Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Shortest Tunnel

Returning from my short trip this week, I came home by way of cutting across a corner of Tennessee. There, I discovered what must be the shortest tunnel anywhere… a mere 20 feet long!

One of the primary industries in the Southern Appalachians in the late 1800’s to about 1912 was timber harvesting the old-growth forests. The Tennessee Lumber Company had hired 400 men who sawed 100,000 board-feet of lumber daily, and they needed a way to get it to market. This short tunnel I drove through was once the rail-bed built following the natural terrain.

The mining company laying the track came to a stone ridge standing 75 feet high and 20 feet thick, named Backbone Rock for the shape. They decided to blast a short tunnel through the rock, and continue with laying track. If you look closely at the top of the tunnel, you will see it isn’t really rounded; they forgot to take into account the locomotive’s smokestack, and had to chisel out a little more height in the center!

By 1912 all the timber was gone, and the sawmill moved on. The US Forest Service used the rail line as a truck trail, and today it is a picturesque 2 lane road, TN 133. In the 1930’s, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built a trail to the top of Backbone Rock, and the Tennessee Wildlife Agency has developed the area around it for camping, picnicking, and hiking. Beaverdam Creek runs next to Backbone Rock and is a popular fishing spot, and rock climbers use the rock walls to practice.

If you ever get close to Damascus, Virginia, be sure to check out Backbone Rock. It’s about 4 miles south of Main Street, on Shady Lane. Damascus has miles of family bike trails along the abandoned old narrow-gauge railroad right-of-ways. The tracks have been long gone.

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