to get back to Marlin. For years old - timers yarned about the arrival of the bob - tail lokey. While the trains ran the slalom course over the summit, Captain Sidney's work gangs moled below, none too expeditiously. There were slides, strikes, cave - ins, deaths from blasting, and some mayhem at management level. Sidney persuaded Nelson to persuade President Harris to remove the project engineer, with whom Sidney did not see eye to eye. And somebody, somewhere along the line of authority, decided to furnish slave - driver Sidney with a carrot as well as a club. A bonus was offered. Each month, for every foot gained over the necessary average of 13.58 feet a day, laborers doing continuous duty were paid twenty - five cents extra, drill men and expert workmen, fifty cents. The pace increased phenomenally. On September 1, 1887, a year after the Ingersolls were put at both faces, work was 410 feet behind schedule. In the next eight and a half months they made up 4541/2 feet - 1321/2 in April alone. It cost the Bennetts thirty - three dollars extra for every man who had worked steadily that thirty days - and it saved the performance bond. Moving into May, when each blast might mean open space ahead, the Bennetts offered a thousand dollars to the first man through the bore with the fringe benefit of a steak dinner and whiskey for the side he represented. Each team picked a tough little powder - monkey who could wiggle and struggle. Foremen had problems keeping the chosen men out of the area of flying rock when shots were touched off. Shortly after noon on May 3, 1888, the men who rushed into the smoke and rock dust after a blast felt a draft. The west side representative wriggled into the hole and collided, head - on, with the eastern representative. As the delegates butted each other, their constituents pushed in behind, heaving and struggling, until at last the man from the west was shoved through - skinned, bleeding, triumphant. For the west this offset the statistic that through the long campaign the east had moved more rock. Captain Sidney's wife had long insisted she would be the first person to walk under the Cascade range. She at least was the first of her sex. On her first crawl, Mrs. Bennett, a lady of heroic proportions, became stuck. The eastern team managed to pull her back by her ankles. Chagrined but determined she went down the tunnel, shed some undergarments, and, according to legend, sent out for a bucket of lard to coat her shoulders and hips. This time the men of the west gallantly pulled her through. She arose, her dark hair powdered with blasted basalt, and uttered the immortal words, "The drinks, gentlemen, are on my husband." In Tacoma, along Cliff Avenue, the cannons thundered again. For the third time the Northern Pacific had been completed, this time for real.
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