Black River Valley Tunnel, MP 199.9 - 800' Long - Williamsville, MO, MP 202.3 - Current River-Hunter

Discussion in 'Tunnels' started by diesel shop, Jul 28, 2012.

  1. diesel shop

    diesel shop Member

    I read in the book A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck by Joel P. Rhodes, about an 800 foot tunnel.

    The tunnel was near Williamsville, MO, "800 foot tunnel being blasted to assure a satisfactory grade from Otter Creek across the Black River valley." The book has the tunnel finished in 1888 or 1889.

    This was on the Cape Girardeau & Southwestern (CG&SW) Railroad, that eventually was sold to the Frisco around 1900 or 1901. The book says the tunnel had a "12 year run that ended with the tunnel's eventual collapse and condemnation".

    Anybody know about this?
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 14, 2024
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  2. Morailfan

    Morailfan Member

    Hi, Gary

    I don’t know where to start.

    I thought I knew just about everything about this line and every back-wood branch line off of it. So thank you! I’m quite surprised, and excited, because it looks like there very well could have been a tunnel there.

    About two and a half miles northeast of Williamsville, MO, MP 202.3, there is a cut about 80 to 100 feet deep, through the ridge between the Otter Creek and William Creek valleys. Very suspicious. Such dramatic earthwork on a line there and then is cause for question. Anyway, a little history first, so everyone who reads this thread can start on the same page.

    In 1884, The Cape Girardeau & Southwestern Railway (CG&SWRwy) Company began construction of a branch line from Mingo Jct., MP 178.1, 2.7 miles southwest of Puxico, MP 175.4, into the timber and mineral-rich hills of south-central Missouri. After some pauses in construction, the road continued building west from Chaonia, MP 188.5, station in March of 1888.

    By March of the following year, the road had completed an additional 28 miles of track and reached the town of Elsinore, MP 215.8. It must have been during this twelve-month period that the tunnel was being dug, at approximately mile post 24.5 from Puxico, MP 175.4. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the area is mostly composed of sandstone and dolomite formations, certainly not ideal for tunneling.

    This would explain why the tunnel would have been a bit problematic for the railroad, and why it most likely would have been dug out and day-lighted. What I wonder is why the line’s engineer didn’t route the road north through the pass where the Williamsville, Greenville and St. Louis (WG&SL) Railway line would be built a decade later.

    Perhaps it was to avoid steeper grades, but with a climb of 1.8% eastbound, and 2.2% for westbound, even the tunnel route was a bit difficult. Whatever the reason, it became Frisco’s concern after they bought the route's owner, the St. Louis, Memphis & Southeastern (SLM&SE) Railway, on July 19th, 1907.

    As for the fate of the line, construction of the Wappapello Dam and reservoir meant the section of mainline between Wappapello, MP 182.1, station and Ojibway, MP 192.5, would be submerged. The 'Daily except Sunday train from Puxico, MP 175.4, to Willow Springs, MP 199.7, made its final run in the fall of 1938, and in June of the following year, Frisco crews pulled up the the rails through the tunnel site. The line was in service for exactly 50 years.

    It’s possible that the tunnel could have been removed before the line ended up on Frisco’s system map, but knowing for sure is the hard part. The road changed names and owners a few times before joining the Frisco family, and having passed through so many hands in such a short time, it’s easy to understand why records might be difficult to find.

    I’ve been able to dig up finance books from nearby logging camps and route maps of long-foreclosed tram routes, but it’s quite hard to find anything about the eastern portion of the mainline where this tunnel supposedly was. It was a curving, twisting route, more notorious for becoming a through route to Willow Springs and to the massive sawmill at Grandin than anything else.

    That is, besides for rumors, or the lost town of Chaonia, MP 188.5, and the numerous bridges and reverse curves nearby, where a train carrying Frisco superintendents once derailed and cost several lives. Anyhow, further information about the tunnel remains a mystery to me, but only for now. I’ll write again if I find anything more.

    If anyone wants to see the location where the tunnel would have been, these are the coordinates.

    36.9930586, -90.522623

    Hope this helps,


    Edit 1/28/2024: Added station mile posts and calculated approximate mile post at former tunnel / daylighted cut.

    Mile posts from River and Cape Division, Time Table No 28, May 24, 1914, Hoxie Subdivision, Hunter Branch and River Division, Supplement A to Time Table No. 29, March 14, 1937, Hoxie Subdivision, Current River-Hunter Branch.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 29, 2024
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  3. diesel shop

    diesel shop Member

    Thank you for more history of the area.

    I thought some would want to know about another tunnel on the Frisco.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 14, 2024
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  4. mark

    mark Staff Member Staff Member

    At the station Doubling Track, MP 199.7, there was a 27 car capacity siding track. This is in line with the original post and would indicate a ridge crest at or near the tunnel.

    From the narrative it appears the tunnel had collapsed and was daylighted at or about the time of the merger of the CG&SW Houck line with the Frisco. One can surmise that the tunnel event caused financial strain to the CG&SW.

    Therefore, it may have been more than a coincidence that the tunnel collapse occurred about the time of the merger.

    Hope this helps.


  5. klrwhizkid

    klrwhizkid Administrator Staff Member Administrator Supporter

    The financial condition of the Cape Girardeau & South Western was in question from its start, considering it was one of the Houck lines.

    None of his lines, the Cape Girardeau and Chester (CG&C), Cape Girardeau Northern (CGN), Cape Girardeau & South Western (CG&SW), or the St Louis Memphis and South Eastern (SLM&SE), were ever what could be considered financially sound.

    They were all constructed with minimal outlay and financed to the hilt.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 3, 2024
  6. Karl

    Karl 2008 Engineer of the Year Supporter

    The Williamsville Tunnel
    Chapter One

    “Yet the granddaddy of all Houck’s worries was the eight-hundred-foot tunnel being blasted to assure a satisfactory grade from Otter Creek across the Black River Valley. Like a proud papa, Louis (Houck) camped along the creek near the tunnel, his first, for most of 1888, lovingly attending to every detail of its creation. And while he knew in his heart and mind that it should be lined with brick to avoid slides, he could not see his way clear to spending that extra money and instead timbered the wall from one end to the other. The first locomotive rolled through Houck’s masterpiece in November, inaugurating a concise twelve-year run that ended with the tunnel’s eventual collapse and condemnation.”

    The Life of Louis Houck by Joel P. Rhodes, University of Missouri Press, 2008, p 107. The specifics of this pericope are taken from personal correspondence between James Brooks and Louis Houck, June 19, 1888, and between M. S. Carter and Louis Houck, January 1889.


    Annotated Williamsville 1980 USGS 7-1/2 Minute Topo-sheet.

    The details are sparse, but I believe that we can add a few additional facts to the tunnel’s story. My professor’s adage about it's always all about the geology holds true in this discussion, and the geologic setting probably played a factor with the tunnel’s history.

    Based on a geology map, a surficial geology map, and a topographic map of the Williamsville 7-1/2 minute quadrangle, certain conclusions may be drawn. The tunnel’s floor cut the Lower Gasconade Formation, while the remainder of the bore cut the Upper Gasconade Formation.

    The sandstones and dolomites located in the Gasconade Formation were certainly competent to support an unlined tunnel, so other conditions existed that made a timber lining necessary.


    The Williamsville Tunnel site is located in this graben, which is bounded by several fault systems. The Bull Run fault is a sinistral strike-slip fault; the other three faults are high-angle normal faults.

    By August of 1887, the 30-mile survey between Chaonia, nee Wellsdale, and the Cape Girardeau Southwestern connection with the Current River Railway was complete. During November, Louis Houck left Cape for New York City to arrange financing for the construction of his railroad to the Current River Railroad.

    He was optimistic that the line would be complete within 12 months. After two weeks in NYC, Houck returned encouraged about the prospects of the extension of the CGS toward the Current River Ry. He thought that construction from Chaonia might commence within two months.

    I haven’t been able to ascertain when work on the extension began, but during August ads appeared in St Louis newspapers for tunnel men and pick and shovel men. Wages ranged from 1.25 to $1.50 per day plus pass and boarding.

    The tunnel project wasn’t without incident. During the week of August 12, 1888, an explosion occurred which injured several workers. Work progressed from each portal, and by the first week of November, the work gangs had broken through. Management thought that the first train might pass through the tunnel by Nov 15, but I can’t find anything to document that.

    Meanwhile, the crews completed grading between Chaonia and the Black River, and the rails were down over much of the route. Passenger service from Cape Girardeau to Williamsville was in place by January 31, 1889.

    williamsville_tunnel_restored_topo copy.jpg

    Annotated Williamsville 1980 USGS 7-1/2 Minute Topo-sheet; I have re-contoured the map to depict the lay of the land before the cut was excavated. Contour interval = 20 feet. See previous index map.

    Thereafter, references to the Williamsville Tunnel were limited to three events.

    An April 1893 inspection by the Railroad and Warehouse Commission of Missouri detailed numerous defects in the new railroad. Much of the track was deemed unsafe, and the commission placed a ten mph speed on the deficient track, ties, surface, and line until repairs were made.

    A bridge west of Chaonia received a six mph restriction until new piles were driven or the bridge filled. Temporary cribs that supported the Black River bridge needed to be replaced with permanent piles.

    The first cut east of the tunnel had ditches washed-in to the height of the rail head. The Commission order theses to be cleaned immediately. Examination of the top maps do not show any significant cuts east of the tunnel. I believe that the approach-cut to east portal of the tunnel is the culprit described by the commissioners, and therefore a clue to the geology of the tunnel site.

    The Commission noted that at present the railroad was struggling to renew ties, rail, and bridges, and that it might take three years to bring the track to “first-class” condition. In summary, the Commission said, “We are satisfied that the present management will do all in their(sic) power to keep the line in a condition rendering it reasonably safe for the transportation of passengers.”

    As an aside, numerous corporate changes occurred, and for reference they are listed here.

    Cape Girardeau & Southwestern Railway Co name changed to St Louis, Cape Girardeau, & Ft. Smith Ry 6/3/1891; StLCG&FtS sold to Southern Missouri and Arkansas Railroad 5/3/1899; SM&A sold to the St Louis, Memphis, & Southeastern 2/01/1902; STM&SE sold to St Louis and San Francisco Railroad 7/19/1907.

    Railroad management aware of the road’s image, worked to improve its track condition, and by January 1902 advertisements appeared which noted the installation of new steel rails and new bridges.

    During the evening of Sunday, December 14, 1902, “cave-ins” occurred at both portals of the Williamsville Tunnel. Wet conditions were believed to be the cause. Initial assessment of the damage seemed to be overstated, and the repairs were made quickly. I think this provides a clue with regard to the geologic setting.

    During the evening of January 12, 1903, the tunnel burned to the extent that trains could not pass through it. Railroad officials attributed the cause to sparks from a passing locomotive. Operations were maintained by having a train at either portal to allow the transfer of passengers and mail. Conditions indicated that the entire structure would be rebuilt.

    By the end of January, it became clear that the railroad would have to “day-light” the tunnel. Initial estimates for the excavation work were placed at $100,000. Other rumored solution included constructing a track up Otter Creek to connect with the WG&StL RR, and then using trackage rights to reach Williamsville. The fire confirms the fact that the tunnel was timber lined.

    During Friday, February 13, 1903, the St Louis, Memphis, & Southeastern awarded the contract to open the tunnel to Pat J Murphy Co of Cape Girardeau. Work commenced Monday February 16, 1903; projected completion of the work was set at June 1, 1903. The tunnel was described as being 500 feet long, and at its maximum 100 feet deep.

    Plows and scrapers were used atop the cut, and a steam shovel was employed at the base of the work. The contractor used 100 men to work the project. During the project, trains operated between Cape and Taskee and between Williamsville and Hunter.

    During April 1903, Murphy gave up the contract, which was taken over by Burke Brothers Co. Further information about the project is limited to brief newspapers items, which note that work continues, and it will finish “soon”. The last public item, which I can find, appeared in the Wayne County Journal, Dec 17, 1903.

    The brief item states, “The work on the big cut east of Williamsville is progressing all right and will be completed in a few months, and when completed will be the largest cut on any railroad in the state.”


    At the top of the excavation, about 640’ above mean sea level, the cut is over 400 feet wide. The vertical exaggeration is 4x; it’s still one big hole!

    During the last week of March 1904, the waters of the Black River inundated parts of Poplar Bluff and most of Williamsville. The current was sufficient to lift the relatively new steel bridge from its piers at Williamsville. The big cut had not been completed by March 1904, but to be sure, with the bridge gone, nothing would go east of Williamsville.

    During July 5, 1904, nearly 17 months after the tunnel fire, the first train passed through the cut, where work was not yet complete. What began as a six-month project lasted well beyond that, and it required a second contractor, Burke Bros, to perhaps pick-up the pieces left by Pat J. Murphy Co. Information remains sketchy with regard to the deployment of other contractors, and the problems encounter during the project.


    By July 1904 through service from Cape Girardeau to the Current River was restored.

    The Williamsville Tunnel

    Chapter Two
    Geology of the Site

    To be continued…​
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2024
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  7. geep07

    geep07 Member

    What did they do with the excavated material?

    Was it utilized for the sub road bed and fine grading?
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 10, 2024
  8. Karl

    Karl 2008 Engineer of the Year Supporter

    I need to look into LIDAR or Digital Elevation Model data.

    They may provide an answer, if the spoil was distributed locally.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 10, 2024
  9. timothy_cannon

    timothy_cannon Member Supporter

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