The old tunnel through Nehalem Divide

Nehalem Divide Tunnel west end with waterfalls crown zellerbach trail scappoose-vernonia columbia county northwest oregon

The Nehalem Divide stands west of Scappoose, separating streams that flow to the Columbia River from streams that flow to the Nehalem River. In 1920 a logging company tunneled its railroad straight through this barrier. This massive railway-and-logging operation pulled trees from Vernonia and across the Nehalem Valley out to the Columbia River, moving a million board-feet of timber a day. But unstable rock and constant collapses made the tunnel a liability, and by 1945 the rail line was abandoned.

Today the railroad’s only remnants are the flat bed it was built upon, pieces of trestle here and there…..and that extraordinary 1,712-foot tunnel.

Matt, Sophie, and I went off to see the west entrance of this tunnel on a frosty December morning. The trek is short and simple, 3/4 of a mile west from the CZ Trail’s Nehalem Divide trailhead.

Once a local secret, the trail has become more obvious in recent years. It starts just left of the “Wildlife” sign and drops down the hill.

Wildlife Crown Z Trail nehalem divide tunnel scappoose-vernonia columbia county northwest oregon
Sophie got 4 of the 6 animal ID’s correct when I quizzed her. 🙂

Don’t try this hike without footwear adequate for steep, slippery mud. With care and a tight hold on the little one we made it safely enough. The ancient railway bed that sits at the bottom of the ravine is a gorgeous wonderland.

Nehalem Divide Tunnel west end with waterfalls crown zellerbach trail scappoose-vernonia columbia county northwest oregon
So yeah, this photo was from a previous trip in April, everything looks prettier when it’s green

I see the green and the stream and think “life!”. Sophia thinks “puddles!” She hurdled the logs and stomped through the flooded trail all the way down.

The ravine’s end is a beauty. A small stream comes down the cliff on your right, the East Fork Nehalem River comes down on your left, and the disintegrating tunnel gapes between them.

Nehalem Divide Tunnel west end with waterfalls crown zellerbach trail scappoose-vernonia columbia county northwest oregon
In December the green isn’t quite as brilliant but it’s still beautiful

Who built this? The first transcontinental railroads employed teams of Chinese laborers among others, but by 1882 immigration from China had been banned by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Oregon railroad and logging projects instead recruited from European immigrants, Japanese immigrants, and Black Americans.

(Logger at St. Helens courtesy of Tai Fuwatake, Japanese American Museum of Oregon)

One such immigrant was Taijiro “George” Kumazawa, who came to America in 1898 and was working on Oregon trains at least as early as 1916. In 1920 he started a family on his farm in Chapman, the small community just downhill from Nehalem Divide. George would have passed through this tunnel regularly. Fluent in both English and Japanese, he often handled communication between the logging managers and the newer Japanese laborers. His 8 children were all born in Chapman and attended Chapman School.

Chapman School in 1932
St. Helens Mist, March 8, 1935 taijiro george kumazawa kumagawa oregon

Tragically, George fell from a trestle on this line in 1935. Suspicions regarding the cause of his fall have lingered for decades. In 1942 George’s oldest children were taken captive by the U.S. government due to their Japanese ethnicity and given a choice between labor camp or internment camp. They worked in the labor camp for a time and then left to the Midwest to dodge internment.

George’s was not the only local railway death. In 1908, when the train line ended halfway up the divide, six immigrants were killed in Chapman after the train’s brakes failed as it came down the hill. It is likely there were other deaths that haven’t been as carefully documented. I look at the tunnel, 1,712 feet of loose sandstone dug out entirely by hand, and wonder if men lost their lives in its very construction.

Cave-ins were common even when the tunnel was in use. The wooden supports weren’t sufficient – sandstone and clay doesn’t hold up without concrete reinforcements. In 1943 the Clark & Wilson Lumber Company tired of the collapses and gave up on the line, selling the land to Crown Zellerbach Company. In 1945 Crown Zellerbach shifted to a truck route, following the stripped-out rail bed in most places but avoiding the tunnel to instead route the logging road over the divide and along the same path the CZ Trail follows today.

As late as 1982 a historic survey showed that some of the tunnel’s structure was intact (though a cave-in can be seen further down). Considering the current decrepit state of those same wooden supports, the deterioration of the tunnel must be accelerating.

Nehalem Divide tunnel scappoose oregon columbia county historical american engineering survey
Historical American Engineering Survey photo of Nehalem Divide Tunnel, 1982, from the Library of Congress

Going inside is dumb and dangerous. Stand at the entrance when the ground is wet, and soon you’ll hear the crunching sounds of pieces of roof falling. Some larger than others.

Turning our backs on the tunnel we enjoyed the rest of the canyon. The waterfalls are small but beautiful and full of life. Matt found a juvenile Western Red-backed Salamander in the rubble, and I’ve seen Dunn’s Salamanders in the waterfall and a Rough-skinned Newt eating a grub.

Having explored as much as we could, we headed back up the mud-slicked trail. Sophie made it without a slip, fully secured by her papa’s hands. It was a good day.

A month later, Lucas and I went to explore the east entrance. This end is a bit harder to find. Proceed east on the Crown Z Trail about 3/4 of a mile and then take a light use trail going west. I’ve tried a couple, with one obvious but steep at 45.8330, -123.0396 and another less steep at 45.8322, -123.0383. Either way, turn right when the slope flattens a little onto the ancient rail bed and head gently northeast from there. You’ll end up looking down on a large beaver pond. Don’t go down!

Keeping the beaver ponds to your left, just follow the light trails along the relatively flat pathway and within 250 yards you’ll reach the tunnel.

east end nehalem divide tunnel crown zellerbach cz trail railway railroad train tunnel chapman oregon columbia county
Lucas looking upon the east end

As with the west side, the tunnel is too degraded to enter. But just outside of the entrance a vein of dense fossils is visible above your head, a relic of the ancient seafloor that once covered this area before tectonic activity uplifted the divide.

fossils nehalem divide tunnel east crown zellerbach cz trail railway railroad train tunnel chapman oregon columbia county
Look at the mess of material in that deposit and imagine how unstable the underlying rock must be

Lucas and I poked around the outer stream for salamanders, but the winter temperatures were still too cold. A month later, though, I turned up several larval Coastal Giant Salamanders right here. Please don’t step on the boards/rocks in the stream as you could easily end up crushing one of them.

Coastal Giant Salamander larva dicamptodon tenebrosus at nehalem divide tunnel columbia county oregon scappoose-vernonia
Coastal Giant Salamander larva

On the way out we found this long-abandoned vehicle carcass. Anyone wanna guess when and how this poor guy ended up down here?

car crash nehalem divide tunnel east crown zellerbach cz trail railway railroad train tunnel chapman oregon columbia county
know the model year?

A few minutes later and we were back on top. We hiked down the trail, paralleling the line where so many men and women worked themselves to exhaustion and sometimes worse a century before.

Well, every Monday morning
When the bluebirds begin to sing
You can hear John Henry a mile or more
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring
Lord, Lord
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring

Pictures and information on Taijiro Kumazawa and his family comes from the Columbia County Historical Society and the gracious assistance of Les Watters. Picture of Japanese logger comes via Kiyo Endecott, Lucy Capehart, and the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. You can read much more about the Kumazawa family on the official Crown Z Trail website, and there is a historical sign with their story and updated pictures on the Crown Z trail itself.

kumazawa family chapman CZ Trail crown zellerbach scappoose vernonia

Published by Jonathan

Educator, Herpetologist, Hiker.

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