Not everybody likes to walk through long, dark tunnels, and those who are claustrophobic actually have another way of getting around the Paw Paw Bends and continuing to hike on the C&O Canal towpath. I’m referring to the Tunnel Hill Trail, which is a nice alternative to walking through the Paw Paw Tunnel.
Recently, the NPS added several interpretive signs that add to the experience, and there are now directional markers that make the hike a bit less confusing. Those who have taken a wrong turn at the criss-crossing paths at the top of the hill know what I mean.
To get to the the trail, simply walk to the tunnel–as usual–then veer to the right at the Tunnel Hill Trail sign. It’s two miles in length and begins with a series of relatively steep switchbacks that lead to the top of the hill. The reward is a gorgeous view of the Potomac River.
Now for a little history–all of which is borrowed from the interpretive signs. The Paw Paw Bends made for several miles of travel that covered very little actual distance. This left three possible options: continue the canal around the bends; dam the river for slackwater navigation; or build a tunnel. Obviously the engineers chose the latter.
A tunnel of this magnitude required blasting from above and a place to dump the rubble. Thus, the present trail is basically the former work station for the laborers. The German and Irish immigrants who were involved removed 200,000 cubic yards of shale spoil over a fourteen year period (1836-1850) that saw them suffer through cholera outbreaks, labor friction, and financial shortages. The paychecks were often late, and perhaps that’s why a daily ration of whiskey was included with their food and lodging.
Speaking of lodging, workers stayed in either tents or small wooden houses in the area of the trail. Many workers had their families in tow, which led to the construction of the Sulphur Springs (aka Tunnel Hollow) School in 1840. The school was a single room brick structure, and much to our surprise, several of the bricks can still be found at the old site.
In all, I would highly recommend a hike on the Tunnel Hill Trail, particularly in late autumn. The colors and the vistas are breathtaking, and–yes–the signs make for a nice thumbnail history lesson of the area.