Mile 155.2 - The tunnel is 3,118 feet long and you can just barely see
the light at the other end. I think it's kind of spooky, especially in the
middle where it's dark. And cold. And wet. There is a (steep)
hiking trail around out if you don't like dark and wet and creepy places.
This boardwalk and guard rail starts a few hundred feet before you see the tunnel.
Once you're inside, walking in the dark, it's all you have to guide you to the other
These cliffs over the tunnel are wet and dripping with water, just like inside the tunnel.
There are a few hidden puddles and drippy spots, especially on the east side of
the tunnel. A flashlight is a good idea.
The tunnel is lined with bricks.
PAW PAW TUNNEL (from Thomas Hahn's Towpath Guide)
155-20 North (Downstream) Portal. Massive slides continue on cliffs over
berm side of canal at portal. New material, piled upon that already there, fills
canal bed with massive blocks of rock to level well over head of person standing
on towpath.. Several overhanging large slabs of rock on west wall are cracking away
and it appears there is more rock to come down. Gorge at this end is considerably
steeper than that at other end -- this entrance to tunnel is really quite spectacular.
There is a mighty fold in the rock just overhead, and if you back off a bit, you
can see that the rocks form almost a natural arch over the tunnel. In fact, this
was counted upon by canal co. engineers to help prevent falls inside the tunnel
during and after construction. Back is mainly a stratified shale. Volume in cut
at lower end was 120,000 cubic yds. Slides removed 1977-1978
A good deal of water falls down cliffs over the portal, possibly including genuine
springs as well as runoff. In wintertime cliffs are covered with great frozen waterfalls
of ice. This has induced rock falls and slides from time to time; a massive slide
that occurred in 1968 or 1969 engulfed canal prism to towpath level just at the
portal. It did only minor damage to the towpath, but it did obscure somewhat the
view of the portal. Portal has keystone bearing legend "J.M. Coale, President,
1850." On berm was a swinging boom used to drop timbers into slots in masonry
of portal so as to form a stop gate sealing off canal, making it possible to drain
canal downstream for repairs and maintenance. Platforms of raised stones on berm
to store timbers is covered by rock slide and may have been damaged.
Tunnel. The Paw Paw Tunnel is one of the major features of the canal,
built as a bypass to some very difficult terrain along the Potomac River in Paw
Paw Bends. Here the river makes a series of gargantuan loops, the tunnel route cutting
across one large double loop takes 1 m. where river takes 6. While tunnel route
involved cutting thru 3118' of solid rock, the MD shore of river route contains
some impressive cliffs coming right down to the river To have followed river would
have required either crossing to W.Va. shore and back hacking out canal along those
cliffs or damming river at lower end of bend to form a slackwater and cutting a
towpath along cliffs or putting towpath on W.Va. side. The alternatives were thoroughly
debated within the canal co. and, due largely to enthusiastic advocacy of newly-appointed
engineer, Charles B. Fisk, the tunnel plan won out. Even when work was well advanced
the board of directors seriously contemplated abandonment of the partially-completed
tunnel in favor of a dam. Decision was made to proceed with the tunnel in Feb. 1836,
with completion date set for July 1838. In actual fact, tunnel was not completed
until 1850, though holed thru in 1840. Two other men responsible for building of
the tunnel were Fisk's assistant, Elwood Morris and the contractor, Lee Montgomery.
Morris played a significant part as principal liaison between canal co. and contractor.
Montgomery was not around at the finish and emerges finally as a tragic figure.
Against all sorts of odds, some of his own making, Montgomery succeeded in driving
the tunnel thru, though not in finishing the entire job. In so doing, he apparently
sank his own resources and himself. Grossly overextending his credit, he was finally
caught in one of the periodic financial crises of the canal co. and went under.
The tunnel he had built was acclaimed "A Wonder of the World," while he
was tossed aside, a sacrifice to creditors to whom he had indebted himself trying
to fulfill his contract. He disappears from sight in a welter of litigation. No
wonder a local legend among the superstitious for many years had it that the tunnel
was haunted by a headless man!
Bitter arguments would go on when two boats would meet in the middle. A boy was
sent ahead to post a lantern at the other end, so that an oncoming boat would know
that the tunnel was already occupied and would wait turn. This didn't always work,
however, and from time to time canal boats, with their stubborn captains, would
meet in the middle. On one memorable occasion, neither side would back down for
days. Boats piled up for miles, bets laid and company accountants tore their hair.
Finally the section superintendent could stand it no longer. He went out to nearby
farms and bought all the green corn he could find and then at the upwind end of
the tunnel he built a roaring fire and threw on green cornstalks. With remarkable
speed the dispute was settled and the tunnel cleared.
During 1836 there were riots among Irish laborers working on other portions of
the canal, but Montgomery managed to keep his work force going without interruption.
In early 1837, however, unrest among his own men over the pay situation and rivalries
among the various national groups finally exploded into violence. The Irish terrorized
work camps and drove off British workers for a time. More riots occurred in 1838,
Irish vs. English and "Dutch." The tavern at Oldtown was destroyed and
workmens' shanties were burned. A general strike occurred in May, 1838, along the
whole line of the canal, based on failure of contractors to meet payrolls. Local
militia, who by this time strongly sympathized with workers, turned out reluctantly
to restore order. Montgomery fired and blacklisted 130 men and work was resumed.
More rioting broke out in 1839, this time at Little Orleans and once again militia
Somehow despite failing finances and violent unrest, work continued thru 1840
and 1841, but in 1842 the canal co. collapsed and work on the entire canal ceased.
The canal was completed and operating up to Dam No. 6 (134.1), about 20 m. below
the tunnel. In addition, much of the stretch above the tunnel to Cumberland had
been finished. Montgomery, who now disappears in a maze of lawsuits, his personal
fortune sunk in abortive attempt to finish the tunnel, had actually driven it thru,
but a great deal of work remained. North of the tunnel the deep cut, plagued by
slide was not fully cleared, and of course the canal in this cut had to be completed.
The tunnel itself was not yet completed and still had to have brick lining installed.
Morris by this time found Montgomery and his patented machine made poor brick. Fortunately
for the canal, state and federal interests were involved and ways were found to
raise enough money to resume work under a new contractor in 1847. The tunnel and
canal were finished and opened to traffic in 1850.
One should take a flashlight, or preferably an electric lantern, in going thru
the tunnel. Not that the towpath isn't in perfect shape -- it is -- and there is
no danger, but there are things to see inside, such as rope burns on the railing,
locations of the vertical shafts, and at times the evaporation of ground water thru
the walls creates a snowlike mineral deposit that is very pretty to see. On a later
trip (perhaps the return), it is also interesting to go thru without using a light
and feel one's way by touching the railing.
At the tunnel entrance the tunnel lining is dressed stone and from then on to
26' below south portal it is a brick four courses thick except under the vertical
shafts where it is six. Tunnel has 12' radius set on 11' vertical walls. Towpath
runs on a ledge about 4' wide and equipped with a stout railing a little better
than waist high. Top rail is a square stout beam, in many places showing deep ruts
burned into it by tow ropes of mule drawn barges. There are wooden railings or bumpers
on both inner sides of tunnel to keep barges from scraping brick walls. Height of
tunnel 24 1/2'; 17 1/2' above water. Volume of rock cut out in tunnel 82,000 cubic
yds. Greatest depth 44'. Canal 17' wide.
"Weep" holes are occasionally placed at spring line of arch to prevent
seepage of water from building up and coming directly thru brick, an admirable precaution,
but one sees that it does not seem entirely effective as a great many patches are
visible in the lining. Park Service did a thorough renovation of interior of tunnel
in 1966; it now remains in excellent shape. The two sets of vertical shafts from
surface of hill overhead are fairly easy to locate by extensive seepage of water
coming thru brick lining from them.
Montgomery, a Methodist minister with previous tunnel-building experience (600'
tunnel on Union Canal near Lebanon, Pa.), contracted to build the tunnel in the
spring of 1836. He appears to have been a rough, tough customer, but energetic and
not unimaginative. Bricks were scarce in the area, so he brought in a patented brick
making machine from Baltimore and set up his own brick works, unsuccessfully as
it turned out. Much of the tunneling work involved cutting thru rock and the construction
of sophisticated brickwork and masonry. The Irish laborers who built much of the
canal were not particularly skilled in some of the things to be done, so Montgomery
brought in English masons and English and Welsh miners and local Pa. and Md. "Dutch"
masons and laborers. Those moves, rational as they seemed, were later to contribute
to his downfall. Montgomery accepted the contract at much too low a cost. On all
sides the optimism was great as to the ease and speed with which the job could be
done. The rock formation thru which tunnel was to be dug was a natural arch of shale,
thus protecting from cave-ins. The same formations easily slide and drastically
slowed the work. It was estimated early that "a single hand can bore from seven
to eight feet per day..." whereas in actual fact the rate of progress for entire
crew at each tunnel face was 10 to 12' per week. The tunnel was a large undertaking,
employing up to 44 men at a time. Rising costs and unexpected expenses bedeviled
Montgomery from the beginning; by the end of the first year he was already trying
to renegotiate his contract. Overruns have a long history! Because of lack of funds
he fell behind in payments to his men, further unrest and discontentment further
reducing his efficiency. The canal co. paid off in monthly installments, according
to how far work had progressed. However, as an earnest of contractor's intention
to fulfill contract in entirety, a certain percentage was retained by the co. to
be paid at completion of work. While co. from time to time relinquished portions
of retained money to help keep Montgomery going, he was forced to invest more and
more of his own resources.
Construction was an impressive feat. It involved not only 3118' of tunnel, but
also 200' of deep cut at the southern end and 890' at the northern. In order to
speed work, two sets of vertical shafts (one at 122' and one at 188') were dug down
from the hill overhead (two shafts per set to provide ventilation) until tunnel
level was reached, and then digging was carried out along tunnel line in each direction
from there. With faces moving in from each end, there were six active digging faces;
because of slides in the deep cut, the face at north, portal was not as active as
others. Vertical shafts were 8' in diameter, with 23' between centers of each in
a pair. Each pair was located in a ravine overhead to shorten vertical distance.
One pair was about 370' in from the north portal and the other about 900'. They
can be located inside tunnel by dripping of water flowing down them and thru the
brick lining and also where weep holes in brick walls at towpath level are closer
together and on hill above by the still-visible digging scars. Digging of the tunnel
was done by blasting out big pieces with black powder and reducing with sledges
and picks. Spoil was hauled up shafts by winches and carted to spoil heaps by rail
cars to spoil heaps mostly on river side of canal. Those heaps are still clearly
visible, particularly above the towpath, downstream of the tunnel.
There are many tales and legends about the tunnel. One involves an Irishman who
operated a sort of elevator at one of the vertical shafts as tunnel was being dug,
bringing loads of rock to the surface and lowering men and supplies, and his mule.
The Irishman and mule shared one characteristic --a very short temper. They quarreled
more and more as work went on, until one day the mule kicked the Irishman where
it hurt. Incensed, the Irishman kicked back, only unfortunately the mule was standing
at the edge of the shaft. Down he went, to land angry but unhurt at the bottom (this
is the hard part to swallow -- the shafts were 400' deep). Only now there was no
way to get him to the top again, so the Irishman, in addition to his other duties,
had to lower bales of hay and buckets of water down the shaft to the mule until
workers could link up the tunnel coming in from a portal to get him out.