Just off Old Tunnel Road in Oakland, a stone and brass-plated marker attests to the former use of a nearby hillside. In the early 1900s, a tunnel through the hill linked Oakland and Lafayette, allowing horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic between the two growing communities. Cars used it, too. The tunnel closed in the 1940s, but a flagpole marks the entrance to this once-bustling locale.
In the 1800s, buggies traversing the steep grades of the Berkeley Hills often tumbled and crashed. Oakland merchants pushed for the tunnel, first begun by Chinese workers digging by hand in 1870, to lure flush Contra Costa shoppers.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Lafayette residents protested the tunnel, predicting that it would increase competition for land and price them out of the market. But private and county money eventually financed a tunnel. Opened in 1903, it had a four-foot elbow in the middle; diggers had miscalculated the meet-up.
BY ANY NAME
The tunnel was variously called the Kennedy Tunnel, the Inter-County Tunnel and the Broadway Tunnel. At the east entrance, a residence owned by the East Bay Regional Park District stands on the former site of the Canary Cottage cafe.
A REAL JAM
In 1937, the Caldecott Tunnel opened, a three-bore tunnel designed to replace the dark, dank, single-bore Kennedy Tunnel 300 feet above it. At that time, some 30,000 cars were passing through Kennedy every week. Traffic was bad; waits could be long. Now 160,000 vehicles travel the Caldecott daily. Traffic is bad; waits can be long. A fourth bore is in the works.
Caldecott diggers found bones of an ancient rhino and a three-toed dwarf horse. Once that tunnel opened, the Kennedy was used mostly by pedestrians; it was sealed for safety reasons in 1947.
Starting in 1910, the Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company planted thousands of flammable, nonnative eucalyptus trees throughout the Oakland hills, including around the tunnel. During the Depression, unemployed workers were paid to cut down the combustible invaders; surviving trees fueled Oakland’s 1991 firestorm.
Members of the Suicide Club, a group of urban spelunkers that was founded in the 1970s, have secretly explored the Bay Area’s abandoned tunnels for years. Despite chronicled efforts, no one has claimed to have entered the Kennedy.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.