Archive for the ‘Railroad Trestle’ Category

Eastern Portal of Kessler Tunnel

Heading into the Paw Paw Bends

Heading into the Paw Paw Bends

Over the years, a lot of great hikes have started on the C&O Canal’s towpath and have wound up leading us to a nearby structure or overlook.  A few months ago, we set off on such a hike and wound up sliding down a steep embankment leading to the western portal of Kessler Tunnel.  We were already familiar with both the Indigo and Stickpile Tunnels, but there was something more remote or exciting about Kessler.  For starters, the tunnel is 1843′ long and was part of the now abandoned Western Maryland Railroad.  The WMRR saw the last of its train traffic in 1975, and shortly thereafter the rails were pulled up.

Steep cut into the eastern portal

Steep cut into the eastern portal

What’s left of the old WMRR these days is a flat path running through the woods–often alongside of the C&O–and three seemingly anomalous tunnels located literally in the middle-of-nowhere.  This path could someday become a part of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, but at the moment that seems years away–at best.  As for the tunnels, Indigo is now a protected bat hibernaculum  blocked by a steel gate and, as we shall see, Kessler is pretty much impassable as well.

First view of the eastern portal

First view of the eastern portal

We started the day at the Paw Paw Tunnel parking lot and headed toward the tunnel before veering off onto the Tunnel Hill Trail.  At the top of the hill, we took a right on Tunnel Hill Road.  As is the case in most good hikes, we only had a vague idea of where we were going, so after about a mile on the road, we took a left onto a trail just beyond a yellow gate.  Eventually, we were overlooking a steep gorge with a narrow, perfectly flat bottom that contained an occasional pole and other signs of past human activity.  The tunnel was down there somewhere!

Railroad trestle, Paw Paw Bends

Railroad trestle, Paw Paw Bends. Note the small island.

The trail led downhill at a moderate grade and eventually crossed the railroad cut near an abandoned trestle deep in the Paw Paw Bends.  From here, it was a matter of walking back up the cut toward the tunnel.  A small stream passes through the middle of this man-made gorge, and the hike is swampy.  However, it does beat heading down the steep ravine closer to the tunnel.

Unfinished business completed!

Unfinished business completed!

All of the stories that we’ve heard about the Kessler Tunnel’s eastern portal are true:  not only is it hard to reach, but it’s also flooded.  High above the entrance, a large pipe carries water from a small stream and deposits it as a waterfall on the right as one faces the tunnel.  The drainage system is in a state of disrepair, and the water backs up into the tunnel before the overflow heads down the cut toward the Potomac River.

A closer look.  The water in the tunnel is probably two feet deep at this point

A closer look. The water in the tunnel is probably two feet deep at this point

The tunnel’s western portal is fairly muddy, but it isn’t nearly as dilapidated as the eastern end.  Judging from how the light from the other side reflects on the water, it appears that the tunnel floor is flooded most of the way.  It would take a kayak or waders in order to see if Kessler Tunnel supports a similar bat population to Indigo.  Indeed, what exactly lies between the portals is a bit of a mystery.  Nevertheless, this is a great round trip hike of approximately six miles that explores a bit of the C&O Canal and a forgotten railway that may someday be turned into a rail trail.  That sounds good, but it would take a lot of work.

Lock 68

Lockhouse 68

Lockhouse 68

Lock 68 is often referred to as Crabtree’s Lock, based upon the name of the last lock tender.  It’s located at mile 164.82, which is about 2.5 miles upstream from the access road into the Town Creek Aqueduct.  The lock is a unique spot for a number of reasons: it is also the site of the Potomac Forks hiker/biker campsite; the canal is watered here and is actually popular with local fishermen (Battie Mixon’s fishing hole); and the two branches of the Potomac meet approximately 200 yards downstream, as the South Branch can be seen merging with the North Branch while passing beneath a railroad trestle.  The actual time of  our hike was in late February as the last vestiges of 15″ of snow continued to re-freeze and thaw until the towpath became a sometimes icy, sometimes muddy mess.

Lock 68

Lock 68

The highlight of the day was seeing six very brave deer run across the “iffy” ice on the canal near mile marker 164.  There were several spots where small streams entered the canal, and the slightly warmer water melted large sections that had previously been frozen.  The area also had plenty of beaver sign, including a small dam just below the towpath in a large field.  Indeed, the theme for the day seemed to be “water, water everywhere.”

On the subject of water, the confluence of the North and South Branches is of particular interest.  The sources of the Potomac begin at the Fairfax Stone in West Virginia (North Branch) and in the mountains of Highland County Virginia (South Branch).  Many of the locals refer to the North Branch as “the Potomac” above their confluence, but others give the South Branch equal billing.  Which branch is biggest depends mainly on what area has received the most rain at any given time.  When the border was originally surveyed, it was decided that it should run along the main stem of the Potomac, and at the time the North Branch was flooding.  Had it been the other way around, present day Maryland, West Virginia, and perhaps even Virginia would look completely different on a map.  As a native West Virginian, I’m one of those people who gives the South Branch its due and insist that the “real” Potomac starts a couple of hundred yards below Lockhouse 68.  Feel free to agree or disagree.  I would love to add any comments on the subject.

Looking across at the South Branch.  The blasted sun was NOT cooperating!

Looking across at the South Branch. The blasted sun was NOT cooperating!


A Little Help From Some Friends

Concrete waste weir (98.92)

With its length of 184.5 miles, the C&O Canal is an absolute monster to explore.  Candee and I have biked the entire length of the trail twice and done short trips and hikes that have covered the towpath several times over.  Nevertheless, along the way, we have managed to miss virtually everything.  With this in mind, I recently purchased Pocket Guide to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, by Gary M. Petrichick.  This is a tiny book that will easily fit into the palm of your hand, and it is a list of all of the structures along the canal–with room on the opposite pages for personal notes.  The picture above is a waste weir.  There are several on the canal, and back in the day they were used to either re-direct excess water back into the Potomac or to drain the canal when repairs were necessary.

Underneath I-81 (98.5)

I purchased the book at the Williamsport Visitor Center, and we immediately took it out for a hike.  It’s amazing what a new resource can do in regard to making an old hike new again.  Likewise, I have recently learned that the C&O Canal Association has posted a list of access points along the canal on their website (  It is an interactive resource with links to Google Maps that also gives GPS coordinates for the access points.  Also, there is a brief description of the available parking spaces.  For example, there may be numerous spaces at Spring Gap or McCoys Ferry, but parking is very limited at the end of Mile Marker Lane or Pearre Station.

Railroad bridge abutment (97.44) with Conrail trestle (97.54) in the background

The possibilities for using multiple resources together are numerous.  One can literally print a map to a desired parking point along the canal, pack up the car, and head out for a great hike or bike ride in either direction.  Take along Petrichick’s booklet, and the days of walking or riding past hidden history are over.  There are 184.5 miles of culverts, waste weirs, and other structures to be discovered.

Culvert 127 (97.85)

Kessler Tunnel

Western Portal

The Kessler Tunnel (1843′ in length) was completed in 1906 and abandoned in 1975 when the Western Maryland Railroad went out of business.  It’s located in the Paw Paw Bends, and in spite of being part of the C&O Canal NHP, it is not readily available via the towpath.

Turn around...this is the wrong trestle! (Active B&O Trestle in the bends)

Now for some more Kessler Tunnel trivia: it was acquired by the NPS in 1980; it’s named after original landowner John Kessler; and the WMRR right-of-way could someday become part of the Western Maryland Rail Trail.  However–and perhaps most importantly–the tunnel is a lot harder to find than either the Indigo or Stickpile Tunnels.  For those interested in hiking to the tunnel, the journey begins at the Tunnel Hill Trail.

Trestle leading to the Kessler Tunnel

Head toward the Paw Paw Tunnel from the campground just off of Maryland Rt. 51 and take the trail to the top of Tunnel Hill.  The directional signs at the top are for the Tunnel Hill Trail, which leads to the towpath.  Instead, turn right onto Tunnel Hill Road where it intersects with the trail.  Eventually, the road will pass through a gate and head downhill toward a sharp right-hand turn.  On the right side, there will be a clearing.  Pass through this and head straight toward the river.  Toward the lower ridge overlooking the Potomac, there is a deep, impassable railroad cut.  Follow this to a steep (but passable) bank made up of shale and loose dirt, and this will lead to both the trestle and an entrance into the gap leading to the tunnel.

Be careful!

After “Googling” the Kessler Tunnel, I chanced upon a couple of really vague maps showing its approximate location in conjunction with Tunnel Hill Road.  We made the mistake of taking the road to the end, and it literally leads to the middle-of-nowhere and ends on a ridge-line overlooking the river and the B&O trestle in the second picture.  From there, it was a long, uphill hike to the top of two large hills, so be sure not to overshoot the target!  For those interested in a less-strenuous hike, Tunnel Hill Road is available from Malcolm Road off of Rt. 51.  One can literally drive to within a mile or so of the tunnel.  It’s the same idea–take Tunnel Hill Road downhill to a hard right and cut through the woods.  There’s one other thing though:  much of the land is state owned hunting grounds, and signs of hunters are everywhere.

This is a look at the tunnel from further back. On first look, it appears that anyone heading into the railroad cut is taking his life into his own hands. It's pretty much vertical down there until reaching the trestle.

McCoys Ferry, Four Locks, Dam 5…

Heading to McCoys Ferry

A Short Jaunt from McCoys Ferry...




Like many people, we’re guilty of straying far away from home to get our C&O Canal kicks.  McCoys Ferry (mm 110),  Four Locks (mm108), and Dam 5 (mm 107) are all about forty minutes away from our hometown of Martinsburg, but we have only seen them as blurs when riding by on our bikes.  It seemed like a good idea to take a short excursion prior to the Super Bowl, so we took to the road to see what we could see.




I’ll start with the McCoys Ferry campground and its environs.  On the way there, we noticed the Green Spring Covered Bridge about a half-mile from the towpath.  The bridge is actually a modern, decorative structure that spans a small stream as part of a driveway.  Don’t get me wrong: I would love to have my own covered bridge, but I found the nearby railroad trestle and culverts far more interesting.  In the beginning, I was drawn to the C&O primarily for its recreational value, but this history stuff has kind of rubbed off on me over the years.

At one time the railroad and the canal were bitter rivals, but the trestle merely blends into the scenery at McCoys Ferry.  Other amenities include numerous picnic tables and a boat ramp.  The area draws a crowd during the summer, but on Super Bowl Sunday, we had it all to ourselves and found the hike and sightseeing to be very enjoyable.

Railroad trestle at McCoys Ferry

Candee’s son Tyler tagged along on today’s hike, and he was primarily interested in finding a good place to fish this summer.  The Potomac runs slow and deep for a few miles above Dam 5, and I’m thinking that the catfishing is probably pretty good.

Potomac view

One for the history buffs


Like many areas along the canal and river, McCoys Ferry is part of Civil War history.  According to the sign, the Confederates tried to capture the ferry boat at McCoys landing but were rebuffed by the Clear Spring Guard.  Also, J.E.B. Stewart crossed the river here on his second ride around McClellan’s army.




We are generally drawn to the canal for its recreational value, but occasionally the C&O’s structures catch our eyes.  Some are easily spotted from the towpath, but the culverts are generally overlooked by hikers and bikers.


Culvert near McCoys Ferry

There are eleven aqueducts along the C&O Canal, and they mark the points where the canal crosses over larger streams.  Culverts, on the other hand, occur where smaller streams were routed underneath of the canal.  I’m hardly the expert, but there are over one hundred culverts, and many of them are very impressive.

Fellow C&O Canal Association member Steve Dean has photographed all of the culverts and plans on turning his efforts into a book.  People who have an interest in the canal’s structures and history have opened our eyes a bit over the years, and the locks, aqueducts, and culverts are as different from each other as the diverse groups who built them.  I would certainly advise hikers and bikers to get off of the trail and take a look around.  There’s a lot more to the park than what meets the eye!

Another culvert...reminded Candee of a scene from The Hobbit

From McCoys Ferry, it’s a short ride to Four Locks.  The site gets its name from the four locks that raised the canal thirty-three feet in order to cut across Prather’s Neck and bypass a four mile bend in the Potomac River.  Lock House 49 is open to the public for overnight lodging.  It’s a bit on the rustic side, but it would be a great spot to stop while doing a through-ride from Cumberland to Georgetown.

Lock House 49 at Four Locks...Come Spend the Night!

What's this? Any Ideas?



I guess you could say that Four Locks holds a special place in our hearts.  On our 2011 ride, we ran into heavy storm debris above Little Orleans and several more downed trees well below Hancock.







We were forced to lift our bikes over countless snags and even had to walk them through the canal bed in places.  By the time we reached Four Locks, we were worn out and frustrated, but I remember saying, “Enjoy the next mile.  It’s down hill and on the house.”  The easy pedaling and coasting seemed to lift our spirits, and we never lost momentum the rest of the way.


Looking up from the river toward the lock house


From Four Locks, we took another short ride into the Dam Five area.  The dam and river create an image that is worthy of a post card.  The dam was completed in 1857 and survived several of Stonewall Jackson’s attempts at destroying it during the Civil War.  During low water, many fishermen can be seen fishing from the rocks directly below the dam, sometimes as far out as the middle of the river.

Dam 5


In all, the scenery between McCoys Ferry and Dam Five is outstanding.  Likewise, heading upstream leads one to Fort Frederick State Park and Big Pool.  There are many places along the C&O that look relatively similar around every bend, but this section reveals something new and interesting along the way for both newcomers to the park and canal aficionados.  In spite of traveling through every mile of the park several times, Candee and I have missed a lot of interesting things.  With that in mind, today made for three wonderful short hikes, and, like most excursions, we learned a number of new facts and saw things we’ve never seen before.  Until next time…


Another View from Dam 5