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20 February, 2011

Backroads: 242 Tunnel

As the 20th Century began to unfold, following a 19th that had begun with exploration and ended with subjugation, nature was in retreat in the northwest. From the ports and depots, rail snaked out into the countryside, men with metal sheared the trees and dug rocks, sending the profitable parts back down the line. Many of the sites I find are from this time, the orgy of extraction inevitably followed by hangover in a smoky land of stumps with nothing left to take, at which point profiteers fell back and the forest grew anew.

Lots of people can name milestones of civil engineering like the Panama Canal, but their awareness of grand local projects doesn't kick in until the New Deal, with Grand Coulee Dam. But a generation earlier, an odder and some would say grander project kicked off, the route that would become Washington Route 242.

Most historians credit Lucius Neanderberg with the proposal made to the young state's Supervisors of Roads, in his once famous and now forgotten words "to build a roadway of stone, capacious enough to allow two fully laden stagecoaches to meet with nary a scratch to to lacquer of either." OK, not exactly catchy, no surprise that this nugget was lost to posterity. In fact, though, the idea for this route, a more or less straigh line from Yelm to Yakima (Roy to Naches, to be precise), stemmed from tales mischievous Indians told gullible explorers about secret caves, flowered from settlers' yearnings for gold and an easier way to cross the Cascades.

Neanderberg did sign the various construction plans found in the archives, and people who understand the geography immediately grasp the audacity of the plan. Between the endpoints rises the 14,000 foot peak of Rainier, or Tahoma, or just The Mountain. With that trademark American combination of manifest destiny, can-do spirit, and confidence in modern engineering's ability to overcome any roadblock nature might offer (and maybe also commitments to employ the Supervisors' associates--the roster of the venture includes many--though no paper trail has yet been found to ink a tale of corruption), Lucius secured funding and set to work.

Having grown up at his father's side, ranging ever westward scouting railroad routes, cajoling and bamboozling homesteaders whose land was needed, he had learned to use the survey transit for its practical and talismanic powers, to talk people from wariness to boosterism. To invoke Science and Progress without losing the human touch.

The Y-Y road, as it came to be known, quickly achieved the rights of way needed, in part due to the need to solve the engineering obstacle. Neanderberg's solution was to tunnel, running under land meant not paying for it outside of the few mining districts. Disinclined to engage in an endless series of switchbacks up and down the mountain, uninterested in detouring to a sensible pass, the entire project was predicated on being unprecedented. 

Neanderberg was a talented tunneler. When the interesting railroads had all been built and he was a man ready to strike out on his own, Lucius had gone on a gold rush or two and done some hard rock mining, quickly coming to understand that the mass of prospectors ended up broke or broken, but the man who could dig adits and sink shafts could make money as long as new money appeared in service of dreams. The dream of striking it rich, of tapping into a golden vein, never quite disappeared in his own soul, though. His knowledge of how to get through rock was unparalelled, but his knowledge of minerology and geology was patchy. He clung to the belief that Rainier being volcanic, a tunnel through it would: A) encounter magma through which tunnel segments could be pushed "as through a warm pudding," with less effort than drilling, and B) tap into a stream of molten gold closer to the source. This seems silly to us today, but his personal diaries and patent applications not only prove that he believed it, but make it seem plausible.

Legislative appropriations funded trainloads of machinery, including prototypes of his inventions that were pressed into service; some never worked, and more proved expensive to maintain. Ultimately, the Y-Y road was pushed forward by muscle. Chinese labor run out of the cities and mill towns and disappeared into the tunnels during spasms of the northwest's peculiar mix of labor progressiveness and racial regressiveness. Irish crews deserted Appalachian holes full of coal dust and methane to work on the project, and are widely credited with having brough in the first Shetland ponies, who became the mainstay of the hauling.

All along 242, side shafts incline to the surface, some with rails still intact, testament to the teams that pulled ore cars full of spoil to the surface. (The photo with this entry is the mouth of one such shaft.) The wee equines, with but one path to follow, trudged up day after day until one day they would drop. A crew of the Irish workers, stocky to the point of cubicality, roved the road and were tasked with crawling in and removing the dead ponies when  the need arose. There are no figures indicating how many Shetlands, Irish, and Chinese were expended during the project, though there is a small plaque at milepost 50 commemorating their contribution.)

It would not have been a good American project had not the tribes been allowed to share in the pain. Early on, several members of the Yakama nation started breeding Shetland ponies to supply the project, but as soon as it became profitable the herd was commandeered by whites. Earlier still, when Neanderberg had felt it necessary to garner some support from the people whose reervation the road would cross, the Y-Y road was presented as a benefit to the Yakama, practically a gift. Enough of the right people agreed that none of the tribes' members bothered the two-legged and four-legged beasts of burden who would occasionally surface on the res, nobody plugged the holes that barfed forth crushed stone. The tribe never received the payments it was promised for the right to tunnel under Yakama earth, which they are wise enough to know was important a whole lot deeper than the surface plat.

By the time the road was completed, just before WWI shut off the crucial supply of manganese, stage coaches had been replaced by other means of transport. At various times the plans changed to fit the tunnel for conventional rail, for electric trolleys, and even a pneumatic tubeway, but the legislature, now bored with what had become a dull old project, always balked at the cost of retrofitting or widening the tunnel. Fortunately, the automobile came along, and the tunnel gained new life.

Few people ever drove the length of Route 242, however. Seismically induced misalignments and molten intrusions (never of gold) plagued the trans-magma tube section of the Y-Y, and the route would have been completely abandoned were it not identified as a WPA work site and not long after as a vital element of national defense (should the Olympian ruling class need to be evacuated and hidden from the Japanese). Even during this time, the road was rarely passable along its enture length, and after FDR's passage (photographed, to be sure, but due to problems with the flashes, memorialized only as a series of black frames with the occasional glaring rock wall), nobody ever drove the whole thing. I've only seen part of it, and even that is because I have keys to certain state gates and too much curiosity.

By the '30s, the road was designated as "Route 242," but people mostly still called it the "Y-Y." Few of them remembered it was shorthand for Yelm-to-Yakima, it had just become a sound. One day, I hope to find the coiner of the name it took on during this time, surely the clever work of a WPA tunnel-scraper wondering whether grinding poverty might beat beastly employment: the "Why Oh Why Road."

Exactly when after FDR's traverse the road became impassable is a matter of debate. Some say he didn't even do it, that the dearth of mid-tunnel photos is because they do not exist, a poor scared nation needed images of success, which were promptly faked. Could be, but it doesn't much matter.

Several miles of tunnel remain passable at either end, though they are locked and ar mostly used for storage. The trans-magma tube is long gone, thousands of yards of concrete were dumped in at end of WWII to plug it securely. The Yelm side was maintained and pumped dry through the 1950s and early 60s, fears of Reds having replaced the Japanese menace, but eventually it became harder and harder to justify the maintenance, the cost of running pumps day and night. The water rose, and most of Route 242 became aquatic. The only person who goes there now is a wildlife biologist who dives to see what cave creatures are colonizing and evolving in this odd new niche.

It has been years since 242 appeared on maps, and almost nobody even knows that it ever existed. So obscure that it does not even serve as a cautionary tale, a monument to hubris and government waste. It is the backest of backraods that I've droned on about. Almost a figment of my imagination.

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