Detroit River Tunnel

Railroad tunnels have been a popular photographic backdrop since the latter part of the 19th Century; two of the most extraordinary structures are the pair of subaqueous tunnels that connect Michigan to neighboring Ontario, Canada. The oldest is the St. Clair River Tunnel between Port Huron, MI and Sarnia, Ont. which was opened to rail traffic in 1891. The submerged rail highway, which stretched 1.8 miles, was built by the Grand Trunk Western (a Subsidiary of the Great Western Railway of Canada). The other subsurface tunnel was built by the Michigan Central Railroad, a New York Central subsidiary, and tied Detroit to near-by Windsor, Ont., a distance of 1.6 miles. Known as the Michigan Central Tunnel, it was opened in 1906. Later named the Detroit Rover Tunnel, it was built as a twin-bore structure whereas the St. Clair tunnel featured a single bore.

Prior to construction of both tunnels, railroad-owned ferry boats were employed to transport freight and passenger cars across the rivers. Although expedient, the process was inherently slow; thus the need for tunnels that would speed rail-borne commerce between U.S. and Canadian destinations.

Outstanding engineering marvels, each tunnel was built in tube sections, floated out into the river, lowered into a trench, and then back-filled in position. The Port Huron Tunnel had a two percent gradient at each end. The Detroit Tunnel had gradients of 2.1 percent at the northern portal and 1.8 at the opposite end.

Sections Floated Into Position

The tunnel was constructed utilizing the immersed tube method in which tunnel sections are prefabricated and then sunk to the bottom of the river. Immersed tube construction is generally faster and cheaper than the alternative of boring a tunnel into the earth. The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel was the first immersed tube tunnel to carry traffic. The tunnel, built at a cost of $8,500,000, is 1 3/8 miles in length from portal to portal.( Both photos by Albert Duce)

Lowered In-Place

During the early 1990s, the Michigan Central Railway tunnel's north tube underwent a $27 million enlargement to permit passage of stacked container railcars and multilevel auto carrier railcars. Expectations are that the existing tunnel will continue to handle an annual volume of approximately 400,000 railcars for the foreseeable future. (Rock on Trains collection; Detroit Publishing Company photos)

New York Central Electric

The Alco-GE partnership delivered six electric motors to the Michigan Central in 1910. The 120-ton steeple cabs were designed to haul passenger and freight trains through the Detroit River Tunnel which had a 2.13 percent ruling grade. The dual-mode locos were equipped with overhead wire, third-rail pick-up and articulated trucks. (Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress collection)

New York Central Steam

Equipped with 79-inch drivers New York Central's 4-8-2s Niagaras were impressive-looking machines. Rated at 60,500 pounds of tractive effort, the class J-1b units were routinely entrusted with the railroad's flagship passenger trains. In this publicity scene, the #5435 and crew pose for the camera at the exit portal on the Windsor side. (Rock on Trains collection)

New York Central

NY-4 the railroad's "million dollar" meat train from Blue Island, Ill. to New York City leaves the U.S. behind as it races eastward towards the next border crossing at Buffalo, NY. Led by four Alco RS32s, the massive roar of the V12-251 powered locomotives is everything an Alco fan could want. (R. Craig photo on 5 February 1964 )

Penn Central

Windsor's historic train station stands watch as Penn Central's GP40 #3173 and two GE-built companions lead Chicago-New York City train NY-4. Given its 11:35 pm departure time from Blue Island and a Detroit fuel stop and customs inspection, the train has made good time cresting the grade at the 224.7 milepost (Earl Minnis photo in September 1971 )

Chesapeake & Ohio

A 10,000-horsepower lash-up of C&O GP30s climb the grade and pass the Penn Central (ex-Canadian Southern) station on the far southside of Windsor. Starting in 1929, C&O trains were a common sight in southwestern Ontario. The 3002's consist was headed for St. Thomas which was the railroad's primary facility in the Province. (Earl Minnis photo 8 February 1975)

Canadian National

Canadian National 9671 and a companion GP40-2LW ease down the grade towards the entrance to the Detroit River Tunnel. The pair of 3000-hp roadswitchers have interchanage traffic fo Detroit area railroads on a late June morning in 1998. (Photo by: Paul Leach )


The roar from a pair of EMD V16-645s and a thick exhaust cloud signals the return of "Big Blue's" daily transfer run between River Rouge yard and Ontario. The tunnel's 1.6% grade is a non-issue for an SD40-2's 83,000 pound tractive force. (Charlie Whipp photo)

Detroit Toledo & Ironton

Dubbed the "Canadian Queen" by some railroaders, a pair of DT&I SD38s are back on U.S. soil after using the Detroit River Tunnel to make a run to excahnge cars with the Canadian Pacific in Windsor. The pair of 2000-hp SDs are part of the railroad's first-ever order for six-axle diesels (#250-252). (R. Craig Rutherford photo, 3 February 1970)


Amtrak's Niagara Rainbow service (Detroit-Buffalo-Albany) exits the Detroit River Tunnel and prepares to stop at the depot in Windsor. With a pair of elderly E8As in the lead, train will also stop at St. Thomas before re-entering the U.S. at Fort Erie, Ontario. The Rainbow connection lasted less than five years (Oct. 1974 to 1/79. (Earl Minnis photo, 18 June 1975)

Essex Terminal

The days of Alcos (S1 and C420) creaking along the tracks of Windsor-based Essex Terminal are only exist in the minds and smiles of gray-beards. This afternoon scene has ETR's only EMD-built SW1500 doing the honors. The tracks below belong to CP Rail; however they also carry mainline and transfer traffic from four other railroads. (Lucas Liska photo, 6 July 2016)

  • New York Central Color Pictorial Ver. III & IV by: David R. Sweetland
  • Ed Novak's New York Central
  • X2200 South, "Penn Central Roster" (May 1968)
  • Tom Rock's website - Rock on Rails website
  • Richard Leonard's Random Steam Engine Photos website
  • Various on-line sources were used to research the locomotives and trains appearing in this feature.

  • New: 1 April 2024