The Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP) is a railroad that runs from Cincinnati, Ohio south to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The railroad it operates, the Cincinnati Southern Railway, was constructed to Chattanooga and is owned by the city of Cincinnati and leased to the CNO&TP under a long-term agreement.
When completed in 1879, the route contained 27 tunnels, most of them concentrated in “The Rathole” between Danville, Kentucky and Oakdale, Tennessee. The tunnels, designed to be approximately 15 feet wide and 20 feet high, included:
- Tunnel no. 2 at King’s Mountain, which was 3,992-feet long.
- Tunnel no. 3 and 4 at Burnside.
- Tunnel no. 5 north of Sloans Valley.
The tunnels were originally lined with timber, but most were eventually relined with stone and brick unless they went through solid rock.
In the 1940’s, when the Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River in Kentucky was planned, the high water level in the new reservoir would flood a portion of the Pittman’s Creek bridge at the portal to tunnel no. 4. Work began in the late 1940’s to reroute the railroad and on August 3, 1950, tunnels nos. 3 and 4 were closed to northbound traffic; southbound traffic began using the new bridge on August 8.
The CNO&TP undertook a massive construction project between 1961 and 1963 that saw many tunnels bypassed with cuts and the reduction of steep grades and curves at a cost of $32 million. Included in the project was the bypass of tunnel nos. 2 and 5. Project 1 of the massive project removed tunnel no. 2 at King’s Mountain, Kentucky with a cut that was at most 140-feet deep. Project 2 removed tunnel no. 5 with fills as high as 215 feet and cuts as deep as 160 feet.
The completion of the project was heralded on July 10, 1963, when the New River bridge near Robbins, Tennessee was opened.
Last weekend, I set about to explore tunnels nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 as they were within close proximity to each other and generally accessibly when dry. Tunnel no. 2, at King’s Mountain, was the easiest to access from a local roadway and from the railroad. It diverges from the mainline and proceeds into the narrow tunnel for nearly 4,000 feet. The ends are flooded but the tunnel itself remains dry and navigable.
Tunnels nos. 3 and 4 were bypassed with a major line change due to the damming of the Cumberland River. Accessed off of Richardson Road, a graded path along the old right-of-way leads into tunnel no. 3 and then tunnel no. 4. Both were bore through solid rock and were never lined.
Tunnel no. 4’s southern portal put out onto a major bridge over Pittman’s Creek, although no traces of the crossing remains today.
Tunnel no. 5, located south of Burnside, was relined and later improved with concrete walls to contain some slippage. It was inaccessible from the southern portal due to excessive water on the old right-of-way, but the northern portal was very much visible and open throughout.