Paw Paw Tunnel



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Today the Paw Paw Tunnel can be easily explored with a flashlight, as the towpath is still intact.

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 six. While tunnel route involved cutting thru 3118' of solid rock, the Maryland shore of river route contains some impressive cliffs coming right down to the river. To have followed river would have required either crossing to West Virginia shore and back hacking out canal along those cliffs or damming river at lower end of bend to form a slack-water and cutting a towpath along cliffs or putting towpath on West Virginia 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. When work started in June 1836 on the Paw Paw Tunnel engineers estimated the work would take just two years and $33,500 to complete. Labor violence, funding shortfalls, and work stoppages slowed construction. Fourteen years later when the 3,118-foot tunnel opened, it cost more than $600,000.  Two other men responsible for building of the tunnel were Fisk's assistant, Elwood Morris and the contractor, Lee Montgomery.

Lee Montgomery, a Methodist pastor turned contractor, hired a crew and began work on the tunnel in June 1836. Workers used black powder to blast through rock, used picks and shovels, and hauled out rubble by horse carts. They simultaneously cut from both ends. Vertical shafts from the hilltop down to tunnel level provided extra working faces in each direction. While Montgomery predicted he could bore seven to eight feet per day, his crew working three shifts daily managed to bore through the hard, loose shale just 10 to 12 feet per week. Unskilled workers, rising labor costs, poor living conditions, and the slow pace of construction led to labor strife at the tunnel. Montgomery hired miners from England and Wales, and German masons from Pennsylvania. Montgomery’s Irish labor force clashed with one another and with newcomers who competed for their jobs. Tensions escalated in 1837, 1838, and 1839 when workers used beatings, destruction of property, and other forms of physical violence to halt construction. Due to lack of funds, work was suspended from 1842 to 1847. In November 1848, construction resumed. The firm of McCulloch and Day completed the tunnel quickly. On October 10, 1850, the tunnel opened for navigation. 




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 a headless man haunted the tunnel!

The channel through the tunnel was narrow, providing no room for passing or turning. The first boat to arrive at either end had the right of way. 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. One standoff lasted several days until a company official threw green cornstalks onto a roaring fire at the upwind end and forced the offenders out with smoke. The great increase in canal trade during the early 1870s resulted in frequent and lengthy delays at the tunnel while the boats waited their turn to enter. In 1872, the canal board hired a watchman to regulate traffic night and day and established rules for boats navigating through. Though the board imposed a $10 penalty for violating the regulation, the tunnel remained a bottleneck for boats. Millions of tons of coal, agricultural products, lumber, stone, and industrial goods passed through the tunnel from Cumberland and her hinterlands. In 1875, the canal carried 904,898 tons of coal alone. Maintenance difficulties plagued the canal and the tunnel. Just two years after the tunnel opened, a major flood damaged the canal. Repairs took most of the summer to fix. Rock slides in the deep cut below Paw Paw Tunnel in November 1857 and the spring of 1858 stopped navigation for more than two months. In 1889 more rock falls at the tunnel and a major flood caused extensive damage to the waterway, and navigation was suspended for eighteen months. 

I was retouching photographs from our family trip to paw paw tunnel, when I have accidently turned one of them into black and white and saw that mine flashlight-drawing experiment turned into a spooky mage. As if lost souls appeared in the air…

As daylight dwindled to a pinpoint at either end of the tunnel, the steady beat of mule hoofs and the slap of displaced water marked a canal boat’s progress. Sometimes music filled the chamber as boat crews sang to hear the echoes of their voices or to calm children afraid of the dark.


Paw Paw Ghost Stories 
by Dee Julian
(Originally told by Carol Meyers, 
Earl Meyers) 

"My mom and pap told me that the Paw Paw
Tunnel was haunted. Pap told me that when a
worker died, they just put cement over him. The
tunnel is haunted by all of these workers. 
My mom told me about a woman who was on
the train tracks looking for her husband. A train
and hit her. Now her ghost walks the tracks
still looking for her husband. She also told me
about a girl that was killed. Her blood stained the
floor. To this day, even though it has been cleaned
and carpeted, you can still see the blood stain."


The Ghost of the Old Man
and Woman
by Kelsey Eaton

"Everyone in Paw Paw has to have seen the Old
house at the Paw Paw Trail and Tunnel. It was
built in the 1920's. The house was owned by an
old man and woman. They lived in it until they
passed away. Then it was bought by another family about 20 years later. Since then, it has been . 
preserved there. 
One day last summer, my sister and I went for a
walk on the tunnel. We decided to go to the
house. We approached very slowly. We were surprised to see that the door was open, because. it
usually isn't. We went in the house, it was a mess. 
The wallpaper was torn and the stairs were about
to collapse at any minute. 
Then I heard, "Eek! Eek! Eek!" It sounded
like someone was walking up the stairs. Nothing
Was scary until I saw a dark figure looking back at
me. We ran out of the house and locked the door. 
We vowed never to go back again." 


I have not found a particularly good and convincing ghost story about Paw Paw Tunnel, but it is definitely one of the spookiest places in Maryland, especially, in the middle of the tunnel, where it is dark. And cold. And wet. With its impressively dark past, it is especially frightening if you are claustrophobic, afraid of the darkness that creeps in from all sides and eats into your brain, or if you are afraid of snakes or bats. Luckily, we did not see any snakes, bats or ghosts during our visit.

However, my husband met the local woman who refuses to enter the tunnel. According to her grandmother, who used to work there as a boat hauler several decades ago, the tunnel is haunted by spirits of the tunnel workers, many of whom died during terrible flood, and tunnel builders, whose lives have been lost during construction of the Paw Paw Tunnel. 

Throughout the canal’s history, numerous floods damaged the towpath, culverts, locks, and tunnel. As competition from the railroad increased, repairing the canal structures proved unprofitable. In 1924, the canal closed to commercial shipping. In 1938, the federal government acquired the canal for two million dollars. In 1950, the Bureau of Roads and the National Park Service proposed a parkway along the canal from Georgetown to Cumberland, including a section through the Paw Paw Tunnel. Opposition convinced the federal government to support a non-motorized recreational trail along the old towpath. The tunnel was badly deteriorated. The National Park Service made major repairs to the tunnel, including replacing fallen bricks, filling cavities along the towpath, stabilizing rock slides, and repairing the façade of the downstream portal. Maintenance work continues to allow safe passage for today’s hikers and bikers.