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Construction of the Great Bend Tunnel, aka the Big Bend Tunnel, began on January 10, 1870. The tracks were laid September 9 - 12, 1872, and final completion of the tunnel was in early 1873. 


The C&O Railroad resident engineer was Capt. Richard H. Talcott. The primary contractor was Capt. William R. Johnson who was educated as a civil engineer and served in that capacity in a Confederate regiment during the Civil War.  He employed 800-1,000 workers at various trades.  Most of the workers were either African-Americans newly freed from enslavement, Irish immigrants, and other nationalities.  Once completed, the tunnel was 6,450-feet in length with a slight curve at the east end due to an engineering error.


The work began at the west end of the tunnel.  The first thirteen months of construction was done in Monroe County, West Virginia as Summers County was not created until 27 February, 1871.  The tunnel was built by the determination of men and boys using man and mule power.  Construction began with three shafts drilled to the tunnel’s floor.  The shafts were used for three purposes: to carry out rocks and dirt as work progressed, to enable the crews to work on different headings, and to allow much need fresh air into the tunnel.  There was a total of six working headings including the portals.  There were other crews that cleared and graded the approach to each portal.

Working in these conditions brought sickness, death, and the ever present possibility of being maimed for life. The three primary dangers were silicosis, accidental explosions, and rock falls. One documented fall was estimated at 8,000 cubic yards.  Quite a few of the workers had an abject fear of working where someone had just died. It was in the contractor’s best interest to downplay these deaths and accidents as much as possible.  Rumor has it that mass graves are located on each end of the tunnel and at the fill before the old trestle where it crosses Hungards Creek “where they buried men and mules.” 


Other dangers abounded in the workers’ camp lives as with all places where men and boys were assembled in large numbers living in close proximity to one another.  They lived in wooden shanties built along the C&O’s right of way.  Money, while not abundant to the workers, was enough for them to afford their share of whiskey which some of them partook in at every opportunity that presented itself. The combination of strong men and whiskey normally resulted in fist fights, stabbings, and shootings.  Bear in mind this was a recurring issue every payday. Another danger was dishonest individuals willing to separate the honest workers money from them using any means available. It was not uncommon for workers that had just got paid to be found dead either in the woods or floating in the river. 


Due to inadequate information during the bidding process, Captain Johnson and his partners ended up going broke.  His partners took advantage of the bankruptcy law and he was advised to do likewise.  He refuse to file and later when he was a successful coal operator he repaid all of his creditor’s principal and interest.  In appreciation of his honor, his creditors presented him with a silver bowl bearing the inscription “an honest man is the noblest work of God.”

081318 East Portal of Big Bend Tunnel c1

African-American captains and crews often manned the flat bottom boats called bateaux that were used to float the equipment and supplies used to build the tunnel down the Greenbrier River.  At the time, there was a limited amount of steam power in use with only two 30-horsepower engines being used to power the hoists in the shafts. These engines were delivered in this manner.  


Men used hammers designed for the task of driving long drill bits into the rock for the explosives to be placed to blast the red shale and solid flint rock day in and day out.  Dualin, a new volatile explosive mix of nitroglycerin and sawdust or wood pulp, was used.  On 10:00 a.m. on 31 July 1872 the heading between shaft one and two were driven together allowing fresh air to traverse the entire tunnel.


After this all work was suspended and all parties repaired to headquarters where a barrel of whiskey was rolled out for all to partake.  Fortunately, there were few knives, pistols, or fists flourished with no causalities reported.  Upon completion, the interior of the tunnel was lined with timbers rather than brick.  This oversight and inadequate ventilation proved to be to lives and equipment.  Both of these mistakes were addressed in later years.




Growing coal sales to foreign countries in the early 20th Century created an increase in the volume of train traffic between the southern West Virginia coal fields and the shipping ports in Virginia.  Eventually, the Great Bend Tunnel became incapable of handling the increased traffic efficiently as trains would have to stop on each side and pass one at a time through the tunnel.  Thus, the C & O Railway began construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in 1930 to allow continuous east-west rail traffic.  The twin tunnels were used simultaneously until the Great Bend Tunnel was closed in 1974.

111416 Example of Compressor in Use.jpg

The techniques and technology used in tunnel building advanced considerably during the 60 years between the opening of the Great Bend Tunnel in 1872 and the Big Bend Tunnel in 1932. The early steam drill that John Henry defeated during construction of the Great Bend Tunnel evolved into reliable drilling systems.  The photo on the left shows an air compressor system set up in a factory setting.  From this set up, an 8-inch line ran from the compressor as far as the tunnel entrance where it divided into two 6-inch lines.  One of the lines carried air to the No. 1 eastern heading, the other ran through the Great Bend Tunnel and into the No. 2 western heading.  This line was one and one-half miles long.

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