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Paw Paw Tunnel
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Vital Statistics:
Location: Paw Paw, West Virginia, USA
Completion Date: 1850
Cost: more than $600,000
Length: 3,118 feet
Purpose: Canal
Setting: Rock
Materials: Brick
Engineer(s): Lee Montgomery

Before there were highways, railways, and subways, there were canals. Engineers built hundreds of canals in the United States between 1790 and 1855, the Canal Age, because they were the cheapest and most reliable form of transportation at the time. Canal construction inspired some of America's first tunnels, long before the invention of drills and explosives. The Paw Paw Tunnel, on the Maryland-West Virginia border, remains one of the longest canal tunnels from this era.

Paw Paw Tunnel
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for larger image.

In 1836, Lee Montgomery, an engineer on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Project, estimated that construction of a 3,118-foot tunnel through the Paw Paw Ridge of the Allegheny Mountains would shorten the waterway by six miles. He also said it would take only two years to build. He was wrong. Armed only with dynamite, shovels, and picks, workers chiseled through the mountain at a painfully slow pace -- only 12 feet per week! Historic records of the ordeal are filled with stories of frequent cave-ins, bouts of unpaid wages, cholera, violence, and even murder!

Finally, in 1850, 14 years after he began, Montgomery broke through the other side of the mountain at the price of his own bankruptcy. Countless tons of coal, farm products, and manufactured goods were carried back and forth by mules and canal boats through the tunnel until 1924, when railways and highways became a more efficient mode of transportation.

Here's how this tunnel stacks up against some of the longest tunnels in the world.
(total length, in feet)

Chart showing the relative size of the longest tunnels in the world
Paw Paw Tunnel 3,118'

Fast Facts:
  • Workers removed 82,000 cubic yards of shale to build the tunnel.
  • The 24-foot-high tunnel is lined with six million bricks.
  • The tunnel took its name from the paw paw, an exotic fruit that grows on nearby ridges.
  • The completed tunnel was wide enough for only a single boat to pass through at a time. When a boat arrived at a tunnel entrance, a child would be sent to place a lantern at the other end to signal to oncoming boats that the tunnel was already occupied.
  • Today, the Paw Paw Tunnel is maintained by the National Park Service. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal no longer runs through the tunnel, so it is possible to investigate the tunnel by foot or bicycle. Headlamps are recommended.