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Two years after rockfall, Sehome Hill Arboretum Tunnel is fully repaired

After a rockfall closed the tunnel in July 2020, it’s now fully repaired, safe for visitors

A sign warning visitors of steep slopes and falling rocks stands before the Sehome Tunnel on Oct. 21, 2022 in Bellingham, Wash. The Tunnel has been closed since 2020 due to falling rocks and is now open to pedestrians. // Photo by Finn Wendt

The tunnel in Sehome Hill Arboretum reopened after undergoing repairs to damage caused by falling rocks, which made the location unsafe for pedestrians in July 2020. The tunnel is located in the northern part of the Arboretum and can be accessed from the Tunnel Ridge Trailhead on Myrtle Street.

Steve Janiszewski, the park operations manager for the City of Bellingham’s Parks and Recreation Department, said that the city took the lead on assessing the tunnel damage and hiring a geo-technical consultant to inform the process of fixing the tunnel.

“The rockfall in 2020 occurred after a heavy rainfall followed by a freeze. We believe that the freeze-thaw combination caused a portion of the sandstone to break free,” Janiszewski said.  “After some evaluation of current funding, we decided to pursue managing risk by performing limited maintenance with periodic scaling. Strider Construction was selected to complete the work.”

A wide shot taken of the Sehome Tunnel on Oct. 21, 2022 shows the wood cage frame that encapsulates the tunnel opening. The frame will eventually be removed to allow maintenance vehicles to access the Sehome Hill observation tower. // Photo by Finn Wendt

To make sure a rockfall is less likely to occur again in the future, the tunnel will be inspected monthly to check for additional rockfall or loose rock, Janiszewski said.

While some may be unfamiliar with this Bellingham landmark, many Western Washington University students and Bellingham residents are excited to see the tunnel restored and open once more.

Western third-year Yasmeen Jaddi said she is grateful that Western’s campus is so close to such a wide expanse of nature like the Arboretum.

“I think because so many people at the school love doing outdoor things, the school itself really benefits from it,” Jaddi said. “I think it also helps because being in northern Washington, it’s going to get dark earlier, seasonal depression affects a lot of people, so I think it’s good we have someplace really close to be outdoors.”

Having easy access to an abundance of nature right next to campus is a huge asset for students and faculty who need to take a break from stressful classroom environments and get outside. While many students visit the arboretum every day, some may be completely unaware of the Arboretum’s rich history.

Whatcom Museum Research Technician Jeff Jewell said Sehome Hill has passed between many hands of ownership in the past 200 years, finally landing under conjoined management between Western and the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department. 

“The tunnel was built in 1923 as part of an automobile road up and over the hill to a scenic overlook on the west side of the hill,” Jewell said. “The road was called Huntoon Drive, named for local engineer Bert W. Huntoon, who had been instrumental in getting Chuckanut Drive established and would go on to develop the Mount Baker Highway.”

Two centuries later, Bellingham residents and Western students can still escape to the trees and explore the arboretum and its tunnel. Jewell said the arboretum is much more than just a place for recreation, but provides a place to “recreate one’s sense of place in nature.” 

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