How You Can Hike Or Bike Through The Longest (NOT) Tunnel In Missouri
Author's Note/Update: Somewhere along the way, The Vale Tunnel on The Rock Island Trail was tagged as the longest tunnel in Missouri. Although it seems that's not the case. If you do a web search for "longest tunnel in Missouri" you'll see a few articles about The Vale Tunnel come up first. Additionally, my article isn't the first one with the headline calling it the longest tunnel in Missouri either, there were a few before mine.
It did strike me as odd, though, because a 442 feet tunnel doesn't seem that long. Then I got a Facebook Message from Ron Schuler of Eldon who was an engineer on The Rock Island from 1967 until the railroad ceased to exist in 1980, who told me that the Eugene and Koeltztown tunnels on the same line that the Vale Tunnel is on were longer. A blogger in 2018 pegged the Eugene tunnel at 1,667 feet, while Underground Ozarks say the Koelztown tunnel is 1,223 feet.
This doesn't even get into what's going on regarding the second phase of the Lower Meramec Tunnel. The Lower Meramec Tunnel, upon completion of the second phase in 2025, will be the longest tunnel in Missouri according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. It's not a tunnel humans will use, it's a tunnel designed to carry water related to wastewater treatment in the St. Louis area. So I'm not sure if that counts.
Why the Vale Tunnel got named Missouri's longest tunnel is a question that doesn't have an answer. Is it the longest tunnel in Missouri's trail system you can currently access? Is it the longest tunnel currently in use for humans in Missouri? Did some blogger just think it was a cool headline, and it stuck? If you have any thoughts on the matter drop me a note at email@example.com or hit me up on Facebook as Ron did.
Regardless, the tunnel has a cool history, and it's still a fun part of the Rock Island Trail to hike or bike.
The longest tunnel in Missouri has a length of about 441 feet, or six bowling lanes placed back to back to back. These days you can hike or bike it, but back in the day, it was an engineering marvel built by the Rock Island Line to get their trains between St. Louis and Kansas City.
The tunnel, which is known as the Vale Tunnel, is just south of Raytown and runs under Bannister Road. It gets its name from Vale, Missouri, now part of Kansas City, and was just north of the town. The town itself was between Lee's Summit and Raytown and came into existence because The Rock Island built its right of way there, according to the Line Creek Loudmouth website.
Like many of the hiking and biking trails in Missouri, it was a rail line, and it was Rock Island's rail line between St. Louis and Kansas City. The Rock Island would go from St. Louis through Gerald to Owensville to Bland, then continue into Eldon, Versailles, and Windsor where it connected with the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (MKT) railroad.
Originally Rock Island trains would proceed into Kansas City using trackage rights on the M-K-T, but that changed in 1904 when they completed their line into Kansas City via Pleasant Hill, Lee's Summit, and Raytown.
The part of the Rock Island line that's being turned into a hiking and biking trail is the part the Rock Island built to get their trains into Kansas City without using The M-K-T at Windsor. These days you can pick up the Rock Island Trail on The Katy Trail at Windsor and walk/ride it to Pleasant Hill.
The trail from Pleasant Hill to Lee's Summit is not yet developed, however, Google Maps does have a recommended route to bridge the gap until you can get back on the trail at Lee's Summit and ride it to the trailhead at the Turman Sports Complex. This is according to the Bike Katy Trail website.
Ok, if you're like me, you probably don't want to do such a long walk or bike ride, so if you want to experience the Vale tunnel and you don't want to have to do a lot of biking or hiking, the closest place to get on the trail is the 98th Street Trail Head at 12600 E 98th St.
For a more ambitious ride, but not as ambitious as picking up the trail in Windsor, you can access the trail at the Truman Sports Complex. Just enter gate 3 off of Blue Ridge Cutoff and park in Lot L. Parking is free non-Royals-Chiefs gamedays. Or pick up the trail at one of two trailheads in Raytown. Jackson County Parks and Recreation has more information here.
As far as rail service on the line goes, abandonedrails.com says the line was a disappointment for the railroad. "The Rock Island was a late-comer to the Saint Louis-Kansas City corridor, which had already been previously connected by four other railroads, so The Rock struggled to find its piece of the pie in a saturated market." They go on to say the terrain of the Ozark Mountain region, high bridges, and tunnels also made it expensive to upkeep.
The Rock Island itself, according to Wikipedia, was "one railroad too many" and served many of the same areas as the Burlington, yet did so over a longer route. In an effort to survive after its peak, the only way was a merger with another railroad. They tried to merge with Union Pacific, which turned into a 10-year process. During this time The Rock Island tried to conserve cash by deferring maintenance and cutting passenger service as much as they could legally do so. They cut so much and had so many problems that Union Pacific walked away from the deal in 1974.
Unprofitable and or bankrupt The Rock Island limped along for the rest of the 70s. A bankruptcy judge declined to review the railroad's final reorganization plan and ordered the railroad liquidated in January 1980.
That ended rail service through the Vale tunnel and it sat unused and abandoned until Jackson County bought the right of way and developed the trail as part of The Rock Island Trail project.
Check this video out of the Vale Tunnel today.