March 14, 2008 in Idaho

Property needs buyer with a tunnel vision

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Don Parker, right, and Lou St. John talk Thursday about the old railroad tunnel they are hoping to sell. The business partners in a company in Tekoa, Wash., bought the tunnel with the thought of making it into grain storage.
(Full-size photo)

PLUMMER, Idaho – Trains on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad once whisked through Sorrento Tunnel No. 41 in a timbered hillside south of town.

Now, the half-mile length of rail history is up for sale.

A Tekoa, Wash., company is advertising the concrete tunnel and 54 acres of commercial property for $650,000.

“We think it’s time for someone else to own it,” said Don Parker, a partner in Prairie Grain Inc., which purchased the tunnel from the defunct Milwaukee Railroad more than 20 years ago.

Parker and his business partner have listed the Sorrento Tunnel with a Coeur d’Alene real estate firm, which is marketing the property’s potential for enterprises that thrive in the dark – commercial mushroom production or wine storage.

Even on hot summer days, the temperature in the 21-foot tall tunnel remain 50 degrees.

“You can feel the cold air coming out about 100 yards away,” Parker said.

The tunnel dates to the early 1900s. It was part of the Milwaukee Railroad’s 2,300-mile route linking commerce centers of the Upper Midwest with emerging markets in the Pacific Northwest.

“I believe that it’s the most unusual property that we’ve dealt with,” said Thomas Tagen, the listing agent with Tomlinson North Idaho Sotheby’s International Realty.

In addition to researching mushroom production and wine storage, Tagen has contacted companies that provide site locations for film studios.

“It would be an incredible asset for someone in the film industry,” Tagen said. “The tunnel itself has a deep psychological meaning, that’s why you see so many films with tunnels. … There’s an element of mystery and intrigue.”

Prairie Grain’s partners had more prosaic plans when they bought the Sorrento Tunnel in the mid-1980s. At the time, there was a shortage of grain storage facilities in the Northwest. Partners planned to convert the tunnel into storage for 3 million bushels of wheat.

Prairie Grain received state and federal licenses for the project, but then the market for new grain storage facilities dwindled. The Sorrento Tunnel stayed on the company’s books as a nearly forgotten asset.

Over the years, Prairie Grain fielded some odd queries about the tunnel.

“We tried selling it to the Air Force,” Parker said.

He said government engineers came out to evaluate the tunnel as a missile storage site, but funding faded away when the Cold War ended. Others wanted to lease the Sorrento Tunnel as storage for medical waste or shredded tires.

Parker, 59, grew up in Tekoa, where the Milwaukee’s whistle preceded the thunder of the train’s passage through town. He and his friends defied their mothers’ orders, sneaking off to explore the hobo camps that sprang up along the tracks.

The Milwaukee had a railroad agent in town into the 1960s. When telegrams and messages came for the train, the agent stood by the tracks, holding the papers up on a long pole.

“If the engineer didn’t grab it, the conductor did,” Parker said.

That was another era. But Parker said he’s confident the tunnel, a remnant of the past, could again be part of a viable commercial venture.

“I keep thinking that there’s somebody out there,” he said, “that has a need for this.”


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