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Oct. 18, 2021

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Clark Asks: What’s tale of tunnel near Columbia River High?

Pedestrian crossing built in 1991 closed in part due to student misuse

By , Columbian politics reporter
5 Photos
An underground tunnel near Columbia River High School was meant to serve as a link for the Cougar Creek Trail. The tunnel was built in 1991 and eventually closed.
An underground tunnel near Columbia River High School was meant to serve as a link for the Cougar Creek Trail. The tunnel was built in 1991 and eventually closed. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Just to the side of Columbia River High School’s parking lot, a ramp winds its way down toward a dark tunnel.

When the skies are overcast, it’s creepily reminiscent of a horror movie. You can almost hear the silent screams from between the blackberry vines warning you to turn back. But when the sun pokes through the clouds, the tunnel regains its status as a gathering spot for teens.

The abandoned Dutch Bros cups and layered graffiti make it clear the tunnel has a following.

Across Northwest 99th Street, a set of stairs lead seemingly to nowhere. For anyone brave enough to descend into the wild blackberries and ivy, the other side of the abandoned pedestrian tunnel is found. A look at what could have been.

Vancouver resident Patrick Berry saw the same strange set of stairs and abandoned tunnel and posed a question to The Columbian’s Clark Asks feature on not only why the tunnel was built, but why it was shut down.

“Curiosity has led me to explore the elaborate ramp on the school side and then check out the even more elaborate staircase on the other side of the road,” Berry said. His question was selected by fellow readers in search of an answer. “It just struck me that a lot of work and money went into building it, and I wondered what the purpose was. Was it added when 99th Street was widened to allow safe crossing for the students? Is it just a service tunnel? Was it a safety concern?”

As Berry noted, the only controlled crossings near Columbia River High School are more than half a mile apart. An active underground tunnel would be useful, especially as housing developments in the area continue to bring in more residents.

He guessed the tunnel was added in the 1990s when Northwest 99th Street was expanded. It was a good guess.

Although a firm answer was not easy to come by.

We initially believed the tunnel was built by the school to allow safe crossing for its students. But when asked, Vancouver Public Schools had little information. VPS Communications Director Pat Nuzzo said the tunnel is just to the side of the school’s property and suggested it was actually part of the Clark County trail system.

“We believe it was closed years ago for safety reasons,” Nuzzo said. But nothing was for sure.

I reached out to Clark County in hopes of a more clear answer. Clark County Public Works spokesman Jeff Mize said many longtime employees remembered the tunnel being built, but weren’t sure when or why. While he continued to scour county records, I turned to The Columbian’s archives.

Our digital archives held no answers. Believing the tunnel may have been built in the 1990s, I prepared myself to spend some quality time in our library reading through paper clippings.

I got lucky. A series of articles written it the summer of 1991 offered a backstory for the underground pedestrian crossing.

Northwest 99th Street was reconfigured that summer to the tune of $1.89 million. The street was widened between Northeast Hazel Dell Avenue and Northwest 11th Avenue, and a ravine created by Cougar Creek was partially filled in to improve motorist views.

As part of that project, an underground pedestrian tunnel was added along Cougar Creek. At the time, Clark County was planning to extend the Cougar Creek Trail and the tunnel was an “important link,” according to Columbian archives.

“We met with the county parks division and Sheriff’s Office, and we concluded the (underground pass) was probably a whole lot safer than people getting hit crossing the road,” county engineer Gregg Gifford said in March 1991. “We’re going to light it, and the pass will be wide open.”

Some parents reportedly feared the tunnel would “serve as a gathering spot for troublemakers.”

The project wrapped in late 1991. The trail was never extended.

Trail’s future unknown

The Cougar Creek Trail’s future was also the subject of a Clark Asks question. While trying in vain to find out when the tunnel closed, I stumbled upon an answer of sorts.

Mize said plans to build the trail were derailed when the county missed an opportunity to acquire a critical piece of property near Columbia River High School.

“The county’s top priority for Cougar Creek Trail is to extend the trail south to the undeveloped Cougar Creek Woods Community Park site,” Mize said. “Its second priority would be to take the trail farther south to Northwest 99th Street. The third priority would be to build the final trail segment to Northeast Hazel Dell Avenue, south of Northeast 88th Street.”

The county’s failure to build out the trail may be one factor in the tunnel’s closure. “Troublemakers” may be the other.

No formal records offer explanation, but both the county and Vancouver Public Schools said the tunnel was closed because it was being used by students as a gathering place. The layers of graffiti and stretched fencing with holes just wide enough for a person to slip through show at least as it concerns Vancouver youth, a closed underground tunnel is just as good a meeting place as an open one.

Columbian politics reporter