A Tunnel's Second Act

courtesy of the codoni collection

WHEN YOU’RE HEADING north on Highway 101, going over Puerto Suello Hill between Central San Rafael and the Marin County Civic Center, on your left there’s a quarter-mile tunnel 50 feet underground that was built 138 years ago. The above photo, taken by railroad historian Fred Codoni of Fairfax on May 27, 1953, shows a diesel electric locomotive blasting out of the conduit, known as the Puerto (also spelled Porto) Suello Hill Tunnel. “That particular train — it was train number 81, led by Southern Pacific’s engine 5308 — was hauling 60 cars of freight bound for San Rafael and then the Santa Fe’s interchange in Tiburon,” Codoni says. Eight years later, two Santa Venetia boys started a fire against one of the tunnel’s wooden pilings; the blaze quickly grew and soon was out of control — causing the tunnel’s collapse and resulting in one firefighter’s death and the destruction of a nearby apartment building. Eventually, the Puerto Suello Hill Tunnel was reopened and served as a vital link for freight headed to southern Marin until the mid-1980s, when all local rail service ended and the tunnel was sealed off. Then, in 2008, after voters approved the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) commuter line, the tunnel was once again deemed invaluable as a connector between the northern and central parts of Marin. Currently, at a cost of $3 million, it is being strengthened and refitted, and within six months new tracks will be laid. Within 18 months, SMART’s trains, connecting Sonoma County airport with downtown San Rafael, will once again be blasting out of the Puerto Suello Hill Tunnel.