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The Paw Paw Tunnel is a canal tunnel constructed to bypass the Paw Paw bends portion of the Potomac River. While building started in 1836, it would not be completed until 1850 due to a series of miscalculations. Lee Montgomery, the engineer in charge, was forced to end the project far short of its goal and it nearly bankrupted Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Following its completion, the Paw Paw Tunnel would be in continuous use by Chesapeake & Ohio Canal until 1924. Now, it is part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

  • Tunnel Exterior
  • Tunnel Interior
  • Tunnel Exterior (Canal view)

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company (C&O) commissioned the construction of a tunnel to bypass the "Paw Paw bends," a six-mile stretch of the Potomac River. Construction of the Paw Paw Tunnel began in 1836, with initial estimates claiming that it would cost $33,500 and take two years to complete. The reality was much different, costing $600,000 and taking fourteen years to complete. Additionally, the project fell short of its intended goal, ending in Cumberland, Maryland, instead of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Lee Montgomery was a Methodist minister that had previous experience constructing a canal tunnel for the Union Canal. After the C&O decided to add the tunnel, Montgomery won the commission to build it on March 15, 1836. However, construction efforts were plagued by misfortune. Issues with funding and the workers hindered progress, averaging twelve feet per day. By the end, the project bankrupted Montgomery and nearly bankrupted the C&O.

Despite the setbacks, the tunnel went into operation in 1850. During the Civil War, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the nearby Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) were of vital strategic importance to the United States, serving as important east-west transportation arteries. Garrisons were stationed along the C&O and B&O lines, including Camp Chase at the Paw Paw Tunnel. Union soldiers, including troopers of the 1st Ohio Cavalry, garrisoned Champ Chase and guarded the Paw Paw Tunnel during the war. The 1st Ohio even published a regimental newspaper from the tunnel entitled The Wandering Soldier in the winter of 1861-'62.

The Paw Paw Tunnel saw continuous use until 1924 when C&O closed. The narrowness of the tunnel made it difficult to regulate traffic, requiring the installation of a semaphore signal. The Paw Paw tunnel is now included in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park as part of the two mile long Tunnel Hill Trail.

1. "Paw Paw Tunnel." June, 2011. Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park. National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Web.

2. "Paw Paw Tunnel." Wonders of the World Databank. PBS. Web.

3. Samuel Lovejoy. A History of Company A, First Ohio Cavalry 1861-1865. Washington, OH: December 25, 1898.

4. Stewart Plein. "The War in Words: Union and Confederate Civil War Military Camp Newspapers in Western Virginia." Virginia Tech Libraries. Web. Accessed October 10, 2020.