Recall, the Knoxville Cumberland Gap Louisville railroad company blasted through Cumberland Gap with a tunnel that was finished in 1889. In the meantime, in 1890, Middlesboro burned to the ground, but quickly recovered and needed places for its people to go. Middlesboro was going to be the Birmingham AL of Kentucky, if that makes any sense. Iron was the key. Fairly good iron, too. Until the collapse of funding in 1892 and the recession of 1893, Middlesboro was the place to be. In 1891, Harrogate built the fancy Four Seasons Hotel and a line was built to connect everyone up. To get to Harrogate from Middlesboro, the line had to go through a ridge. This tunnel became called the Little Tunnel, about 1,200′ long and reasonably sturdy (it began to collapse in the late 20th century and was converted into a pedestrian tunnel). Here’s what the north portal, about 3,000′ south of the Cumberland Gap tunnel portal I posted earlier, looks like now:
This is the last tunnel on the line coming out of Knoxville. As I’ve mentioned before, the Knoxville Cumberland Gap Louisville railroad company blasted out this tunnel in 1888-1889, with a grade going up to the more or less center of the tunnel on both sides, so the cross-section of the mountain would reveal a tunnel that looks like an inverted “V”. Smoke had a tendency to collect at the top and make breathing difficult for crews and passengers. Then, to add to the woes, the tunnel collapsed on July 4, 1894, and again in 1896. Engineers didn’t like to go into the tunnel, so they’d push a string into the tunnel and have another locomotive pull it out from the other portal. Passengers had to take a wagon ride through the gap. This wasn’t a good situation. When L&N gained control of the tunnel (KCGL had gone bust in 1892), they did a complete refurb ending in 1897, which is the date on this portal (this is mostly from “History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad” by Maury Klein). It’s also the date that “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, was published. When the tunnel was begun, the Buffalo Soldiers were active in the West, just 7 years after the gunfight at OK Corral.
(I’m proud of this blog. Someone came in and lifted a lot of the text above the picture. The text ended up, with no credit, scrolled in purple (!) on another website.)
If you’d like to see a great video taken from a locomotive of a trip through this tunnel:
long and narrow
Here’s a closer look at the date on the lintel:
The third tunnel between St. Paul and Coeburn is Holbrook. It centers at 36.924873, -82.372080 and is about 1,600′ long. A trestle begins 11′ or so inside the northwestern portal and extends 625′ over a valley. It’s dated 1947, but, since the tunnel was blasted out around 1905, we know it’s a replacement for the original timber trestle (and it must have been some trestle!). There are two more trestles before we get to Coeburn, both high and long.
After Big Bull tunnel going roughly northwestward on the N&S line from St. Paul to Coeburn is Little Bull tunnel. It centers at 36.916845, -82.364497 and is about 400′ long, on a curve.
This is the last tunnel on what is now the mostly abandoned N&S line coming from Knoxville to Cumberland Gap. This is Greer tunnel, close to a feature called “Greer Lake” (not seeing a Greer Lake, folks) and New Tazewell. This portal, the northwest, is at 36.423103, -83.591183. The tunnel, soggy and drippy, seems to be about 350′ long. The history of this railroad and the changes in its trackage provide interesting reading.
We were faced with a dilemma. We knew we didn’t want to cross the trestle coming out of Oakman tunnel over Norris Lake because it is a bare-bones trestle, with no provision for any foot traffic. Although the line is, for all intents and purposes, dead, we were still leery of being on a rather exposed stretch of tracks. So, we walked back to our vehicle and drove around to Lone Mountain marina and hiked in to Sycamore tunnel from there. This north portal is at 36.378498, -83.562599. The tunnel, which has a bend, is around 740′ long. The south portal looks much like this one and, after 260′ or so, heads out over another narrow trestle.
These are the trestles coming out of both Oakman tunnels at the northwestern portals. On the left are the remnants of the original trestle over the Clinch River. It was abandoned and later disassembled and hauled away by elves or something. The sturdy bridge to the right, probably circa 1936 or so, carries the line from the newer tunnel. We’ll hit Sycamore tunnel next, then the soggy Greer tunnel, near New Tazewell.
I thought I’d posted pix from this wye up in Rift WVA at 37.281159, -81.665041. There are three trestles here: a through truss, a pony truss and a pony plate. All take the line over the Clinch River. The first picture is the through truss and the second shows the humor of the rail guys. It’s hard to read the far junction sign, but it reads “‘Omega”.
In the late 1800s, the Powell’s Valley Railroad made ambitious plans to run a line from Knoxville to Cumberland Gap. This was in the waning heyday of Middlesboro KY, just on the other side of the Gap (Middlesboro sits in a meteor crater, btw). The L&N was already in Middlesboro and was looking to get through the Gap to extend their line southward. When the Powell’s Valley Railroad became the Knoxville-Cumberland Gap-Louisville railroad, the L&N talked them into blasting a tunnel through the Gap. On the way from Knoxville, though, the line had to cross the Clinch River at this location. A tunnel was dug through the ridge and a bridge was built and all was well…until TVA began to construct Norris Dam, which was completed in 1936. The Southern Railroad, which now owned the line, realized that their trackage here was too close to the water line, so a new tunnel and a new bridge had to be constructed. These two portals are at 36.363018, -83.550292. The new tunnel is about 330′ long. There was an historic community called “Oakman” about a mile to the southwest of this tunnel. It’s gone, but the tunnel isn’t. That’s how it goes sometimes. We’ll take a look at the other side next.
We’re now a little over 191 miles from Elkhorn City. We’re at the southernmost point of the first of The Loops, about a quarter mile past Quinn Knob tunnel. 3rd Washburn is a curved tunnel, 915′ long. This is the western portal at 35.839883, -82.037946. The date on the lintel is 1913. Snipes is next, but, as I said, we’re heading down to Norris Lake for an interesting series of tunnels (if you’re into tunnels). We’ll get back here real soon. The tunnels will still be here.