This is part three of our day of adventure. It started in the wee morning hours on Bald Rock viewing the Geminid Meteor Shower, followed by the search for the ghost town Mayucha. Keith and I found some breakfast, and headed north on Highway 28 to find the ghost town of Tunnel Hill, located near the Stumphouse Tunnel.
I had been to Stumphouse Tunnel many times. However, Keith had not. My real goal was not the tunnel, but a spot on the mountain on top of the tunnel. One online source described a cemetery and several foundations – all that remains of the former town of Tunnel Hill. I was hoping to find those.
A Wee Bit of History…
The Blue Ridge Railroad Company was conceived in the mid-1800’s as a way to transfer goods from South Carolina to Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a grand plan, with multiple tunnels and impressive bridges across the Blue Ridge mountains. The “easy” part of the railroad was completed from Anderson to Pendleton, and in the 1850s construction was started on the three tunnels that would be on the South Carolina portion of the railroad.
Tunnel Hill sprang up at the top of the longest tunnel on Stumphouse Mountain. It largely housed the Irish immigrants working on the tunnels. By all accounts it was a violent place, with saloons outnumbering other businesses, and frequent clashes between the Irish workers and the locals who thought that jobs were being usurped by the newcomers. Historian Jim Haughy recounts a description of the town by Rev. J. J. O’Connell, who visited the town in 1854…
Practically all the dwellings were flimsy wooden frame structures that provided little shelter from the elements. While miners with families lived in primitive cabins, unmarried miners often lodged in boarding shanties provided by other railroad workers and their families.
– “Tunnel Hill: An Irish Mining Community in the Western Carolinas”, presented at The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association 2004
O’Connell decried the free flowing alcohol, and in addition to establishing St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the village, he was instrumental in forming the St. Patrick’s Temperance Society to get rid of the saloons and improve life in the town.
The dream of the Blue Ridge Railroad was never to be realized, though. By the late 1850s the company had run out of money. In 1859 the South Carolina legislature was more occupied with state’s rights and secession, and failed to authorize an additional $1 million to fund the project. Without capital, the project ended, and the tunnel was abandoned. As war occupied the nation in the 1860s, the tunnel and Tunnel Hill were forgotten. Confederate deserters used the abandoned town as a frequent stop, looting what was left, and using pieces of the wooden church and buildings for firewood.
By the early 1900’s, Tunnel Hill was being remember as a “dead town” in several newspapers, such as this 1897 article from the Laurens Advertiser.
Eventually Clemson bought the tunnel. The tunnel’s constant temperature and humidity were perfect for making cheese. Today Clemson still owns the tunnel, but cheese production as long since ended. The land and surrounding park are now managed by the City of Walhalla.
It was late morning when Keith and I reached Stumphouse Tunnel. We were already worn out from the day’s adventures, but were determined to find this last ghost town of the day.
My first goal was to find the old cemetery. I found a badly eroded trail leading up onto the ridge. There was a sign post with the sign missing. The missing sign probably said “Do Not Enter” but it could just as well have read “This Way to the Cemetery”. I chose to pretend it was the latter.
Keith and I continued until the eroded trail looked impassable. I began looking for an alternate route, and Keith decided he’d had enough, and headed back down. We were both winded, and I probably should have joined him, but I kept going up the steep hill.
At the top I found a chain-link fence surrounding the main air shaft into the tunnel. The fence was doing little good, though. A human-sized opening had been cut into the fence, and one could easily pass through. The area looked unstable, so I didn’t go beyond the fence.
On the other side of the fence an obvious road continued up the mountain. I followed it until I spotted an old concrete block foundation off to the right. Surrounding the low wall were multiple stones set in the ground as if they were headstones. However, there was no writing on any of them, so it was hard to tell if these were actual headstones or just random blocks.
Some of the stones appeared to be somewhat polished and finished, so it was hard to tell. I later read reports that said that the cemetery had also been looted and desecrated by the same Confederate deserters who had destroyed the town buildings. The photos I have here match those others have reported for the area, so I knew I was in the right spot. Whether or not those reports are correct, who knows?
I carefully made my way back down the hill to find Keith relaxing on a park bench. We fired up the flashlights and ventured into the tunnel.
The tunnel was very damp, with puddles draining off to either side of a central raised path. About a third of the way into the tunnel is a brick wall with a set of iron bars for a door. At one time it looked like these could be locked, perhaps to protect the cheese.
Beyond this wall any light from the tunnel entrance is greatly diminished. However, ahead one can see a bright spot that indicates where the main ventilation shaft comes down.
Water is constantly dripping from the shaft, and the floor is covered with debris from tree limbs, rocks, and other things that have fallen into the shaft. Standing under the shaft is almost like standing in a rain shower.
About 50 yards beyond the shaft is another wall. Normally I explore on past this point and try to reach the end of the tunnel. However, this time it looked like the standing water past this point was quite deep, and the only dry way was by balancing on rickety boards. I decided I was already cold and exhausted from the night’s activities, and didn’t need wet feet on top of that.
We headed on back, reluctantly.
Back at the car, we headed on into Walhalla. I’ll use being tired as an excuse, but this is a case where I should have checked my maps before leaving the area. In Google Earth GNIS data shows the locations of both Tunnel Hill and Stumphouse Tunnel as offset quite a bit. I think if the actual location of the tunnel were matched up with Google Earth, then Tunnel Hill would also match the location I found. Even so, I would have liked to have checked out the area. There is also a “Tunnel Town Road” at the top of the mountain that would bear exploration. Maybe next time.
Back in Walhalla we had made one more stop. I had spotted the Oconee County Heritage Center on our way in, and thought it would be worth a stop. They opened at noon, and it was just past that time, so we were in luck.
The ladies inside were very pleasant and helpful, especially when I described what we were seeking. They didn’t have any more information on Mayucha, but had plenty of info on Stumphouse Tunnel and Tunnel Hill. The museum itself had displays of the tunnel, and even copies of the bonds issued for the Blue Ridge Railroad Company.
The rest of the displays were quite impressive for a small museum. They had items covering the entire history of the county, including an old dugout canoe.
The Heritage Center was well worth the stop, and if we weren’t already exhausted from the night/day’s activities, then I think I would have enjoyed staying longer. I certainly plan to return.
I drove Keith on back to his house, then back home to collapse. I had been up since 2:00 am. We had seen meteors, a sunrise, ghost towns, tunnels, and cemeteries. It had been a great birthday exploration.