Mule Pass Tunnel has eased trip to-from Bisbee for 60 years

Mule Pass Tunnel has eased trip to-from Bisbee for 60 years

April 11, 2018

Mule Pass Tunnel

By Peter Corbett / ADOT Communications

The winding road over Mule Pass into Bisbee took its toll on drivers’ nerves and their vehicles for a half century before the Arizona Highway Department built a shortcut by tunneling through the Mule Mountains.

Completed 60 years ago, Mule Pass Tunnel created a new gateway into Bisbee. It also cut 10 minutes off the drive over the 6,030-foot-high pass on US 80 into the southeastern Arizona mining town. The road is now known as State Route 80, and the Highway Department is now the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Mule Pass Tunnel is largely taken for granted now, but it was celebrated as a vital road improvement at a dedication Dec. 19, 1958. Two Arizona governors, other dignitaries and two bands showed up for the ribbon-cutting on a 68-degree day in Bisbee.


SR 80 west

“It’s clear sailing thru the Mules now,” read the headline in the Bisbee Daily Review. You could read all about it for a nickel.

The tunnel builders dusted themselves off from 23 months of work to celebrate the occasion.

“It was just dang tough the whole way,” said Ray Paulson, who engineered the $2 million project for the Peter Kiewit & Sons construction company.

That’s the equivalent of about $17.2 million at today’s prices. Federal dollars paid for 87 percent of the project.

Close to 150 workers were on the job. It took them five months of digging, drilling and blasting, day and night from June to November 1957, to bore through 1,400 feet of granite to daylight on the other side of the mountain.

They were “the greatest gang I ever had,” Pete Jannopaul, tunnel superintendent, said of the construction crew. Workers widened the tunnel to 42-feet and 23-feet high at the apex. They used 1,100 tons of steel and 15,000 cubic yards of concrete to shore up the tunnel walls, according to the Daily Review.

It remains Arizona’s longest highway tunnel with the exception Deck Park Tunnel, which technically is a series of bridges with roads and a park built on top of it in central Phoenix.

At the Mule Pass Tunnel dedication, Gov. Ernest “Mac” McFarland cut a copper ribbon to open the tunnel in what was his last official act as governor. He was joined by Gov.-elect Paul Fannin and State Engineer W.E. Wiley.

Lt. A.L. Holly of the Arizona Highway Patrol was the first man through the tunnel, leading a procession of state and local officials.

The 36th Army Band from Fort Huachuca and Bisbee High School Band played the song “Highways Are Happy Ways” for the occasion. The video at right has the Mills Brothers' version of that song.

It was a happy day for Bisbee residents who had to contend with the Old Divide Road over the pass. The newspaper reported six deaths over three years on the road, and 31 cars towed off the pass in 15 months.

Still, one Bisbee native lamented that there would be fewer trips over the pass to enjoy the scenic beauty, especially at night.

Opel Rindle Burgess said traveling over the pass at night brought you “up in the world, so close to the sky, stars and moon, then far below, like a jeweled setting, the town with its sparkling lights made a pleasing picture.”

Another local observed that young men would not propose marriage to their girlfriends in the tunnel like they had at Mule Pass.

The winding road over Mule Pass in Bisbee was one of the highest points on US 80, the former coast-to-coast highway that cut across southern Arizona.


Divide Marker

The pass was even touted as the Continental Divide on a 1914 highway marker when prison laborers improved a dirt trail for early automobile travel.

In reality, the Continental Divide is about 150 miles to the east. It’s marked on Interstate 10 about 30 miles west of Deming, New Mexico, at an elevation of 4,585 feet.

Nevertheless, the erroneous highway marker remains at Mule Pass.

Deloris Reynolds, Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum voluntary librarian, said she could find no evidence anyone ever tried to correct the mistake.

“I suspect many (locals) did not know it was wrong and others probably didn’t care,” she said.

The old Divide Road Road serves locals and is lightly traveled. We spotted a few javelina foraging along the road on a recent morning.

According to a Bisbee Radio Project report, locals sometimes refer to Mule Pass Tunnel as a “time tunnel” in which travelers emerge from the eastern end into an earlier era of Bisbee.