Archive for the ‘Tunnels’ Category

From Tunnel Hill Trail to the Top of Paw Paw Tunnel

I've noticed this before, but I've never given it much thought!

I’ve noticed this before, but I’ve never given it much thought!

Candee and I were talking the other day about how many times we’ve been through the Paw Paw Tunnel, and neither of us had much of a guess.  I’m not a math major, so I would probably have to take off a shoe to even count the times we’ve done the Tunnel Hill Trail.  This section of the canal and its environs is beautiful, and I never get tired of it.  Nevertheless, this hike was basically the same-old stuff, and it was obvious that nothing interesting was going to jump out in front of us.  As usual, I was wrong.

We went up the front side of Tunnel Hill and took a side trip to Kessler Tunnel, but as we headed down the other side toward Tunnel Hollow, we ran into a couple of hikers and started talking.  They said that they wandered off of Tunnel Hill Trail and walked a good ways on a well-maintained path before figuring out they were off track.  I was puzzled by this (and Candee was excited!), so we kept our eyes open for the trail as we headed down the hill.

Looking across Tunnel Hollow

Looking across Tunnel Hollow

As we hiked along one of the last switchbacks before coming to the towpath in Tunnel Hollow, we saw it–a “well-maintained path” heading back toward the tunnel.  The trail had a few ups-and-downs as it held to the edge of the hill above the recent rock slide, and eventually it led to a a great view of the boardwalk and a neat downhill vantage point of the downstream portal of the Paw Paw Tunnel.  From there it wound uphill and to the right, leading to a great view of the hollow from directly above the tunnel.

Tunnel Hollow from a higher vantage point

Tunnel Hollow from a higher vantage point

It’s pretty obvious that Tunnel Hill Trail leads from one end of the Paw Paw Tunnel to the other, but at no point does it go directly over it.  With this in mind, I’ve always wondered if there was a way toward the bore holes that were used for blasting rock in the tunnel below.  It’s a hidden piece of C&O Canal history, and this trail happens to lead there!  From above the tunnel, it is also a short hop to the waterfall that helps to feed the canal below.

In his Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal, Thomas Hahn mentions a humorous bit of folklore involving the bore holes.  Apparently, an Irishman and his mule were arguing, and the man gave the animal a swift kick that led to it falling 400′ down the hole.  The mule lived, and the Irishman was forced to lower bales of hay and water to the animal until the canal workers tunneled through.  That sounds even crazier than my last post about Bigfoot on the AT!

This appears to be an old spring along the trail.

This appears to be an old spring along the trail.

Due to waning daylight, we called off our trek at the park boundary.  The trail appears to head toward Malcolm Road, but that’s fodder for another hike.  I’m definitely interested in a walk through the woods directly above the Paw Paw Tunnel.  This is a hidden gem that we found while taking a seemingly mundane hike, but, then again, there’s no such thing as a mundane hike.  There’s a lot to see on the top of that hill.

Why isn't there a sign for this great trail?

The trail is narrow but easily traversed. 

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.

The Carpendale Rail Trail and Knobley Tunnel

Phase One

Obviously, I’m a big fan of the C&O Canal NHP, but I always like to encourage people to get off of the towpath and explore some of the many trails that cross or merge with the C&O.  The Appalachian and Tuscarora Trails are hundreds of miles long, so it’s impossible to hop off of the towpath and see everything, but such is not the case with the Carpendale Rail Trail.

Bridge and Knobley Tunnel (Eastern Portal)

In fact, the Carpendale Rail Trail can be incorporated with the C&O Canal for an easy, relatively flat five mile hike.  Simply park at Canal Place in Cumberland and walk 1.5 miles to mile marker 183.  As the towpath’s scenery goes, this is more of an urban setting than what many canal goers are used to, but the Cumberland skyline is a nice combination of bridges, church spires, and nearby mountains.

Western Portal of the Knobley Tunnel

The Carpendale Rail Trail itself is only about a mile long, but it can be divided into three sections that are approximately equal in length.  For starters, there is a slight incline from the C&O Canal towpath that leads to a bridge over the North Branch of the Potomac River.  After crossing the bridge, there’s a quick, fairly-well lit walk through the Knobley Tunnel, which was, like many other tunnels in the area, abandoned in the 1970s.  Finally, after exiting the tunnel, the trail runs a few hundred yards further and ends on the outskirts of Carpendale, West Virginia.

Looking back from the end in WV

In all, the Carpendale Rail Trail packs a lot into its short length.  Several of the other abandoned tunnels in the area (Indigo, Stickpile, and Kessler) aren’t open for public inspection, so the Knobley Tunnel offers a great opportunity for a walk in the dark.  Also, the bridge over the North Branch offers a perfect view of Cumberland, and the mountains in the distance from the West Virginia side are bright and colorful on a cool autumn day.  It’s true that the C&O holds a special place in my heart, but it’s always fun to try new things.  Enjoy your next hike!

Cumberland from the C&O Canal towpath

Our Tribute to the Paw Paw Tunnel

Downstream (North) Portal

I can’t say that I’ve ever really understood the lay of the land around the Paw Paw Tunnel.  How can it be that the downstream end of the tunnel is the north portal?  I don’t get it, but that’s only part of what makes the tunnel an interesting place.

At 3118′ in length, the tunnel is a dark and spooky place.  The openings are 24′ high, but from one end to the other, they look like mere pinholes.  What lies in between is so dark–without a flashlight–that it’s easy to trip over bumps or step into large pools of water.

Considering all of the water that drips from the top of the tunnel, it’s amazing that approximately six million bricks stay in place on the walls and ceiling.  That’s a tall tribute to both the tunnel builders and the people who maintain it.

The Paw Paw Tunnel was a work in progress from 1836-50.  Workers lived along the present Tunnel Hill Trail in tents and small wooden houses, not far from the Tunnel Hollow area of the towpath.  Progress was halted or slowed by a number of factors, including a lack of funds, cholera outbreaks, and labor disputes.

In the years it took to build the tunnel, it can be argued that the railroad made the C&O Canal a dinosaur before its time, and I’m sure that the laborers and engineers who built the canal had no idea that its greatest success would be as historical park and recreational area 120 years (and beyond!) after the completion of the tunnel.

Upstream (South) Portal

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.