Railroad Tunnel: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

One of the most fascinating places in Faulkner County is the railroad tunnel through Cadron Ridge. While the railroad that runs through Conway was originally built in the 1870s, the tunnel was not completed until 1904.

For many years, the track began a steep climb through Cadron Gap after leaving Conway. After cresting the elevation, the downgrade off of Cadron Ridge was followed by a sharp curve to the north which led onto the Cadron Creek Bridge, a wooden structure with a long trestle approach on each side.

The two-percent grade up Cadron Ridge severely limited the tonnage that could be hauled by one locomotive. A temporary solution involved “doubling the hill.” At the highest elevation, known as Alpine or Summit Switch, a siding was installed. A locomotive would haul the front half of the train up and set it out on the siding. It then returned and picked up the remainder of the train. The train was reassembled before continuing its journey. A switch engine, stationed in the Conway yards, also helped boost westbound trains up the grade. This solution was costly and inefficient.

In 1902, it was decided that the rail line should be relocated and a quarter-mile tunnel was built through Cadron Ridge. To reach the tunnel, the new main track turned westward from the old route near the former Independence Street crossing. After passing through the tunnel, the new line curved westward and rejoined the original grade near the Cadron Bridge. This new route decreased the gradient in each direction to less than .5 percent.

During the construction of the tunnel, a large stationary steam engine was installed on the north side of the hill at what was to be the entrance to the tunnel. It was used to haul carts of dirt from the tunnel excavation. It also blew fresh air into the tunnel for the men working inside. The contractor also erected a commissary, a blacksmith shop, and a mule barn on the north side of the ridge.

Arkansas prison system convicts were used to build the tunnel. A stockade was constructed on the south side of Cadron Ridge to house the prisoners. Guards with bloodhounds were provided by the state. Several prisoners managed to escape, but most were quickly recaptured. Convicts killed by accidents during the construction were reportedly buried along the right of way near the northern portal of the tunnel.

Workers first cut a pilot hole six feet in diameter through the hill at the top part of the tunnel. The blasting crews then worked from both ends of the tunnel. A compressed air drill was used on each side to drill a series of holes to hold explosives. After the explosives were placed, they were detonated electronically.

As soon as the smoke and dust began to clear, laborers entered the hole and removed the dislodged rock which was crushed and used along the new right of way. The frequent explosions shook the surrounding area and managed to disrupt telegraph service on almost a daily basis as a result of the breakage of wires or insulators.

As the pilot hole, known as the heading, was extended deeper into the ridge, it became necessary to brace the heading with timbers to prevent subsequent blasts from inadvertently causing a cave-in. The two opposing work crews finally met on April 4, 1903.

In mid-August, 1903, the last section of the “bench” (the lower section below the pilot hole) in the tunnel was blasted out. This blast was the largest that had been used in the entire construction — 1,000 sticks of one-half pound dynamite, all detonated at one time. The first person reported to go through the tunnel was Mont Stone, a three-year old boy passed through by his father.

To finish out the tunnel, workers trimmed up the walls to reduce irregularities and increase the dimensions to a height of 21 feet and a width of 16 feet. Many sections of the walls were lined with three inches of concrete, hand mixed on the site and placed in temporary forms braced in position by large timbers. The floor of the tunnel was also leveled so that a satisfactory track bed could be constructed. The 1,100-foot Cadron Ridge tunnel was finally completed on January 9, 1904 and opened for traffic the next day.

Correction: Thanks to Sonny Belote for his invaluable assistance with the Goad’s Café story last week. Some of the information for this week’s column came from Faulkner County: Its Land and People (1986), a publication of the Faulkner County Historical Society. Mont Stone, the little boy in the story, was the father of Jim Stone and the grandfather of Coach Joe Graham.

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