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The Incredible Challenges It Took To Build Silver Creek Cliff Tunnel Along North Shore

SILVER CREEK TOWNSHIP, Minn. (WCCO) -- In a few weeks, summer vacation will start, and families will head for the North Shore. When they do, thousands will drive through the Silver Creek Cliff Tunnel, which was built 30 years ago.

In this week's Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen shows us the incredible challenges it took to build the tunnel, and what visitors are now discovering there.

Springtime at Lake Superior. Here, you'll find no shortage of spectacular views, and no shortage of adrenaline.

"I worked in high places before, but this was the most challenging," said Tim Barton.

Thirty years ago, Barton was practically living 200 feet off the ground, on Silver Creek Cliff. He and his work crew were tasked with moving Highway 61 inland because it was too close to the lake.

There was no blueprint for a project of this magnitude, so they began at the very top, slowly removing rocks the size of semi-trucks to create a wide-open area for a new highway -- and a new tunnel.

"I loved it. Every minute of it," Barton said.

His job was to run the backhoe to remove dirt and rock so explosives could be installed to blast the granite away.

"I used to have my tracks hanging right to the edge. And I'd just be grabbing rock and throwing it over like this," Barton said.

Silver Creek Cliff Tunnel
(credit: CBS)

"The thing with Tim was tell him he can't possibly do it and he'll go do it," said Brian Zimpel.

Zimpel was the project superintendent, tasked with coordinating everything. That included helicopters, drillers, and blast plans.

"There's a lot of worry when you're gonna do that kind of explosions, you know, what's gonna go wrong," said Zimpel. "It was gonna be like laying an egg on a table and hit it with a hammer and hope everything goes one direction."

Of course, that didn't always happen. For more than two years, the crew lived away from their families, and worked six days a week, blasting a total of 450,000 cubic yards of rock. It was dangerous, nerve-racking and stressful work. Even with a fence in place to protect drivers, there was no telling where the rock was going to end up.

"There was one time the rock decided to come down on its own on a weekend. Had the road totally plugged off with rocks the size of semi-trucks laying all over," said Zimpel.

"More than once I had to dive under equipment because fly rock was coming at you, like incoming," said Barton.

Nobody got hit, which both men say is a miracle.

Today, the tunnel is a 1,300-foot-long gateway to the North Shore. And a scenic overlook, with a bit of history, stands where both men once put their backhoes, and their lives, on the line.

"When you live on the edge like that it's definitely an adrenaline rush or whatever, and you miss it when it's gone," Barton said. "I'd go do this for nothing again. Working on flat ground after that was boring."

"It's something you can point out to your kids or your grandkids that we were actually part of that," said Zimpel.

Construction on the tunnel began in August of 1991 and ended in July of 1994. The old Highway 61 is now a biking and walking path.

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