• Lawrence Herzog

Edmonton's rathole

Originally published October 16, 2003

It was originally called the “109th Street Subway,” but for most of its life, it was called “the Rathole.” The 168-metre tunnel that burrowed under the Canadian National Railway tracks between 104th and 105th Avenues opened in 1928 and was to serve as a connection to downtown Edmonton for the next 72 years.

The tunnel was originally proposed in 1926 as a way to move traffic across the two dozen tracks between 101st and 116th Streets and the call for tenders in January 1927 specified a three hinged reinforced concrete arch with a clear span of 32 feet. It was to contain a six foot walk, six foot bicycle path and 20 foot wide roadway. The tunnel was to be 550 feet (168-metres) long and 10.8 feet (3.3 metres) high. Approaches were to be a five per cent slope and excavation was estimated at 36,000 cubic yards of earth. Concrete requirements were pegged at 5,100 cubic yards.

Construction underway, 1927. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-75-2.

There's a great photograph at the City of Edmonton Archives that shows the Rathole under construction in 1927. With the earth excavated, it's easy to see just how large the tunnel was – and how much of a job it would be to eventually remove it. And why, like a cat with nine lives, it survived repeated efforts to kill it off until finally it was carted away, piece by piece, in 2000.

But let’s start back near the beginning. Seven businesses bid for the contract, with Jamieson Construction Co. Ltd. getting the nod in early 1927 from city engineer A.W. Haddow.

But Jamieson's bid wasn't the lowest and that generated controversy. In a letter to an Edmonton paper, ex-Mayor and East Edmonton MPP Kenneth Blatchford vented: "I agree with you that it was a crime to gouge the people for $20,000 and at the same time doublecross (Edmonton contractor) Tredway, the best sport and most thorough contractor in the province."

Construction underway, 1927. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-75-772.

Jamieson retained the contract and, as it turned out, ran nearly $40,000 over budget. When the structure opened, construction cost was $200,000 – an enormous sum of money for 1928. The city dug in its heels on the cost overrun and the case went to arbitration and then the Alberta Supreme Court. Finally in 1932, Justice W. L. Walsh awarded the contractor $15,000.

The construction itself was plagued by poor quality concrete and, in a delicious morsel of

foreshadowing, some flooding as well. Mayor A.U. G. Bury officially opened the 109th Street Subway on October 19th, 1928, and a stream of automobiles poured through the dank cavern.

Over the next seven decades, millions of cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians made the passage – a test of skill and nerve. Many would honk as they drove through, some turned headlights on (the most sensible, really), some used their four-way flashers (?) and others flipped on their left signal light. That always made no sense to me.

Then there were those who tried but failed to get through. Once or twice a year, an inattentive truck driver got his rig lodged in the low roof line, snarling traffic and fraying nerves. One big rig driver from out of town who got stuck in 1990 told officials at the scene he thought a sign showing the tunnel's clearance at 3.0 metres actually read 30 metres.

While vehicles lodged in the tunnel made the nightly news, my favourite Rathole stories happened when it flooded during big summer rainstorms. In the early 1980s, when I was a radio and television news reporter for CFRN, the cameraman and I headed to The Rathole just as an evening storm passed.

A young man was working to free himself from his diminutive import car, inundated by two metres of water. "It was a wall of water," he sputtered, as we got him onto dry land. "It came in so fast, it propelled me down the tunnel and I thought I was a goner."

We decided it more likely that he just drove his car into the flood, oblivious to the danger and the depth of the water. But it made a good story nonetheless.

April 2000. Photo by Martin Parsons

An Edmonton Transportation study in 1957 recommended a parallel subway to improve north south traffic flow, but it was never built. Instead, the city constructed an overpass over the two dozen tracks along 105th Street in 1960.

The name "The Rathole" was apparently coined by an Edmonton alderman, but exactly who it was remains a bit of a mystery. What wasn’t a mystery was the passions the tunnel, with its dog leg entrances and dank cavern-like interior, elicited from Edmontonians.

When Canadian National Railways pulled trains out of downtown in the 1980s, it was only a matter of time before The Rathole would run out of second chances. It was eventually ripped up and carted away in 2000.

When I travel along 109th Street coming from north or south, I still sometimes half expect to see it. But there's just a modern and level intersection now. And I do miss the invigorating element of adventure that it used to add to a drive along the street into or leaving downtown.

© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.

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