Here are some images of and other information about the Paw Paw Tunnel and the Towpath downstream of it without all the drama of the day’s ride.
The Paw Paw Tunnel was deemed necessary by the builders of the C&O Canal in order to bypass about six miles of tight horseshoe bends along the upper Potomac River.
Construction on the tunnel began in 1836 and was expected to be completed within two years at a total cost of $33,500. But the project proved far more complicated and costly than expected, and the tunnel would not open until 1850, more than a decade behind schedule.
Construction costs ultimately ballooned to $600,000, an astronomical sum for a private company in 1850. That amount equates to an expenditure of around twenty million dollars today. The area in which the tunnel is located remains extremely remote and rugged today.
The Canal begins its approach to the tunnel by turning inland from the north bank of the Potomac River at Mile 154.3.
The builders of the Canal took advantage of a narrow valley between two parallel ridges that took them a little over half the distance they needed to cover before regaining the Potomac on the upstream side. Locks on the Canal ordinarily raise its level by eight feet/2.4 meters and are numbered sequentially: Lock 1, Lock 2, Lock 3 and so on. Because the valley, named Tunnel Hollow, that was used for the tunnel approach was so steep, two of the three locks on the tunnel approach raise the Canal by 12 feet/3.7 meters each and are whimsically numbered Lock 63 1/3
and 64 2/3.
There is no Lock 65, and Lock 66 is thus the last before reaching the tunnel.
Immediately before making the last quarter-mile/400 meters to the downstream portal of Paw Paw Tunnel, the Towpath traveller is offered a choice of either continuing on through the tunnel or following a steep, narrow, rocky path over the crest of the ridge that the tunnel goes under.
This path: the Tunnel Hill Trail, makes a strenuous ascent of about three-quarters of a mile/1.2 kilometers at a grade that reaches 20% in places.
The National Park Service uses the trail as a mandatory detour route during times when the tunnel is closed. It is, by all reports, not a good time if you must use it, especially if you are pushing a bicycle loaded with touring gear.
The Towpath after the trail forks off becomes narrow and wild-looking.
It enters the rock-bound upper reaches of Tunnel Hollow and becomes a boardwalk.
The downstream portal of the tunnel quickly comes into view.
The “rock pinning” efforts of the Park Service to keep the sides of Tunnel Hollow from crashing down and obliterating the Towpath are readily visible to the left.
The portal is reached at Mile 155.2.
The other end of the tunnel can be seen as a pinpoint dot 3,100 feet/945 meters away. The Paw Paw Tunnel is not lighted. A flashlight or headlamp is highly recommended.
The Towpath becomes a narrow ledge on the left side side of the tunnel as you enter.
The light from the entrance quickly fades into gloom.
The Canal has water in it through the tunnel, but one can only imagine what it must have been like during its operational days. There would have been no railing and the level of the water would have been just below the edge of the Towpath ledge.
It would have pitch dark except for such light as a dim lantern would have made. A “muleskinner” driving a mule up the Towpath would be sharing the ledge with the animal, which was almost certainly unhappy about the situation. The dark bulk of the boat would be floating on the Canal right next to him or her (I’m assuming the existence of female muleskinners here; pardon me if I’m wrong) ready to crush a person against the side of the ledge following a misstep.
Looking back, the downstream portal gets smaller and smaller
as the upstream portal is neared. Someone has counted all this bricks that line the tunnel. Reportedly there are more than six million of them.
Finally the end of the Paw Paw Tunnel is reached.
Outside, the birds are chirping, the cicadas are whining, and the wind is rustling the leaves. The upstream portal is the mirror-image twin of the one at the other end.
A few yards/meters down the Towpath the Tunnel Hill Trail comes down the hill, crosses the Canal on a plank bridge and ends.
You’ve just had the privilege of walking through the Paw Paw Tunnel, one of the great civil engineering works of the first half of the 19th Century.
2 thoughts on “The Paw Paw Tunnel”
That was a great history lesson. What made that journey of yours so gratifying was that you did that on your bike.
this is a fantastic article – pictures and story is fantastic I want to do the paw paw maybe 2019 your article gives history, shows conditions and explains all that is necessary for a great trip Thank you for writing your story