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Articles About Berkeley Springs, West Virginia

Paw Paw Tunnel, A Handcarved Wonder

by Jeanne Mozier

PAW PAW, WV ----A century and a half ago, American promoters dubbed it one of the wonders of the world. Today, there is still a sense of awe as walkers or cyclists finish the last curve of the restored canal towpath and see the gaping mouth of the Paw Paw Tunnel.

The hand-carved tunnel -- largest man-made structure on the historic C&O Canal -- is open to the public year-round. It is located a quarter-mile along the well-maintained towpath from a small park, just across the Potomac River from the railroad town of Paw Paw, Morgan County's westernmost outpost.

The town and the tunnel took their common name from the unique fruit that grows prolifically along nearby ridges. Tasting like a banana and cantaloupe blend, the paw paw is the only temperate member of the apple custard family; it has inspired a special society devoted to its study and preservation.

The placid scene visitors find at the Paw Paw Tunnel gives no hint of numerous historic confrontations both in the building and using of the canal. Stalemates between two mule-pulled boats that met head to head in the one-lane tunnel were common. One of the most dramatic real-life stories claims the tunnel master came out and broke the stalemate by smoking the boats out with a green corn bonfire.

The 24 foot high tunnel is lined with six million bricks -- more or less. Construction was a horror that ate up men, managers and money. It began in 1836 and took 14 years to complete at a cost overrun of 500%. The planned progress of 7 to 8 feet a day became the real pace of 10 to 12 feet a week!

Although varying groups of immigrants were imported to the tunnel site and left to dig, the process of tunneling remained the same. Charges of black powder blasted out sections of rock which workers slagged with pick and shovel. The slag was hauled from the tunnel by horse carts or up through shafts to be dumped in huge spoil banks that are landmarks today for hikers climbing the trail across the top of the tunnel's mountain. Historic records of the ordeal are filled with stories of violence, murder and unpaid wages. From 1842-47 lack of funding brought work to a halt.

During the decades that formed the United States, the Eastern Panhandle received a lion's share of attention from America's first presidential land developer -- George Washington -- because of its location along the Potomac River. For Washington, moving west was America's future. Much of what he did, from land purchases to supporting a strong Constitution, was aimed at easing the development of the country's frontier.

One of Washington's money-losing ventures involved making the Potomac River navigable through the Appalachians so it could take settlers to the Ohio Territory. He created the the Pawtomack Navigation Company which operated for 40 years along the river and 5 bypass canals it had constructed. On the 4th of July 1828, the bankrupt Pawtomack Canal had its assets used to launch the C&O Canal Company and its far more ambitious plan to continue moving America west along the Potomac River. The Paw Paw Tunnel was part of that ambition.

Eliminating about 5 miles of crooked river navigation through the famous Potomac bends, the 3118 foot tunnel was completed on October 10, 1850. Countless tons of coal, farm products and manufactured goods were carried back and forth by mules and canal boats until 1924 when the canal was closed ceding the field of transport through the mountains to trains and highways.

On Sundays during the season, National Park Service rangers lead free tours through the tunnel, pointing out its remarkable structural features and colorful history. It remains dry and intact; open for independent investigation or simple sightseeing on foot or bicycle.

For more information about the C&O Canal and the Paw Paw Tunnel call the Hancock Visitors Center at 301-678-5463.

Allow 45 minutes to drive to Paw Paw from Berkeley Springs. Follow Rt. 9 west as it crosses and recrosses the s-curves of the Cacapon River. When Rt. 9 ends, take Rt. 127 to the right and into Paw Paw.


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