The Dingess Tunnel was constructed in 1892 by the Norfolk & Western Railroad. Named after the nearby community of Dingess, the tunnel formed part of the Twelvepole Line, which connected the coalfields of southern West Virginia to Kenova in northern Wayne County. The tunnel is 4/5 of a mile in length (nearly 3,300 ft) and was built mostly by African American migrants. For years rumors have floated that locals used the entrance and exit of the tunnel as a place to ambush African Americans traveling on the railroad. Usage of the tunnel declined after the N&W built a new line along the Big Sandy River in 1904, and by 1913 the tracks inside were removed. Afterwards the tunnel was used by vehicular traffic and became the primary route into Dingess. Today it functions as a one-lane part and is part of the state highway system. It is currently eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Backstory and Context
The Dingess Tunnel was constructed in 1892 by the Norfolk & Western Railroad (now Norfolk & Southern). It was in the process of building a railway connecting coalfields in southern West Virginia to the Ohio River in northern Wayne County, and it became necessary to dig through the mountainous areas. Reportedly a large number of African Americans were brought in to build the tunnel, much to the ire of locals. It was originally built with stone and timber, but around fifteen years later brick lining was added as well. Upon its completion the tunnel stretched about 3,327 feet long, roughly four-fifths of a mile. It became part of the Twelvepole Creek Line, which connected the towns of Lenore and Kenova and served as the N&W’s primary rail line in the region. The first train traveled through the tunnel on September 25, 1892.
The community of Dingess briefly prospered from the rail traffic spawned by the tunnel. In 1904 however the N&W switched most operations to a new, safer line along the Big Sandy River. Traffic on the Twelvepole Line steeply declined as a result, and it became used mainly for transporting empty coal cars back to the coalfields. In June 1905, two trains collided with each other inside the Dingess Tunnel, killing three or five people (accounts differ). Around 1913, the N&W closed the Twelvepole Line entirely and dismantled the railroad tracks inside the tunnel. It quickly became used by cars and wagons, and eventually became the main way of traveling to Dingess. During the 1960s the tunnel was paved and incorporated into the state highway system. Because the tunnel was designed to be only wide enough for trains, the road running through it is one lane. Cars traveling through typically have to flash their lights at the entrance to alert the other side of their presence.
Over the years the Dingess Tunnel has developed a reputation for being associated with violence. Huey Perry, writing in his 1972 memoir They’ll Cut Off Your Project, described the tunnel as an ambush site; local residents would hide near the entrance and exit to shoot any African Americans spotted riding on the trains. How credible the allegations are and how many casualties there were is uncertain. In 2014 Appalachian Magazine dubbed the Dingess Tunnel “America’s Bloodiest Tunnel.”
Efforts to promote the historic value of the Dingess Tunnel began in the 2010s. In 2015, local officials and the West Virginia Division of Highways installed signage around the tunnel acknowledging it as a historic structure. Around 2016 the West Virginia Department of Highways began developing plans to make the tunnel more safe and accessible while preserving its historic character. It included the installation of LED lighting inside and guidance signs outside. A report commissioned by the Department of Highways also determined that the tunnel would be eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“America’s Bloodiest Tunnel.” Appalachian Magazine. February 23, 2014. Accessed November 23, 2018. http://appalachianmagazine.com/2014/02/23/americas-bloodiest-tunnel-wv/
Chaffins, Greg. “The Haunted History of West Virginia’s Dingess Tunnel.” GotMountainLife.com. March 28, 2018. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://gotmountainlife.com/the-haunted-history-of-a-southern-west-Virginia-tunnel/
“Dingess Tunnel Rehabilitation.” West Virginia Department of Transportation. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://transportation.wv.gov/highways/engineeering/comment/closed/DingessTunnelRehabilitation/Pages/default.aspx
“DOH seeks public comment on Dingess Tunnel rehabilitation project.” West Virginia MetroNews Network. August 29, 2016. Accessed November 23, 2018. http://wvmetronews.com/2016/08/29/doh-seeks-public-comment-on-dingess-tunnel-rehabilitation-project/
Epperly, Randy. “Dingess Tunnel, Mingo County.” State Level Historic Documentation Report. July 11, 2017. Accessed November 23, 2018. http://www.highwaysthroughhistory.com/Content/tunnels/Dingess/docs/slhd.pdf
“Historic Dingess Tunnel commemorated.” Williamson Daily News. June 26, 2015. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.williamsondailynews.com/news/historic-dingess-tunnel-commemorated/article_cc3432f9-4fb6-553f-964a-3b37345022a1.html
Spence, Robert Y. “Dingess Tunnel.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. July 31, 2012. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1926
Steelhammer, Rick. “Planned rehab project should extend life of 124-year-old Mingo tunnel.” Charleston Gazette-Mail. September 5, 2016. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/planned-rehab-project-should-extend-life-of--year-old/article_5e0ce296-4c32-59e3-881c-7ab9038b6c23.htmlImage 4: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dingess_Tunnel.jpg