Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal

I’ve talked a lot about the C&O Canal on this blog, but that’s because with 184.5 miles of trail, there’s a lot to see. One of the locations I’ve waited all winter to go see is the Paw Paw Tunnel. The spring weather finally arrived and I got in a few bicycle rides to get back to the level of shape I was in last fall. It was finally time to go for a big ride last Saturday.

The Paw Paw Tunnel lies between mileposts 155 and 156, near the appropriately named town of Paw Paw, West Virginia. The builders of the canal decided to cut the tunnel through a ridge to save 5 miles of canal and towpath rather than follow all of the switchbacks of the Potomac River known as the Paw Paw bends. Construction on the tunnel began in 1836, but it took twelve years to complete due to the financial problems of the company and different episodes of labor unrest. After the workers punched through the mountain, it took another two years to place the approximately 5,800,000 bricks that line the tunnel.

The tunnel is about 3100 feet long, or three fifths of a mile. It is only wide enough for one canal boat to transit the tunnel at a time. Therefore, the Paw Paw Tunnel caused a few traffic jams in the heyday of the canal. Boats going down stream would have to yield for those going up river. Before entering the tunnel, a boat would hang a white lantern on their front and a red lantern on the rear, so others would know which way they were going.

You can get to the Paw Paw Tunnel by car. It’s about a half an hour drive from Cumberland, Maryland or an hour from Hancock, Maryland. Plenty of parking is available in the campground just across the river from Paw Paw, West Virginia. Let Google Maps tell you how to get there. For my bike ride on Saturday, I had Sheila drop me off in Hancock. The 32-mile ride along the towpath was full of pretty scenery, but for the most part the several locks and aqueducts on this section of the trail are not nearly as interesting as Williamsport’s aqueduct over the Conococheague (mile 99.6) and Lock 44 (mile 99.1) with its restored lockhouse. The towpath trail narrows as you climb a slight rise into the gorge leading to the tunnel. A boardwalk was built into the side of the gorge and small waterfalls are spilling onto the trail. When you go to visit the tunnel, BRING A FLASHLIGHT or a headlamp. It is mad dark in there and you are going to want a light.

Visiting the Paw Paw Tunnel is definitely worth an afternoon. For all practical purposes, there are no facilities in the town of Paw Paw…a couple of diners, a gas station that sells sodas and snacks, but that’s it. It is a pretty drive through West Virginia and there is a nice park there to eat a picnic lunch. I, of course, recommend riding your bicycle. It is about 28 miles by bicycle from Cumberland and 32 miles north from Hancock. Or bring your bikes with you and take a little ride up and down the towpath. I was pretty happy having my ride home waiting for me on the south side of the tunnel. And that Subway sandwich after the ride was pretty good too. ;-)

Reference for the history of the Paw Paw Tunnel, and mileage locations are from The C&O Canal Companion by Mike High (John Hopkins University Press, 2000).

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