I am a student of history. I love everything about it, but most of all I love writing about the people and places of yesteryear. I especially like the discovery phase. The time when I’m reading all I can, visiting places and going to museums to find the story. I imagine I’m standing where the people I am writing about once stood. I wonder what it must have been like to live when they lived…how they lived. What were they thinking? Why did they do what they did?
Last year I talked my publisher into letting me write a book about Boulder City, a town I have always found fascinating. As I was writing, I discovered a cache of oral histories from the people who lived in Boulder City while the dam was being built. Men and women who, in the middle of the Great Depression, packed up their worldly belongings in search of a chance, a hope of a better life. They were brave beyond belief and I was honored to be able to tell their stories.
Once the dam site was chosen and all the contracts signed, it was time to build. There was only one problem, the materials had to somehow get to the site down in the black canyon. A road had been built, but it wasn’t possible to get the largest pieces down using that road because they simply weighed too much. The only way to get the parts for such things as the turbine down to the site was with a railroad. And the only way to get a railroad down to the dam site was to go through the mountain. That meant tunnels.
The contract to build the U.S. Construction Railroad that would run from Boulder Junction to the dam site was awarded to Lewis Construction Company. Lewis had the task of building almost 30 miles of track that would eventually be used to transport materials to and from the dam. The tracks would be used 24-hours a day during the entire construction period and the Lewis Construction Company built the route in only five short months.
Lewis dug five large tunnels into the mountain. Each tunnel was 18 feet wide and 27 feet high. The width and height were needed to allow massive pieces of pipe, turbine, and construction equipment to pass through unobstructed. Many of the tunnels were also reinforced with timbers which were meant to prevent rock from falling onto the train. Those tunnels, along with the timbers used to support them, still exist to this day and the best part is, you can ride through them.
Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail: Although this dirt trail is only accessible to bikes with off-road tires, you can’t pass up a chance to experience first-hand a bit of Nevada history. Located at the entrance to Lake Mead, just below the Alan Bible Visitor’s Center, are a set of five tunnels that once housed the railroad used to transport many of the materials needed to build the Hoover Dam to the dam site. While the railroad tracks have long been removed, the overly large tunnels hewn into the iron-rich rocks still exist. In a town that quickly destroys its past, this trail is a bastion of history that has been around since 1931. The family-friendly trail is wide—remember, it used to house a train—and easily accessible.
Every time I ride this trail I get a trip back in time. I wonder what it must have been like blasting these massive holes into the mountain. I marvel at the structures that have, for the most part, been around for more than 80 years and are still standing. If you ride far enough on the trail, through all five tunnels, you’ll get to see some of the equipment that was actually transported by that railroad. It’s just off to the side. And, if you go at dusk, you may just be lucky enough to see the bats who make the tunnels their home heading out into the night in search of food. So, come on, let’s go ride a bike into history! +
Paul W. Papa is the president of the Southern Nevada Mountain Bike Association and the author of Best Bike Rides Las Vegas and Mountain Biking Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. When not out on the trails, he can be found at www.paulwpapa.com.