The Mountain that Defeated the Rail Line
The history of Stumphouse Tunnel is as rich as the surrounding land and carries with it stories of dreams, failures, hardships, and opportunities. The dream was to develop a railroad line from Charleston, South Carolina to Cincinnati, Ohio. The Blue Ridge Rail Line was completed from Charleston to Pendleton by the 1850s but the granite Stumphouse Mountain presented a major challenge.
Fifteen hundred tunnel workers and their families made their home on Stumphouse Mountain in a town called Tunnel Hill. Most of the workers were Irish immigrants who were following their dreams to America. They worked twelve hour days, six days a week using only sledge hammers, hand drills, and black powder.
Tunnel Hill was a rough town with more saloons than churches. In 1854, Father Jeremiah Joseph O'Connell came to Tunnel Hill. Dismayed by the lack of sobriety and the lawlessness he encountered, Father O'Connell worked to get the railroad company to agree to fire anyone that did not remain sober. He built a catholic Church dedicated to Saint Patrick and established a school for the education of the miner's children.
In 1850, the German Colonization Society from Charleston organized the town of Walhalla, which is about 6 miles southeast of Stumphouse Mountain. The prospects of having major railroad line nearby brought much excitement about future economic opportunities. The Society's leader, John Andreas Wagener, filled a critical need for the railroad venture by constructing a black powder mill at the base of Issaqueena Falls.
Stumphouse Tunnel was to be 5,863 feet long. Four shafts were to be completed to provide fresh air for the workers and allow them to work from both sides simultaneously. At its deepest level, the current tunnel was 236 feet below the highest point on the mountain. The granite stone was relentless and, at peak manpower, workers were able to progress only 200 feet per month. Work continued in spite of numerous problems including an unscrupulous construction company, high operating costs, and the inability to secure consistent funding.
Workers were able to cut 1,600 feet from the western opening before state funds ran out in 1859. Before more money could be acquired, the War Between the States began. The town of Tunnel Hill faded away into history. After the war, South Carolina was in no position to continue construction of the rail line, thus the tunnel remains unfinished to this day.
The temperature inside the tunnel is a consistent 56 degrees with 85% humidity year round. In the 1940s, Dr. Paul G. Miller of Clemson College realized that these conditions were ideal for curing blue cheese. After the process was perfected, the conditions of the tunnel were duplicated at the Clemson Agricultural Center, and the cheese making was moved to Clemson.
Today, Stumphouse Tunnel is one of the most visited historical sites in South Carolina. The Tunnel, along with Issaqueena Falls, is a recreational site operated by the City of Walhalla.