Excavation of the Alpine Tunnel began in January 1880. At an altitude of 11,523 feet, it became the first tunnel constructed through the Continental Divide, and was expected to be finished in only six months. However, due to unforeseen circumstances and construction taking place in the dead of winter, the task required nearly two years to complete. Fractured granite necessitated the expense of using over 400,000 board feet of California redwood to support and encase 1,427 feet of the 1,772 foot long tunnel with a total cost of around $300,000.
The first train went through the Alpine Tunnel began in July of 1882 with the last one through in November of 1910. During its thirty-year life, the Alpine tunneled bristled with activity carrying freight for the many mining camps in the area, and tourists.
One magnificent site is the retaining wall at the “Palisades”. Constructed of hand-cut stones without the use of mortar, the retaining wall is 432 feet in length and 33 feet in height. A longer retaining wall is just below this wall, but is only six feet in height.
A huge stone engine repair house that could house six engines was gutted by fire in early 1906. The remains of the engine house can still be viewed today. Efforts to save the Alpine Station are underway. Francis B. Trudgeon saved the old depot by making extensive repairs and the installation of a new roof in 1959.
The actual entrance to the western portal of the tunnel is around 1/8 of a mile further down the path (which used to be track) from the Alpine Tunnel Station complex. Debris continually sliding down the hillside has covered the west portal, while the east portal has totally collapsed.
The easiest route to the Alpine Tunnel begins northeast of Pitkin at the junction of the Cumberland Pass Road (FDR 765) and the Alpine Tunnel Road (FDR 839). The Alpine Tunnel can also be reached via St. Elmo and Hancock Pass, but that route does require a decent four-wheel drive vehicle after the town of Hancock. I made the route in a 98 Ford Explorer on a very nice day, but would have preferred to have had a vehicle with a bit more ground clearance.