St. Clair River International Railway Tunnel

The United States portal is located near Tenth Street between Johnstone and
Beard Streets in Port Huron

This is a National Historic Landmark because it was the world’s first international tunnel and the first subaqueous tunnel in North America.

By the 1840s, Montréal became an important commercial node for British merchants and trading companies.  Natural resources, including potash and wood products, could be exported from Canada and an increasingly prosperous Canadian population sought to buy goods manufactured in Britain.  There was a major problem.  Cold weather and ice on the St. Lawrence River closed the port of Montréal for four to five months each year.  Something of a railroad building boom developed in England and the United States.  The commercial leadership in Montréal realized they could profit from a real line that would link their city to an all-weather port.  Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine sought to be that port.  Both cities sent delegations to Montréal to promote the building of a rail line.  Maine lawyer, John Poor, apparently, was especially convincing and so Montréal investors sought to built a line from Portland to their city.  On March 8, 1845 the Montréal Board of Trade selected the route through Portland. and on March 16, 1845, the Canadian legislature granted a charter.  The Maine legislature had already granted a charter for the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad on February 10 of that year. 

It was a challenge to find sufficient capital, but British investors came up with the monies and The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada started building west from Portland across the White and Green mountains in 1848.  Five years later they reached Montréal, giving that city a convenient all-weather shipping route to Europe.  The success of that line led the Grand Truck to build west across southern Canada, presumably with the intention to tap large market in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region.  By 1859 the firm owned an 800-mile network that stretched from key ports in the east—Montréal, Québec and Portland, Maine—to Sarnia.  By the time that railroad reached the east bank of the St. Clair River, it was becoming evident that Detroit would develop as a trade and manufacturing center.  Even more importantly, by the 1850s, it was recognized that Chicago would be a key center in a very fertile Midwest.  Products from the Midwest would flow through Chicago on their way to the East Coast or Europe and settlers would pass through Chicago on their way West.  The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada had the advantage of serving ocean ports that were much closer to Europe than New York or Boston. 

In March, 1858, officials associated with the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada incorporated the Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction Rail Road Company to build a line sixty miles from Fort Gratiot, Michigan to Detroit.  Fort Gratiot was the name given to the location—now in downtown Port Huron directly below the Bluewater Bridge and opposite the terminal point for the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada in Sarnia.  The line from present-day Port Huron to Detroit was completed on November 21, 1859.  Almost immediately, the Grand Trunk Railroad reached an agreement with the Michigan Central Railroad to transport freight and passengers from Detroit to Chicago.  That meant that goods and travelers could go directly from Chicago to Montréal or Portland and then on to Europe.   This Port Huron to Detroit line is the railroad where Thomas Edison first worked—as a news butcher when he was 14 years old.  He was fired since, while working on an experiment in a baggage car, he accidently set the car on fire. 

There was one major challenge for the Grand Trunk Railway.  Everything and everybody had to be unloaded in Sarnia, put on a ferry for the short ride across the St. Clair River and then back onto railroad cars for the continued trip to Detroit or Chicago.  Originally, there was even more of a challenge since the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada spaced its rails five feet six inches apart while the Grand Trunk in the United States used four feet eight and one-half inches, the gauge that was rapidly becoming standard in this country.  That problem was in 1873 when The Grand Trunk—adopted the same gauge as those in their southern neighbor. From that time to this, the 4 foot 8 and ½ inch gauge has been standard in Europe, Canada, Mexico and the United States.

By the early 1870s, it became clear to the owners of the Grand Trunk Railway that Cornelius Vanderbilt and his associates were seeking to dominate the railroads that linked the east coast to Chicago.  The Vanderbilts sought to purchase the Michigan Central with its direct line from Chicago to Detroit and then another line that stretched across southern Ontario from Detroit to Buffalo.  Controlling those railroads would give the Vanderbilts a convenient line from the East Coast to Chicago.  Owners of the Grand Trunk feared after the Vanderbilts took control of the Michigan Central, that line would either refuse to carry their freight and passengers across Michigan to Chicago or impose impossibly high charges.  Fearing financial strangulation from the Vandervbilt's Michigan Central, the Grand Trunk sought to establish their own line from Port Huron to Chicago.  How they did so is a long and extremely involved story involving the construction of some new lines, the purchase of some existing lines and much competition with the Michigan Central.  By 1880, however, the Grand Trunk had their own line west from Port Huron to Flint, then to Durand and Lansing, then to Battle Creek and on to South Bend and Valparaiso before entering Chicago.  This line is still very much in use by the Canadian National Railroad.

Even after the discrepancy in gauges was resolved, the St. Clair River was a major problem.  Trains going east had to be taken apart at Port Huron, put onto ferries and then reassembled in Sarnia, a costly procedure involving much labor.  In addition, as ice flowed south out of Lake Huron in the winter, it piled up in the narrow St Clair River, making it difficult for the railroad’s ferries to operate in winter.  The railroad built larger, more powerful and faster ferries.    Indeed, they designed one that would take no more than eight minutes to cross the quickly flowing St. Clair. 

The solution was a tunnel.  In 1884 the railroad chartered a St. Clair Tunnel Company, but at that time,  did not have the funds to build it.  The railroad looked forward to increases in the shipping of dressed meats from Chicago to points east so they decided, in 1887, to dig the tunnel.  They also received a stimulus funds from the Canadian government equal to 15 percent of the cost.  Construction began in January, 1888 with crews working from both sides using a new shield method.   The tunnel was completed and opened for service on September 19, 1891.

The tunnel was an engineering marvel.  Underneath many broad rivers, the soil is soft and porous making digging challenging.  The new shield method used for this tunnel involved excavation in a compressed air environment.  A cast iron lining was put in place as the digging progressed.  The crews met at the appropriated location on August 30, 1890.  This was the world’s first railroad tunnel under a river.

It was deemed a great success.  Travel time from Chicago to Toronto or Montréal was reduced by two hours for passenger trains.  As many as 2,000 freight cars a day passed through the tunnel with its length of 1,836 meters, 698 of them under the St. Clair River.  Railroad tunnels in the steam era were a tremendous challenge since smoke from the engine could endanger or even suffocate the crew and passengers if a train stalled in the tunnel.   So far as I know, that never happened. The Grand Trunk Railroad ordered four new specially designed powerful engines that would only burn anthracite, the type of coal that produced minimal smoke and pollutants.  Those engines had their drawback and so, in 1908, the tunnel was electrified in order that new powerful electric engines could be used.  They pulled trains through this impressive tunnel until diesel engines replaced them in 1958.
Railroad technology improved substantially in the 1970s with more powerful engines and much larger freight cars, particularly taller and longer freight cars.  Many of these cars could not fit through the 1891 tunnel at Port Huron.  The railroad had ceased operating car ferries at Port Huron in 1891 when the first tunnel opened.  Eighty years later they reestablished car ferry service to handle the freight cars that were too big to fit through the tunnel.  Facing these challenges, the railroad, I assume, considered a massive rebuilding of the old tunnel to accommodate modern trains, but in 1991, decided to replace their century-old tunnel with its limited 20-foot height clearance.  They spent $155 million to build a parallel tunnel with a 27.5-foot clearance.  It opened on April 5, 1995 and is visible next to the 1891 tunnel.    The old tunnel was closed but could, presumably, be rebuilt should there be a great increase in international commerce.

Architect and designer: Joseph Hobson
Date of construction: 1890 and 1891
Date of closing: 1995
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed August 23, 1956
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Put in place July 27, 1962.  This marker is not visible the tunnel site but may be located on 16th street near the tunnel.
National Register of Historic Places: Listed October 15, 1970
National Historic Landmark:  Listed April 19, 1993
Civil Engineering Landmark: List as a civil engineering landmark by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Essay describing the engineering innovations of this tunnel:  The Meeting of the Great Shields of the St. Clair Railway Tunnel; Scientific American; Vol. LXIII; September 13, 1899
Photograph:  Ren Farley; July 25, 2010.  Note: It is extremely difficult to photograph the
US portal of this tunnel in this era of extensive security about the nation’s borders.  This tunnel has not been used by the Canadian National Railroad since 1995 so it has been sealed.  The portal is about one-half mile from a public street where photographs may be taken without trespassing on railroad property at an international crossing.
Picture:  Ren Farley; Summer, 2010
Description updated: February, 2011


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