ORINDA -- It is a mystery tunnel these days, a long closed-off route now buried in memories of an older generation that used to travel it by horseback, wagon, foot or car to get between Oakland and Orinda.
As motorists look forward to the opening of the Caldecott Tunnel's fourth bore this weekend, some are thinking back to the musty, narrow, timber-lined 1903 tunnel that carried travelers through the mountain before the Caldecott's 1937 opening.
Produce growers in horse-drawn wagons, flower vendors in trucks, and young Oakland couples out for a date to a distant hamburger shop in Walnut Creek recall passing through the tunnel.
"It was scary, dimly lit, and the water dropped from the tunnel onto your windshield," said Leo Croce, 90, a Walnut Creek resident who rode through the tunnel in the 1930s as a boy. "It was a rickety tunnel, but it was faster than driving over the mountain."
Croce, a retired Livermore school superintendent, rode in his family's Model A as they traveled from their Oakland home through the tunnel to a Lafayette picnic area.
The 1,040-foot-long tunnel -- about 300 feet above and slightly south of the current Caldecott Tunnel -- was variously called the Broadway Tunnel, Kennedy Tunnel, and Inter-County Tunnel.
The timber-lined bore dripped water. It wasn't wide enough for cars or wagons to pass, so traffic was limited to one direction at a time. Originally restricted to buggies and wagons, the tunnel was widened in 1915 to accommodate autos, and lights were added in 1920. Cave-ins closed it several times before it was sealed off forever in 1947.
Fred Erickson passed through the old tunnel with his dad in the 1930s to deliver eggs from their Walnut Creek chicken farm to Oakland.
"I was never too thrilled to go through it," recalled Erickson, now a Lodi resident. "I was afraid it would cave in, and it eventually did."
Bill McCord, 85, of Orinda recalls that before cars entered the Oakland tunnel opening, they had to stop first and look for traffic heading toward them.
"You could see the eastern hole, and if there was no traffic, you went through," recalled McCord, who grew up in Oakland. "It was like an old mine. When the Caldecott opened, I had no desire to go back."
John Foster said traveling through the old tunnel in an open car was an adventure when he was a boy living in Oakland.
"We used to sing songs as we passed through to listen to the echo," Foster wrote in an email. "It seemed so dark and foreboding."
Foster and other tunnel users said they used it to travel to Contra Costa County in the 1930s to picnic in the countryside, pick wild berries and buy ice cream or hamburgers in a Walnut Creek shop.
Janice Habiger said her father loved to honk the car horn loudly in the tunnel to hear the echo.
"This big rocky hole was very mysterious to us, but my dad had fun honking that horn," recalled Habiger, a Danville resident who grew up in Oakland.
Scary as driving in the old tunnel was, emerging out of it in the dark hills of Oakland could be scarier in thick fog. On foggy nights during the Great Depression, jobless men with lanterns hired themselves out for 25 cents to escort cars exiting the tunnel until they reached roads with streetlights.
"My dad was too much of a cheapskate to pay 25 cents," said William Armstrong, now a Walnut Creek resident. "He would wait until a big car with strong highlights came through and follow that car."
Armstrong was scared of the old tunnel as a boy.
"When we came to the Oakland entrance, my mother would say, 'Get ready. We are entering the den of the ogre,'" he said.
Dunstan Granshaw, 86, a Martinez florist, recalls traveling through it in the 1930s with his father to buy flowers at a large Oakland flower market. The tunnel allowed flower and food suppliers to move products more quickly than driving around the hills through Richmond.
When the tunnel opened in 1903, it was a safer and quicker alternative for horse-drawn buggies or wagons than taking higher hills on steep Fish Ranch and Grizzly Peak roads.
"The tunnel was a big thing in its day," said Mary McCosker, Lafayette Historical Society president. "It made travel much faster between the two counties."
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.