Antebellum railroad tunnel still a marvel after all these years

TUNNEL HILL, Ga. — Crews building the Western & Atlantic Railroad from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tenn., faced a number of natural obstacles. None, however, were as foreboding as Chetoogeta Mountain.

What workers built was a 1,477-foot-long engineering phenomenon that has stood the test of time. The tunnel was also “the first railroad tunnel south of the Mason-Dixon line,” according to a number of sources.

On March 4, 1848, the city incorporated as Tunnelsville. It wasn’t until 1856 that the town changed its named to Tunnel Hill. As early as the 1830s, the railroad planned to build a tunnel through the mountain, but it would have to wait a decade before the project could begin.

Work started on July 15, 1848, and the first train rolled through the tunnel on May 9, 1850. The railroad actually started rail service between Atlanta and Chattanooga in the 1840s. Passengers and freight had to be offloaded and transported over the mountain – a trek that was not possible by train. The influx of workers — known as “sappers” — and travelers contributed to the town’s growth.

The tunnel remained in service until 1928 when a new tunnel opened a few feet away to accommodate larger trains. For years, the older tunnel sat unused, and eventually fell into disrepair. “The old stone structure, no longer used since the construction of an adjacent new tunnel, is so thickly covered with bushes that it is visible only at close range,” according to “Georgia: a guide to its towns and countryside,” a WPA book published in 1940, a dozen years after the new tunnel opened.

Years later, on May 9, 2000, the structure’s 150th anniversary, the tunnel reopened.

While the tunnel is intertwined in the city’s history, one of the structure’s most exciting episodes played out on April 12, 1862. Members of the Andrews Raid planned to destroy the tunnel as part of their scheme to disable the Western & Atlantic Railroad. By the time the raiders reached Tunnel Hill, a group pursuing them followed so closely that the raiders did not have time to sabotage the passageway or carry out an ambush against their chasers.

In more modern times, ghost hunters say the tunnel is haunted. As proof, they point to a number of encounters with apparitions people have reported over the years – either soldiers who died during the Civil War or a circus worker who, as legend has it, was killed as he rode atop a train that passed through the tunnel.

In 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman spent six days in Tunnel Hill during his march to Atlanta. He used the Clisby Austin House, located nearby, as a temporary base of operations to plan his March to Atlanta. The house also served as a hospital, and Confederate Gen. John B. Hood stayed here after one of his legs was amputated following the Battle of Chickamauga.

The old tunnel is again open by appointment, and visitors can walk through the long, damp tunnel that steam trains once filled with smoke and soot. For more information, call 706-876-1571.

Todd DeFeo
About Todd DeFeo 233 Articles
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and The Travel Trolley.