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Tunnel visions: Gilman Tunnels combine man-made and natural wonders

The two Gilman Tunnels were created in the 1920s to allow the Santa Fe Northwestern Railway to transport lumber out of the Jemez Mountains. The opening of one tunnel is seen from inside of the other. (Robert Browman/Journal)

It’s been nearly 100 years since a logging railroad blasted two holes through the steep, granite walls of a box canyon to haul timber out of the western Jemez Mountains.

The company and its train tracks are long gone – as are the countless ponderosa pines it cut down – but the two holes in the mountain remain.

Now, motorists navigate the tall and narrow Gilman Tunnels – one vehicle at a time – to get through the otherwise impassable Guadalupe Box canyon high above the Rio Guadalupe in a rugged section of the Santa Fe National Forest.

The two short tunnels serve as a destination and a gateway to the forest beyond, but for many visitors, they are more – they are passageways back in time.

Julie Anne Overton, a public affairs officer with the Santa Fe National Forest, believes the tunnels spark people’s imaginations.

“I think there is some fascination with the whole idea of boring through mountains, the difficulty of blasting through granite – especially when you think about the technologies that were available 100 years ago,” she said.

In the early 1920s, the Santa Fe Northwestern Railway, or SFNW, began building a rail line to haul timber from the mountains to a new sawmill being built in Bernalillo, according to author Vernon J. Glover in “Jemez Mountains Railroads, Santa Fe National Forest,” a Forest Service cultural report.

Visitors to the Gilman Tunnels can access the Rio Guadalupe at various spots along the road just north of the tunnels. (Robert Browman/Journal)

When grading crews reached the box canyon, work ground to a halt while a plan was hatched to get through it. It took several months and about $500,000 – more than half the construction cost of the entire railroad – to build the trestles and tunnels through the most difficult 3/8 of a mile.

Track was laid in the tunnels in 1924, and SFNW hauled timber through them on rail until 1941. That’s when local rivers and streams swelled from heavy runoff and rains, according to a Journal report from the time, and the flooding damaged bridges and washed away several miles of track.

Wildflowers grow beside the Rio Guadalupe north of the Gilman Tunnels. (Robert Browman/Journal)

Rather than rebuild the line, the company abandoned it. The tunnels had been enlarged in the 1930s to allow logging trucks to pass through, and they were used to transport timber until logging stopped in 1973.

Just below the box canyon was a station, and later a sawmill, named for William H. Gilman, a SFNW executive who unexpectedly died of a stroke at his home in Bernalillo in 1931, according to a Journal report from that year. The tunnels still bear his name.

With so much to see in the Jemez Mountains, many people traveling New Mexico State Road 4 drive right past the turnoff to New Mexico State Road 485 without realizing there’s a unique destination just 5½ miles away.

“In a forest with so many natural wonders, this is one of our few man-made ones and the tunnels have become kind of iconic – especially after they appeared in movies like ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ” Overton said.

The Gilman Tunnels allow passage through the steep granite walls of the Guadalupe Box high above the Rio Guadalupe in the southwestern Jemez Mountains. (Robert Browman/Journal)

The tunnels also serve as an entryway to the dramatic Guadalupe Box, to the Rio Guadalupe that flows through it, and to the recreation they provide.

Visitors are free to access the Rio Guadalupe, but rock climbing within the box canyon is prohibited.

National Forest officials recommend enjoying the river to the north and south of tunnels as the stretch of canyon between them is steep and dangerous.

There are trails around the canyon hikers can follow, but they aren’t officially named. And the river contains brown trout, which are native to the Rio Guadalupe.

Just north of the tunnels, before the pavement ends, the Rio Guadalupe flows close to the road, and short trails through the brush allow for reasonably easy access to the river.

Overton said visitors who make a trip to the tunnels are rarely disappointed.

“For history buffs, they are a reminder of the significant economic role timber once played in these mountains and their small communities,” she said. “And then there’s the fact that they’re just really cool to drive through.”

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