An overdue visit to a special railroad tunnel that never saw the first train

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Saturday, November 3, 2018

Have you ever put off doing something so long that you just didn’t think you’d ever get around to doing it? I had an experience like that late last month when I went home to the Carolinas to see family and friends. This tale involves a partially completed railroad tunnel.

All of my life I’d heard the legendary Blue Ridge Railroad, a route between the Atlantic seaboard at Charleston, S.C., through the mountains of South Carolina and Georgia, and onto Knoxville, Tenn., and eventually Midwestern points. A pre-Civil War route, it was stymied by the war and never completed. And that is a shame for the small town I grew up in, Franklin, N.C., would have surely been on its main line, given its spot on the Little Tennessee River. Yes, the Blue Ridge was supposed to have conquered the mountains with loops, tunnels, grades, and bridges that would have made the Southern Railway loops near Old Fort, N.C., or the Clinchfield Railroad loops near Spruce Pine, N.C., look like a toy train set. In fact, had the Blue Ridge been built, it would have been, once it climbed out of the gently rolling hills of the South Carolina Piedmont and into the Blue Ridge to reach Mountain City, Ga., on a water level route along the Little Tennessee River through the mountains for the most part. Who knows, it might have even circumvented the construction of the Clinchfield years later. (The Little Tennessee empties in to Fontana Lake not far from where the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad tourist line crosses on a massive bridge.  Also, the Tallulah Falls Railroad from Cornelia, Ga., to Franklin, N.C., passed where the Blue Ridge would have run between Clayton, Ga., and Franklin via Raburn Gap, Ga.)

All of that talk about circumventing the Clinchfield is conjecture, but what I do know is that some of the railroad was built in South Carolina between Anderson and Walhalla. Norfolk Southern runs it today. I also know that efforts were made at building further west with a bore more than a mile long, and that leads me to Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel, about seven miles northwest of Walhalla, on the side of a mountain. Fifty years ago, I heard stories about this incomplete tunnel, where not the first stick of rail was ever laid. But I was too busy with school or chasing trains on the Southern Railway main line to make the effort to visit. I had and still have relatives in Oconee County, where the tunnel is located, but the tunnel just never made it on my radar … until late last month.

I was back home to attend a memorial service for a distant but much-loved relative, and the route between my dad’s family and my mom’s family, as you guessed it, took me along highway 28 north of Walhalla to the tunnel, which is now a city park run by Walhalla. So, I made the visit, trudging in the very wet dirt and rock to a point where I could see what I could see in the bore. I highly recommend a visit and a walk inside this very damp but well-constructed bore. How often do you get to visit a pre-Civil War railroad tunnel that has been unaltered for the most part for almost 160 years? How often do you get to experience history that almost was? How often do you get to contemplate the what ifs of railroading?

I’m sorry that it took most of my life to visit Stumphouse Mountain tunnel. I want to go back and explore more. I’m told there is a trail on the grade of the Blue Ridge Railroad and two other partially completed tunnels near Stumphouse Mountain. That intrigues me. I can promise you this: I won’t let many more years go by before I explore them. To my fellow procrastinators out there, remember, it’s never too late. Get going.





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