Just head for the tiny light at the end of the Tunnel -- and watch out for frogs.
Just head for the tiny light at the end of the Tunnel -- and watch out for frogs.

Rebel Tunnel of Chetoogeta Mountain

Field review by the editors.

Tunnel Hill, Georgia

The Yankees and the Confederates wanted to destroy it. The state of Georgia tried to bury it. But the Chetoogeta Mountain Tunnel has survived, and is now a uniquely subterranean and claustrophobic Civil War attraction, over 150 years after it was chopped through the Tennessee Valley Divide.

Tunnel-diggers produced a miracle of excavation, but not drainage.
Tunnel-diggers produced a miracle of excavation, but not drainage.

At 1,477 feet long and only 12.5 feet wide, the tunnel was a tight squeeze even when the first locomotive chugged through in 1850. Subsequent trains sometimes became stuck; people died. But it was the fastest way to get supplies and people from Atlanta to Chattanooga (the Great Locomotive Chase passed through it), and whichever side held the tunnel during the Civil War had to guard against the other side blowing it up. "It helped that dynamite hadn't been invented yet," said Erin Johns, manager of the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center and Museum. The lack of high-power explosives makes the original excavation of the tunnel that much more impressive.

According to Erin, the tunnel was dug not by slaves, but by Irish Immigrants. "Slaves weren't allowed to go inside because they were too valuable," she said. "Their owners were afraid that if there was a cave-in they would lose their investment, as awful as that is."

Headless Confederate stands guard between two Southern Belles in the Tunnel Museum.
Headless Confederate stands guard between two Southern Belles in the Tunnel Museum.

Erin added that, "People on the tour ask all the time how many people died building the tunnel, but we honestly don't know. They were immigrants, so the railroad didn't keep any records."

The tunnel tour begins at the Tunnel Museum a half-mile down the road. Some visitors walk to the tunnel, but most ride a tram piloted by a tour guide. Judy Jones drove us through. "You can see the frogs stuck to the walls," said Judy, pointing her powerful flashlight through the moist tunnel air. "One time a frog jumped off as I drove past, missed me, but hit the lady behind. She was a mess until we got that frog off her."

Photo-op engineer in the cab of The General, famous Tunnel train.
Photo-op engineer in the cab of The General, famous Tunnel train.

Judy recounted the tunnel's long history: how it was the first and oldest rail tunnel south of the Mason-Dixon line; how it was eventually abandoned by the railroad and became "Hobo Hilton" during the Great Depression; how the state of Georgia tried to entomb it under tons of debris; how the town of Tunnel Hill rallied to prevent the burial, cleaned out the trash and kudzu, and reopened the tunnel to the public.

"People always ask if it's haunted," said Judy, which isn't surprising given the tunnel's dark history of decapitations and other unpleasant fatalities. Judy said that when its interior is especially foggy, she'll sometimes see what look like human figures standing on the old track bed, far ahead. "Of course, when I get up to where I saw it, nothing's there."

The tunnel has generally made people nervous, a fact not overlooked by Hollywood, which has used it as a dramatic location in several films and television series. Yet despite its age, and the fears of some tourists, the tunnel has remained remarkably intact. "Some visitors have asked if people have tried to mess it up," said Erin, "because of the thing with all the Confederate monuments." She reassured us that the tunnel has no known enemies besides Mother Nature, and that preservation efforts (and a lack of trains) have probably ensured its survival for another 150 years. "It's pretty solid in there."

Rebel Tunnel of Chetoogeta Mountain

Tunnel Hill Heritage Center and Museum

Address:
215 Clisby Austin Drive, Tunnel Hill, GA
Directions:
Tunnel Hill Heritage Center and Museum. I-75 exit 345. Drive south on US Hwy 41 for four miles. Turn left immediate after the bridge over the train tracks onto Oak St. When it veers left, stay straight onto Clisby Austin Drive. You'll see the museum and parking lot ahead, on the left.
Hours:
M-Sa 9-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
706-876-1571
Admission:
Adults $6.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Leg of the Gallant HoodLeg of the Gallant Hood, Tunnel Hill, GA - < 1 mi.
Atomic Mouse of GeorgiaAtomic Mouse of Georgia, Ringgold, GA - 4 mi.
Mormon Killed HereMormon Killed Here, Tunnel Hill, GA - 6 mi.
In the region:
Rock City, Lookout Mountain, GA - 20 mi.

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October 19, 2018

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