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Earth Notes: Tunnel to Nowhere


On the Mogollon Rim in central Arizona a “tunnel to nowhere” is punched deep into solid rock—all that’s left of an ambitious scheme to build a railroad from the ponderosa pine forests in the north to the copper mines in the south.

In the 1880s Flagstaff was a young, bustling lumber town, along the route of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad that ran east-west between Albuquerque and California. An Eastern entrepreneur named James Eddy dreamed of adding a north-south line to carry timber from Flagstaff’s pine forests to the booming mining town of Globe. The freight cars would return loaded with copper ore to ship to markets in the East.  

But one obstacle stood in his way—the Mogollon Rim—a long, steep escarpment that marks the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. To scale it, Eddy needed to blast a tunnel 16 feet wide and 3,000 feet long. His crew managed to dig just 70 feet into the mountainside before the project ran out of money.

Eddy spent the next three years looking for investors. Hopes ran high in Flagstaff when he restarted the work in 1887, laying 35 miles of track south of town. People talked about extending the line all the way to Mexico.  

When the money ran out a second time, the work ground to a stop. The rails were pried up and sold. Today about all that remains of the Arizona Mineral Belt Railroad is that hole leading nowhere on the Mogollon Rim. Hikers can find it off the Colonel Devin Trail near Payson, partly caved in and hidden by vegetation, a reminder of frontier days and failed dreams.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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