Keep Oakland Beautiful Point of Interest: Kennedy Tunnel.

Before a tunnel ever connected Oakland with the interior of East Bay, an Oaklander had to climb a road up the side of what is now Claremont Canyon and then take Fish Ranch Road down the other side of the Oakland Hills in order to visit interior Contra Costa County locations on the east side of the hills. This was a long and arduous journey, often made on foot, horseback or in a horse-drawn buggy or wagon. The only other option was to circumnavigate the hills, which was an even longer trip.

As early as 1860, a tunnel through the Oakland Hills had been envisioned to expedite travel between Oakland and points inland. But, it took more than 40 years to make that vision a reality.

Begun in 1870 by Chinese laborers, a narrow tunnel was dug through the Oakland Hills and finally opened in 1903. It was located about 300 feet above the present Caldecott Tunnel (which wouldn’t even be started for another quarter century). The Kennedy Tunnel (named for a supporter of the tunnel; later called the Broadway High-Level Tunnel and Inter-County Tunnel) was a scant 17 feet wide and 1,040 feet long, connecting Oakland and Lafayette (Orinda wasn’t established as a town until the 1920s). About 40% of the tunnel resided in Alameda County.

Kennedy Tunnel 1

Kennedy Tunnel (courtesy of the Lafayette Historical Society).

At a cost of $43,000, the tunnel was supported by timber walls and roof. It was so narrow that two horse-drawn buggies could not pass one another, so a system involving the lighting of torches (and, subsequently, lanterns) had to be used as signals to manage east-west traffic! Electric lights were installed in the tunnel in 1914.

The tunnel was simultaneously dug from the east and west sides of the hill. Due to a miscalculation of where the two tunnel sections would join up, a four foot elbow had to be dug in order to connect the east and west tunnel sections. I wonder how many people bounced off that elbow in the dimly lit tunnel…

When I visited the tunnel’s location, I was surprised at how far up the eucalyptus tree-covered hillside it was. I suppose the height of the tunnel’s location was to minimize the tunnel’s length (it was less than one-third of the length of the Caldecott Tunnel, which came 35 years later, 300 feet lower on the hill), but it required quite a climb in order to reach it.

During the 44-year life of the Kennedy Tunnel, there were multiple cave-ins which would shut down the tunnel for days or weeks at a time. As automobiles became more common, the tunnel had to be widened to allow them to pass through. It’s been said that, on foggy nights during the Depression, unemployed men with lanterns would charge $0.25 to lead cars out of the tunnel and down the dark road to the street-lit roads in Oakland.

As the East Bay population continued to blossom, a bigger tunnel became necessary. In 1937, the first two bores of the Caldecott Tunnel were opened, with one tunnel handling eastbound traffic, the other supporting westbound traffic.

By the time the Caldecott Tunnel opened, over 4,000 cars per day were moving through the Kennedy Tunnel. In the decade following the opening of the Caldecott Tunnel, the Kennedy Tunnel served mostly pedestrians and cyclists.

Kennedy Tunnel 2

Circa 1947 – Interior of the 1,000 foot timber bore opened in the 1903. (Russ Reed/Oakland Tribune)

For safety reasons, the Kennedy Tunnel was permanently sealed in 1947. Today, the first, little-known tunnel connecting Oakland to the interior of the East Bay has been returned to nature. Its passing is marked by a brass-plated plaque on a stone monument near the top of Tunnel Road, and a nearby flagpole.

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Historical marker.

Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.

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