The Bothin Tunnel on White's Hill
by Bill Allen
From the Marin County Historical Society Bulletin, December 1993, pp. 13–19.
The year is 1902. The county's Narrow Gauge Railroad has passed into the hands of new investors, the same men who were the backers of California Central Gas and Electric Company. Being in the power business, the investors planned to electrify the line, bringing power over long distance power lines to Alto. They intended further to broad-gauge the road. Both of these aims were partially realized when the road was electrified eventually as far as Manor and broad-gauged to Point Reyes Station. The line above Point Reyes remained narrow-gauge to the end.
Another improvement was to bore a new tunnel through the Bothin and Mailliard ranches, eliminating the steep grade over White's Hill. Although the, White's Hill grade was a scenic ride, the steepness of the grade often caused the trains to stall. The passengers seemed to enjoy the railroad's embarrassment when this occurred. They often got out of the coaches and stood looking down and across the valley below while the engines built up enough steam to continue the final push up to the summit and through the summit tunnel and down into the San Geronimo Valley. Sometimes the trains even stalled inside the tunnel, the engines losing traction on the rails kept wet by water seepage inside the tunnel. When this happened, the passengers nearly suffocated from the smoke belching from the engine's stack.
The contract for the new tunnel was awarded to Hinkle and Martin. The tunnel would be 3,190.2 feet long. On November 3, 1903, the Independent reported that the bore on the east end was in 950 feet and on the west end in 500 feet with only 1800 feet to go. Hinkle told the Independent that the tunnel would be completed by April 1, 1904. By January, 1904, with only 1,370 feet to go, the drillers were averaging 12 feet a day with 175 men laboring on the project.
One man seeking work on the tunnel had the proud distinction of being the first patient of the new emergency hospital just established in San Rafael. It seems that while walking to the tunnel one day, he decided to take a nap on the railroad track. He pillowed his head on a rail and fell asleep. Along came an engine and before he realized his precarious predicament and need to escape, he was struck and rendered unconscious. Luck must have been with him for he sustained only cuts and bruises.
All didn't go well for the tunnel contractors. The rock in the tunnel was harder to penetrate than anticipated and work slowed. Soon the contractors found themselves in financial difficulties and had to give up the contract. It remained for the railroad to complete the project.
On December 6, 1904, the Independent reported that the first passenger train passed through the new tunnel the previous Sunday, cutting the time between Sausalito and Point Reyes Station and points beyond considerably.
The kids from Fairfax who used to head to Woodacre on a hot summer day to swim in the Woodacre Lodge pool would usually take a shortcut through the tunnel. There were times while doing so when they would get stuck in the tunnel with an approaching train bearing down on them. Jack Barnes, a long-time resident of Woodacre, remembers that it wasn't so bad if the train was on the downgrade but, if it was on the upgrade, the engine would be belching black smoke which would nearly suffocate the intruders. The only escape in either case was to back up against the rock walls of the tunnel between the timbers and hope the squealing noise of the drivers and smoke-filled rush of air would soon pass. The kids apparently all survived, living to tell in later years the stories of the iron monsters that nearly devoured them. In January, 1933, the Marin Journal reported that the Railroad Commission had granted the Northwestern Pacific Railroad permission to discontinue all operations north of Manor, the railroad claiming it was costing more to maintain the service than they received in revenue. In 1930, the Railroad Commission had granted N.W.P. permission to abandon all rail service north of Point Reyes Station. It wasn't until July 31, 1933, that the last scheduled train rolled over the line between Point Reyes Station and Manor. On August 1, this section was officially classified "abandoned". In its issue of December 19, 1934, the Fairfax Gazette notes that the removal of the rails between Manor and Point Reyes Station had been completed, the rails being sold to the Japanese and the redwood ties taken to San Anselmo.
But the Bothin Tunnel, now abandoned for rail use, was destined to live on, its demise being stayed for possible use as a highway tunnel.
After the railroad abandoned the tunnel, the easement rights reverted back to the Bothin interest on the east side of White's Hill and to the Lagunitas Development Company, owners of the former Mailliard property, on the west side.
In 1935, the residents of the valley and beyond began to agitate for the use of the tunnel for a highway, eliminating the dangerous and steep road over White's Hill. Dr. Thomas Snead, Fairfax dentist, who grew up in Fairfax, remembers the time when he, his mother and his father were heading up White's Hill and both he and his dad had to get out of the car so that it would finally make the grade.
In July, 1936, a meeting was held in Lagunitas at which a formal organization, the Sir Francis Drake Highway Improvement Association, was formed, the purpose of which was the
furthering of plans to acquire and improve the abandoned tunnel for highway use. A committee was formed to determine the cost of acquiring the right-of-way, widening the tunnel and any other details needed to make it a part of the county's system of roads.
Although a year earlier numerous petitions were signed by residents west of the tunnel advocating the tunnel's use as a highway, no action was taken because the organizers felt that they needed something more definitive in the way of costs and construction plans before approaching the Board of Supervisors.
Costs were quick in coming. It was determined that tunnel improvements would run slightly over a half-million dollars, necessitating concreting the bore, providing necessary lights inside the tunnel and sidewalks on either side of a roadway 26 feet wide. The tunnel was judged to be in pretty good condition and favorable for conversion. These costs were confirmed early in 1937 by county surveyor Rodney Messner, who reported to the Board of Supervisors.
The board subsequently rejected the idea of the tunnel Is conversion as impractical and financially unacceptable and ordered the county surveyor to immediately seek a less costly solution to the White's Hill grade.
The solution presented and accepted by the Board of Supervisors was to follow the existing alignment more or less, but give the road a 7-1/2 percent grade compared to the present 12 percent grade. This involved a drastic cut at the summit an a tremendous amount of rock and fill along the grade up the east side. The cost of the project, nearly $100,000, was much less than the tunnel project estimate. Of the $100,000, the county was required to put up only some $40,000, the rest being picked up by the federal government under the "produce-to-market road" law.
On September 24, 1938, a huge celebration marked the completion of the White's Hill road project. Some 500 people attended the ribbon cutting ceremony marking the "final" removal of the hill barrier between West Marin and the rest of the county.
But the celebration would soon fade into disaster. Almost immediately a section of f ill on the east side started to sink. The road refused to behave itself, constantly shifting in the landscape until in 1940 it slid out entirely. This necessitated putting into service the old Bothin Tunnel.
To make the tunnel work for vehicular traffic the approaches at each end had to be graded and graveled. Phones were installed at each end of the tunnel to be used by flagmen who would regulate the flow of traffic through the tunnel, which would only permit one-way traffic. The flagmen would permit only ten cars to travel in one direction at a time. Buses were given preference regardless of the number of connections at Manor. The tunnel was open day and night with three shifts of flagmen. Directional signs were posted at each of the tunnel's approaches for the guidance of motorists. The tunnel opened for vehicular traffic on February 22, 1940 and served in that capacity for some six months while the hill road was repaired.
Once the hill road was again finally "conquered", the tunnel continued to serve the county fire department as a short cut from the Woodacre Fire Station to central Marin,, saving the firemen some four minutes in response time to fire calls.
The career of the Bothin Tunnel finally came to an end in August, 1956 when a cave-in occurred in the tunnel on the Woodacre side. Units of the fire station were responding to a grass fire in San Rafael. Normally, daylight could be seen from each end of the tunnel. on entering the tunnel, the units quickly noticed that they couldn't see daylight at the other end, and realizing something was wrong, they backed out and took the long way around and over the hill. on later investigation, it was discovered that about 100 yards of rock, earth and debris had collapsed into the tunnel and effectively sealed off the tunnel near the west end.
After the cave-in, the county decided to seal up the tunnel, not wanting to place the fire department at further risk even if the present blockage were cleared. They judged the tunnel timbers too old, the tunnel having been retimbered in 1925, and the cost of retimbering to be prohibitive.
On the east side of the hill on the Bothin Youth Center property, the east portal has been well sealed. There are, however, a few portal timbers still in evidence. The old tunnel on the east side still serves a useful function. In its present incarnation, it serves to entrap spring water seeping from inside the tunnel. This reservoir of water is tapped by the Girl Scout Camp. It produces three gallons per minute, which is 180 gallons per hour or 4,320 gallons per day. Not bad for an old tunnel which began its career as a passage for trains and now serves as a passage for water!