West Barretts Tunnel, along with its twin, East Barretts Tunnel are the first railroad tunnels built west of the Mississippi. The pictured West Barretts Tunnel is located on the grounds of the National Musuem of Transportation. East Barretts Tunnel is located a thousand yards east of it, on private land. Constructed for the Pacific Railroad, the tunnels were a crucial component of the plan to build a railroad across Missouri. The project was overseen by chief engineer James Kirkwood, namesake for the town of Kirkwood, Missouri. An estimated thousand workers participated in the project, which took two years to complete. The first train passed through this tunnel in the summer of 1853, but the connecting route to Kansas City was delayed until after the Civil War.
Working conditions on the tunnels were difficult and dangerous. Living conditions were not much better. The workmen built their own shanty homes that were flimsy enough to move as the rail line’s construction progressed. The limited Irish workforce that labored on the tunnels was further compromised when cholera, a waterborne disease, spread through their camp. Management operated under the mistaken belief that cholera could be prevented by alcoholic beverages. Therefore, the Pacific Railroad kept the workmen supplied with whisky, brandy, and beer. The men were not saved from cholera but were more susceptible to drunken disorderly behavior.
Misery and intoxication most likely played a role in the riot that began in December of 1852. According to newspaper accounts, workers on two different sections of the tunnels had begun warring against one another. In the process two men were killed and many others injured by gunfire. The riot was in retaliation for the beating of a single laborer. The reason why he was beaten is unknown.