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Source: C2E portal and Lawrence Herzog
Fond memories of Edmonton’s past
Edmonton has been my home base or home city for a several decades now. I moved here from Croatia with my family in 1989. So, I do remember some of the old things mentioned here. I remember when the Rat Hole was a dark and wet way to traverse 109 Street — it was unique and a hoot to drive though.
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 75 years ago this week 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.
A memorable Edmonton Underpass
The Rathole tunnel or underpass on 109 Street was constructed in 1927 as an underpass under 104 Avenue, which was a major thoroughfare into the city of Edmonton, and under a span of 22 railway tracks. For 73 years as many as 27,000 cars per day passed through the Rathole. Because the Rathole was built around WWI, it obviously wasn’t designed to handle late 20th Century traffic. The tunnel had hazardous visibility upon entrance and exit, was subject to flooding periodically. It also had its fair share of truck drivers who miscalculated the clearance of the tunnel over the years. In order to improve safety, traffic flow and future development, the City of Edmonton decided to completely remove the Rathole in 2000 and construct 109 Avenue at grade.
The Rat Hole was not a pleasant place for ladies to walk in. Traditionally cars honked which is not very pleasant in the darkness. The Rat Hole was a route to walk to the city and from on Saturday mornings. Ladies in that era always wore nylons and dresses. After a heavy rain, passing cars would splash mud on their dress and nylons. Many years later, a raised curb was installed to somewhat reduce the damage from cars splashing the pedestrians. People were never at ease walking through the rat hole!
But what was the alternative? They could instead, crossed over the CNR tracks, anywhere from 111 St. to 109 St., zig sagging along the eleven different sets of tracks railway cars sat on. The odd time, (after determining the rail cars were stopped) they would dart under the rail cars, – to the next line to cross. Sometimes this was easier than walking to work through the rat hole.
In January 2000, the City of Edmonton tendered the project and Standard General Inc was awarded Prime Contractor and was responsible for the demolition of the current structure, rebuilding the road base, sidewalks, curbs, gutters and laying of asphalt.
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 lets 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.”
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, flooding. 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.
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. A truck 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 meters 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.
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.
Edmontonians held no affection for the Rathole, however, they dreaded the inconvenience this reconstruction would cause especially in light of the four month projected schedule. Edmonton City transportation engineers decided to accelerate the construction process, maintaining public safety, addressing environmental concerns and building public support, they achieved that goal and the project was completed on budget, with a good safety record and three weeks ahead of schedule, an unexpected surprise. The project team’s decision to start from the northern side of the Rathole rather than the south cut time. Engineering methods, disciplined time and people management took care of the rest. Instead of taking the whole tunnel out, they changed strategy and removed the concrete out to grade level. Rather than throwing the old concrete away, they crunched it up and recycled it into the fill. Additional time was saved by using a dilute form of concrete (fill-crete)
The old two lane Rathole was replaced by a six lane divided highway at grade level with a new major intersection linking 109 Street and 104 Avenue enabling traffic to go off in any direction thus increasing and giving better access to businesses in the area.
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 at last ripped up and carted away three years ago. But I still half expect to see The Rathole when I travel down 109th Street and, when I cross the modern and level intersection, can’t help thinking about the ingenuity that built it and character it added to a drive along 109th Street.
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Tags: Edmonton heritage