During the height of the iron ore boom, train transportation of raw materials from the Iron Range in north-central Minnesota to the port towns along Lake Superior was an essential element in a successful industry. Every day, all across Northern Minnesota, trains barreled through the landscape, a sign of prosperous times. Being one of the first railways to run into the area, The Duluth, Mesabi, and Iron Range Railroad took the most direct path into Duluth. So when The Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific Railway, which connected Virginia, MN with a yard in West Duluth, came through a few years later, it had to take a slightly more rustic route.
From the start of the iron ore boom at the turn of the century to its bust in the early 1980s, the railway chugged along the beautiful Duluth park now known as the Magney-Snively Natural Area, an expansive nature reserve located just past Spirit Mountain. It ascended into a formation known as Ely’s Peak (in the area now known as Short Line Park) before descending into the town of Duluth. However, rather than going over Ely’s Peak, the train passed through Ely’s Peak, via a tunnel blasted straight through the granite and basalt rock that formed the peak.
Construction on the Ely Tunnel took over a year as crews worked slowly and carefully on the 520-foot tunnel, clearing only about 10 feet per day. In the fall of 1911, the first track of the DWP Tunnel at Ely’s Peak was laid. They completed the route to Duluth in 1912 when, almost daily, a train would pass through the tunnel.
Several large shifts in the iron ore industry happened in the 1980s. One of these shifts was the merger between DWP Railway and the Canadian National Railroad. The merger meant trains from Virginia to Duluth now had a more direct path. As a result, Ely’s Peak tunnel ceased seeing daily train traffic. Then, at some point in the mid-’90s, the railway was abandoned altogether. The DWP tracks were pulled up and the area where the tracks once lay became part of the Superior Hiking Trail. With that, the area became open and accessible to the public.
Of course, I had to visit the Ely’s Peak Tunnel. Armed with my gear I ventured out to Duluth early one fall morning and made the trek through the Short Line Park to the peak. Rounding the corning of the wide trail leading to the peak, you are suddenly greeted with the rugged entrance to a narrow, curved, dark tunnel. For some reason, tunnels always seem to appear out of nowhere and catch me off guard. I think I just need to start paying better attention.
The Ely Tunnel is less than a third the length of the Cramer Tunnel located near Finland, MN. However, unlike the Cramer Tunnel, you cannot see the other end of the Ely Tunnel when standing at one entrance. You can see where light from the other end is bouncing off the walls of the tunnel, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t encased in darkness at one point in the journey through. Also, unlike the Cramer Tunnel, the Ely Tunnel was not built to be quite so polished. Jagged edges of the basalt and granite rock looming overhead make it hard to believe that this tunnel was once an active train tunnel. There had been several days of heavy rains in the area prior to my visit, and water poured down the walls of the tunnel and dripped from the ceiling. The heaviest water flow seemed to be right in the middle of the tunnel where it was the darkest so I could hear the water flowing down in a steady streaming waterfall, but I couldn’t really see it. Large rocks lay in wait to trip you up as you venture through, so it may be advisable to bring a flashlight for your walk through the Ely Tunnel.
Being only 520 feet long, by the time I started feeling nervous about how dark it was getting in the tunnel I had already passed through the halfway mark and I was walking into the brightness of the other side of the tunnel. Unlike the Cramer Tunnel, I not only made it through the Ely Tunnel, alone, but I was able to walk through it a couple of times.
I really could not have picked a better day to venture up to the park. It was late fall and the leaves were just passing peak and falling from the trees. I was still comforted by a canopy of yellow and orange, whose colors seemed enhanced by the early morning sun. I also had a layer of fallen leaves on the trail while even more leaves cascaded down around me. So the short hike to the tunnel was like walking into a fall wonderland. It made it a bit harder to see the tunnel as something creepy since everything else around me was so beautiful that day.
Still, the entrance of the tunnel does have a menacing look about it, and the water coming down from the walls and ceiling really added to it. At one point, while filming the video, a rogue leaf flew into the tunnel and seemed determined to ruin my shot by flying right into the lens (you can see this if you watch the video carefully). But, all in all, it was a nice hike to a cool little gem hidden in the hills surrounding Duluth. Definitely a must-see for Duluth visitors looking for something a bit off the beaten path. Fall is a great time to visit!
Before heading off I had read a few accounts online that the tunnel can be hard to find. In fact, prior to going to the tunnel I actually shot another feature for the blog and heard from someone there that finding the tunnel can be tricky. However, thanks to my foresight in knowing others had issues finding the Ely Tunnel, I researched where to go ahead of time. Turns out, getting there is pretty easy… if you park in the right spot to start! The problem is, most people start from the Munger Trail Trailhead, which leads you along several forked paths. Take the wrong fork and you may not end up at the tunnel. Even my navigator wanted me to park at the Munger Trail Trailhead, but I knew better. If you park at the Ely’s Peak Parking Area, the path to the tunnel is direct and, I imagine, hard to get lost on.
First, there are three ways to get onto Becks Road, which the parking lot is located off of.
From I-35: If you are wanting to check out the tunnel before coming into Duluth, this is the way you should go, or if you’re coming from someplace toward the top of the hill with easy access to I-35. From I-35 take the Midway Rd. exit and turn south (which is right if you are coming from outside of Duluth or left if you are coming from Duluth). Midway Road turns into Becks Road. A little over 2 miles down Becks Road you will see the Ely’s Peak Parking Area on the left-hand side. If you find yourself driving over some railroad tracks, you’ve gone too far.
From Grand Avenue: If you are coming from pretty much every other part of Duluth, the Grand Ave route is the way you want to go. You can access Grand Ave from I-35 (it’s a left exit if coming from downtown Duluth). Drive southwest on Grand Ave where you will pass the Lake Superior Zoo and Spirit Mountain area. Grand Ave becomes Commonwealth Ave near Gary New Duluth. Turn right onto Becks Road shortly before entering Gary. About 2 miles after turning onto Becks Road you will drive over some railroad tracks, and then the Ely’s Peak Parking Area will be on your right.
From Skyline Parkway: I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the scenic route. W Skyline Parkway winds its way through the Magney-Snively Natural Area, passing the Magney-Snively Trailhead and the Bardon Peak Overlook before it comes to an end right at Becks Rd. Turn left onto Becks Rd and you are just one mile from the Ely’s Peak Parking Area. Again, if you pass over the railroad tracks, you’ve gone too far.
We offer two viewing experiences with the Ely’s Peak Tunnel. The first video is a walkthrough (watch for that leaf attack!). The second is an interactive 3D experience. This second video will require you to have a VR headset of some sort but is a great way to experience the Ely Tunnel if you are unable to visit.