The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, better known as the C&O Canal, operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal was primarily used to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains.
Building the 184-mile canal was a huge undertaking at the time; the lands to the west were remote and mountainous. A section of the canal, in Allegany County, Maryland, just across the river from present-day Paw Paw, West Virginia had to be bored through a mountain in order to bypass the Paw Paw bends, a 6-mile stretch of the Potomac with several horseshoe bends.
Work on the tunnel began in 1836 and was completed in 1850. However, the tunnel was initially estimated to be complete in 1838. The work was slow-going and hazardous; using only hand tools and dynamite, workers were only able to tunnel about 12 feet per day. Cave-ins were commonplace, as were injuries and even deaths from work-related accidents. Laborers also suffered through outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and lived in primitive, isolated work camps.
To construct the tunnel, immigrants were hired from Germany, England, and Ireland. The workers were hired on for near slave wages. The low pay, and in many instances no pay due to company financial difficulties, wretched working conditions, and ethnic tensions turned the primitive work camps into a powder keg. Ethnic strife ensued; tensions boiled over and resulted in a series of bloody riots.
Once the tunnel was finally completed and in operation, the violence did not end. The tunnel was too narrow for two boats to pass at the same time. Boat captains routinely ignored the right-of-way rules that had been put in place and many fights resulted.
In 1890, the lock keeper near the end of the tunnel was murdered. His skull had been smashed in and his cabin, along with his body, were burned. The lock keeper was well-liked and a collector of rare coins. His murderer was discovered after buying drinks in a local saloon with the lock keeper’s coins that were recognized by canal workers. The man was arrested by the Allegany County sheriff; he was later tried, convicted, and hanged.
The Tunnel Today
Today, there are many who believe the Paw Paw Tunnel is haunted. Strange shadows and weird noises are often reported in the tunnel. Some have even claimed to see a headless apparition.
On a recent visit to the tunnel, I picked up a spike on my EMF meter toward the downstream end of the tunnel. On the other end, a loud noise that I could not explain also occurred. Other than that, I did not detect any anomalous activity. With that being said, the ¾-mile walk through the dark and cold tunnel is certainly creepy!