Tunnels

A Haunting Experience

During the peak of the taconite industry in the 1950’s LTV Steel used a 72-mile railroad system to connect their Hoyt Lakes taconite plant with their Taconite Harbor shipping port located near Schroeder, MN.  The most visible part of this system for most North Shore visitors are the three railroad overpasses that allowed trains to cross over Highway 61 to areas around Taconite Harbor.  You will pass under these as you drive on Highway 61 near the border of Lake and Cook counties near Schroeder, MN.

In 2017, due to wear and tear damage on the overpasses, one of them began to dip slightly, causing a semi truck to collide with the center overpass. This  caused enough damage that the Minnesota Department of Transportation made the decision to take it down, leaving just two.  It was quite alright, however, as it had been nearly a decade since a train had utilized the overpass system.  In October of 2008, the last train made the trek to Taconite Harbor.  Along the way, it passed through the Cramer Tunnel.

The Cramer Tunnel is the longest railroad tunnel in the state of Minnesota, measuring 1,800 feet from entrance to exit.  Now abandoned, this tunnel is an off-the-beaten-path gem that many locals aren’t even aware exists.  Upon its closure, the steel doors to the entrance of the tunnels had been lowered, presumably to discourage entrance by pedestrians.  However, both doors have since been raised, leaving both ends of the tunnel open and making the Cramer Tunnel available for visitors to explore.

The railroad tracks have become overgrown leading into the tunnel. Graffiti lines the wall at the entrance. Wind blows through the tunnel, making an eerie whistle.  As you enter the tunnel you can see the light at the other end, but the further in you go, you find yourself encased in darkness, with only a hint of light leading the way to the exit.  If that weren’t spooky enough, many visitors to the tunnel have reported a feeling of unease, as though they weren’t alone in the tunnel. Could the spirits of the railroad workers visit the tunnel as well?

Admittedly, I made the mistake of visiting the tunnel alone.  I hadn’t yet heard of the haunting stories or the experiences of others when I parked my car, grabbed my gear, and started the short hike to the tunnel.  I was excited to see a place I had heard so much about but had yet to visit myself.  As I walked around the corner and the tunnel appeared, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling like I was being watched.  I scanned the area looking for an animal, it was bear season after all, and after not seeing anything in the vicinity, I shrugged off the feeling and went to work.  I snapped a few photos and then started my trek into the tunnel to get the video.  At first, everything was fine.  As I went further and further in that feeling of being watched got stronger and stronger.  As the part of the tunnel I walked into moved further and further away, the other end never seemed to get much closer.  I felt like I would look up at any moment and see the glowing eyes of a wolf or hear the distinct snort of a bear. Instead, I saw nothing but darkness (with a bit of light at the end) and heard nothing. It was suddenly silent in the tunnel- the only sounds were my breathing. Even the wind seemed to have stopped blowing through. It was this silence that I found so unnerving. I stopped, weighed my options, and decided I had gone far enough into the tunnel that you’d get an idea of what it’s like in the video. I turned and walked back out the way I came.

Even after leaving the tunnel that feeling of being watched remained while I finished snapping photos and thinking of how I could describe my experience there. Then, suddenly, I definitely was not alone anymore.

My apologies to the friendly couple who rounded the same corner I had just minutes before, probably expecting just an empty tunnel and, instead, seeing me with some strange camera equipment. You did scare me a bit, but I was already a bit on edge!  As I wrapped up my work and went back down the trail to my car, leaving the two of you at the tunnel’s entrance, I wondered if you would have the same feeling of being watched that I experienced. I wonder if you managed to make it through the tunnel or if you gave up partway through, as well. Maybe not, since you had someone else with you. But as I went home and posted some pictures on my Facebook page and started hearing the experiences that others had had, even with larger groups of friends, it did make me wonder if I had truly been alone in the tunnel or not. Who knows.

I will say this, if you’re looking for a spooky place to visit on the North Shore this October, this is the place I’d recommend. If seeing the tunnel is on your North Shore Bucket List, I recommend doing it sooner rather than later.  As with the Highway 61 overpass, the tunnel is no longer maintained. It may not be around forever. Enter at your own risk.

Getting to the tunnel requires a bit of a drive and a short hike.

From Lake County: Take Highway 61 north out of Silver Bay and turn left onto Highway 1. In the town of Finland turn right onto Highway 7/Cramer Road.  Take Cramer Road for about 13 miles until you pass under a tall railroad trestle bridge (pictured).

From Cook County: Take Highway 61 to the town of Schroeder. Turn onto Highway 1/Cramer Road (left if you are coming from the Taconite Harbor area and right if you are coming from the Lutsen/Tofte area).  Highway 1 will eventually turn into Highway 8.  Stay on this road for about 10 miles until it ends.  Turn Right onto Highway 7/Cramer Road.  Soon after turning you will pass under a tall railroad trestle bridge (pictured).

After Passing Under the Trestle Bridge: About 0.1 mile after you pass under the bridge you will turn right into a gravel pit.  Keep to the left of the first fork, staying on the well-traveled road, then curve to the right at the second fork.  Park near the start of the hiking path leading up the hill.  See map below for details.

The hike is short, going up the hill. You will pass under some electrical lines and be able to see the railroad in the distance. As soon as you hit the railroad, the tunnel will appear to your left. I do recommend having this map image open on your phone when trying to find your way there, it’s can be pretty easy to get lost on the back roads of the North Shore!

Alright, now onto the video. Yes, I got spooked and turned around. Someday I’ll go back (not alone!) and go through the whole tunnel. But this will give you an idea of what it’s like to pass through the Cramer Tunnel. It’s a 360 video so expand the video to full screen and move around to see the tunnel from all angles.

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 1980’s, 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 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 1980’s.  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-90’s, 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!

Getting There…
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.

For All, From The Parking Lot: Once in the parking lot you are only 0.35 miles from the entrance to Ely’s Peak Tunnel.
You will see a wooden boardwalk leading into the woods straight ahead.  
When the boardwalk ends, you will briefly walk along a well-traveled trail until you hit a set of stairs. Take those up and once you hit the top you will be at the trail where the NWP Railway tracks once lay.
Go to the right and walk about a quarter mile.  You’ll round the corner after about 0.25 miles and the entrance of the tunnel will be there, awaiting your visit.

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.

If you have ever driven up the North Shore on Highway 61, just past Two Harbors, you’ll likely recognize the scenic tunnel pictured above. However, you might not know its interesting history.

The 1,344 foot tunnel, which was built in the early 1990’s, has dramatically changed the experience of driving on Highway 61. Prior to the 1920’s, drivers had to take a detour away from Lake Superior, adding many miles to their commute. After the 1920’s, a narrow two-lane road took drivers along the cliff’s edge which dropped into Lake Superior. On the route, drivers were always in danger of rocks and boulders tumbling down from the cliff walls overhead.

Since the tunnel was built right through the Silver Creek Cliff (the North Shore’s highest bluff that rises directly out of Lake Superior), it took over three years of dynamite blasting to remove the 500,000 cubic yards of rock and to construct the tunnel. It was completed in 1994.

If you wish to still see the views from the old road you can do so by parking in the parking lot on the east side of the tunnel and walk onto the old road grade which is now part of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. The trail runs parallel to the road on the lake side of the cliff.