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A San Francisco – Oakland tunnel? (1900)

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Are we to have a tunnel connecting Oakland with San Francisco?

The bill introduced in Congress by Congressman Kahn providing for a tunnel to be constructed under San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Oakland revives an old movement and agitation which held the boards on both sides of the bay about twelve years ago. At that time the project was advanced by Dr Edward Parsons, an Englishman, who represented a syndicate of English capitalists who were disposed to undertake the construction of the tunnel as a private enterprise. Dr Parsons was a bachelor, living in San Francisco, where, indeed, he continued to reside until his death, about three years ago.

The idea of the tunnel seems to have been first suggested by him, and was by him communicated to the English parties. The proposition was received with high favor in London. At that time, the English atmosphere was pregnant with tunnel projects on the Thames and Mersey and tunneling the English Channel between Dover Heights on the English side and Calais on the French.

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Dr Parsons received encouragement from his English friends, and a route for the tunnel was surveyed across the bay, extensive borings were made in the material of the bay bottom along the proposed route and a long series of estimates and computations were made upon the cost of the work and the various features of profit and expense.

The engineer employed on the work was Julian Le Conte, now one of the United States government engineers on harbor work. It was he who selected the route, directed the borings and drew detailed plans of the proposed improvement. Mr Le Conte is firmly convinced today that the scheme as worked upon Dr Parsons and himself is perfectly practicable, presents but few engineering difficulties, would largely reward the investment and is in all the best large proposition in California today. Mr Le Conte does not think practicable, however, the tunnel proposed in the bill introduced by Congressman Kahn. This tunnel proposes to connect the water front with the Oakland side via Goat Island, using that as a station for ventilation and other purposes. The difficulty in such a project would be the depth of the water of the bay along the line.

This would be about a hundred and thirty feet and would mean a weight on top of the tunnel of about four tons to the square foot, such a weight as no tunnel could withstand; besides, the slope down to the bottom level on both sides of the bay would be too great. Furthermore, it is not likely that it is the character of project that would come under the province of the government to take up. It would not be a tunnel across the border of two states, but one lying wholly within one state, and with such internal affairs of a state the general government does not concern itself. Moreover, the scheme being injected into Congress comes against the full glare of the Huntington interest; and it is likely that this force if no other in the national council will see that it is properly smothered.

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The underbay tunnel is still a project for private enterprise. Yet the measure introduced by Congressman Kahn survives the asphyxiating influences which will assail it, it is likely that a survey of the government engineers of the harbor of San Francisco, to whom the matter will be referred, and of whom Mr Le Conte, as stated, is one, will determine that the tunnel which the government should build should be that of the Parsons route and not of the Goat Island route.

The proposed Parsons tunnel was five miles in length and ran from a point on the San Francisco side west of Hunters Point and east of Butchertown, across to West Alameda. This tunnel would have run under seven fathoms of water for three miles nearest the San Francisco side, and graded from three fathoms up for two miles on the opposite side. Approaching the San Francisco shore the tunnel would have deflected somewhat from the straight line, bending to the west to avoid a deep sink of some fifteen fathoms near Hunters Point; but for this depression in the bottom, the line would have been straight from West Alameda to Hunter’s Point. This position across the bay would have fixed the mouths of the tunnel about three miles to the east of the business center of San Francisco and about two miles to the east of that of Oakland; this, of course, would be undesirable, it being much preferred that the subway should start at the foot of Market Street if possible; but it was found that the point selected was the lowest place down on the bay where the water was shallow enough to admit of the tunnel.

The cost of this work completed was computed to be about one and a quarter millions per mile, or about $6,250,000 in all. It was calculated that the sum of seven and a half millions of dollars would buy all necessary lands, rights of way and else, build the tunnel and lay and equip all railroads needful as a part of the tunnel system.

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This money Dr Parsons believed to the day of his death he would be able to raise, and year by year he kept working on his scheme, corresponding with his capitalists, planning, preparing and hoping. When electrical railroads came into use their advent was hailed by him with delight, for thereby he perceived an additional and forceful argument in behalf of his project. Electrical railroads seemed to solve many of the questions affecting tunnel transportation. In the first place the trains were much lighter than those of steam roads, and hence did not jar a tunnel so much in passing through it; the vibrations produced by train rumblings of the earth have been known to cause serious caves, and many tunnel disasters which perplex the railroad officials as to their causes have really had their origin from these “train tremors.”

Furthermore, an electrical railroad was cheaper to build and equip than a steam road and it could be operated at about 25 percent less cost. But the great advantage was that the problem of tunnel ventilation was thereby solved. Ventilating a long tunnel used by locomotive engines is the most baffling of all difficulties with which the engineer has to grapple. The engine is constantly throwing out smoke in the tunnel and this has no ready means of escape. The consequence is that the air within soon becomes vitiated and stifling. When the rising incline is reached the engine must redouble its efforts and large quantities of smoke and fumes are thrown out which remain in the tunnel and float through it, so if trains enter it frequently the air becomes dangerous to breathe.

The length of the entire trip from Market Street, San Francisco, to Broadway, Oakland, would have been ten miles and the trip accomplished in about the same time that it takes a passenger by boat and train at present. The passenger would also have the advantage of a continuous ride without change of cars, and the trips would have been at 15-minute intervals. A very great advantage which the tunnel would have presented over the boats would have been no delays on account of weather.

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