Paw Paw Tunnel


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 end.

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 called in.

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.