Underground Tunnels Challenge Hot Springs Engineers from Past to Present

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 12:00 am  

The darkness is absolute. Steam fogs your vision as it curls off the surface of water that rushes past your feet. Your boot slips on stone made slick by the rushing water.

The ceiling is far above your head and sometimes, in your flashlight’s glare, you spot the tendrils of seeds that have grown in piles of sediment but won’t survive past germination. You hear the gurgling of waterfalls created by long-built-up deposits of minerals.

And, coming from above, there’s the rumbling sound of motors: The place isn’t one of Arkansas’ many natural caverns, but instead a vast man-made tunnel, built to contain the mineral-rich waters that supply the famous bathhouses of Hot Springs.

The Hot Springs Creek Tunnel is an engineering marvel, a nearly 130-year-old behemoth that dwarfs in size many of the town’s better known architectural feats.

It snakes 7,050 feet along Central Avenue through Hot Springs’ historic downtown area, where it splits two ways and continues along Whittington Avenue and Park Avenue. Including those streets, the tunnel’s full length is about 2 miles. At its widest, the pipe is nearly 17 feet from top to bottom.

Arkansas is home to other structures like this: A tunnel system runs like a spider web throughout downtown Eureka Springs; the Rock Street Tunnel in Little Rock was completed in 1974 and drains water from the Interstate 630 corridor.

These systems represent architectural accomplishments that carry their unique engineering challenges into the present, but often go unnoticed.

Obscure Marvels

Burt Parker, an engineer at North Little Rock’s Garver, worked on the Rock Street Tunnel as it neared completion. He said structures like this are obscure but monumental jobs.

“There are a lot of large culverts around, but the Rock Street Tunnel, it was a pretty large undertaking,” he said. “It was really off the radar when it was built, and it was a pretty major engineering accomplishment at the time.”

This combination of complexity and obscurity is common to the state’s other underground tunnel systems.

Kevin Chitwood, an engineer for Atoka Inc. in Hot Springs, has walked through that city’s tunnel system many times.

 

 

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