120419 Schurch Tunnel.jpg

Steve Olson at the west end of the Schurch Tunnel.

Friends Steve Olson of Bernice and Eric Moe were on the Continental Divide at Champion Pass, straddling Jefferson and Powell counties. To get there they drove up the Boulder River Road from Bernice; had they continued down the other side they would have come into Deer Lodge.

The pair were walking along a trail in search of Schurch Tunnel, a feature marked on many Forest Service maps. When they found it they were surprised to discover that the tunnel was a culvert.

Steve later came to The Heritage Center to ask if we knew anything about this tunnel. Who built it, he wondered. Why, and what for?

Nancy Alley and I told him we knew nothing about Schurch Tunnel but would be glad to see what we could find out. Figuring that it must have been named after someone, we found the starting point for our own search.

Nancy found that a Christian Schurch, born in Switzerland in 1863, moved to the Deer Lodge area in 1890 sometime after marrying Anna Grunig in Helena on Dec. 31, 1889. The couple would spend their lives there, raising three sons and with Christian working as a plumber and tinner before starting a dairy farm on 160 acres.

In a story published in the Billings Gazette of June 23, 1924, Christian told of how he was able to succeed as a dairy farmer, despite having only enough water to irrigate his hay fields once a growing season. But that would change.

According to a story titled “Divide Tunneled to Get Water for Farm” and published in the March 28, 1925 edition of the The Independent Record in Helena, Christian Schurch’s farm had water rights on Peterson Creek, which was dry most of the time. Faced with that dilemma, he tunneled 700 feet through rock and dirt to tap abundant streams of water, formed by the melting snows of the other side of the mountain, and divert them to Peterson Creek through a tunnel that channeled water from Jefferson County to Christian’s farm in Powell County.

That’s the story behind the culvert that Steve and Eric found that day.

Historian Ellen Rae Thiel lives in Boulder and volunteers extensively at The Heritage Center.

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