An early engineering marvel
The railroad tunnel through the “big hill” between Fredericksburg and Comfort was an engineering marvel. It was the first and for a time, the only railroad tunnel in Texas.
Without the tunnel, the train could never have gotten to Fredericksburg.
Steam trains could only climb a two-percent grade — that’s a two-foot rise for every 100 feet in length. Engineers sometimes designed switchbacks so trains could climb steep hills and mountains, but a switchback was not possible at the big hill because of right-of-way limitations.
Engineers then considered a longer route with easier grades that took the tracks close to Kerrville, but Kerr County residents, who already had a railroad, blocked that route. For Fredericksburg, the tunnel was the only choice.
Workers for the Foster Crane Company began chipping away at the tunnel in April 1913. Ted Carr of Gillespie County supervised the crews that used picks, shovels, scrapers and blasting powder to bore a hole through the limestone hill.
Two crews attacked the hill; one from each side. The crews worked around the clock. Each worker earned 50 cents for an eight-hour shift.
Casual observers, and even the railroad workers, had doubts that the bores, coming from opposite directions, would actually line up, but the skeptics were wrong. The two crews met in the middle, just as planned, on July 15, 1913.
The finished tunnel was a straight bore just over 900 feet long. It was cut through solid limestone so it needed no supports.
Once trains began using the tunnel, a daily ritual developed. When the train approached the “big hill,” the conductor yelled “tunnel.” That was a signal for passengers to close all windows. Otherwise the coaches filled with a thick cloud of coal smoke that belched from the smokestack.
On every trip, north and south, a brakeman walked the length of the tunnel ahead of the locomotive to remove rocks that had dislodged and fallen since the last run. In the winter, seeping water caused large icicles to form on the ceiling. Those icicles had to be chopped out with an ax before a train could pass.
Animals and varmints of all kinds took refuge in the tunnel. Cattle, sheep and goats congregated there to escape the summer heat or the winter wind. The brakeman walking ahead of the train carried a pistol to shoot rattlesnakes. In the summer, he might have to reload several times.
Beginning in the 1950s, long after the tunnel was abandoned by the railroad, ranchers were puzzled by what looked like a cloud of smoke swirling up from the tunnel just before nightfall. It wasn’t smoke but millions of Mexican free-tailed bats.
The cloud was so thick it confused weathermen. It appeared as a thunderstorm on the radar screen.
The tunnel was an amazing feat of engineering, but it came at a heavy price. The entire cost of the railroad from Fredericksburg to Comfort, including grading, rights of way, rails, ties, terminal grounds, and all other costs amounted to $308,500. The cost of the tunnel alone was $134,000 — 43 percent of the total. The high cost of the tunnel is one reason the railroad never made a nickel for its investors.
But the bats and the rattlesnakes had no concern for such matters. They moved in when the railroad left and have been there ever since.