The original Big Bend Tunnel was opened in 1872 to carry the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway underneath Big Bend Mountain in Talcott, West Virginia.
The construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in the early 1870s was one of the largest projects undertaken by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) as it extended through southern West Virginia. To avoid taking an eight-mile detour around Big Bend Mountain west of Talcott, the railroad opted to bore a tunnel 6,500 feet in length through the mountain. 1
The construction of the Big Bend Tunnel began in 1870, but it proved difficult to construct because of the mountain’s hard, faulted shale that resisted drilling and blasting. 1 6 Once exposed to air, the shale grew brittle and crumbled, and rockfalls killed many workers and mules. In one instance, more than 22 million pounds of rock dropped in one collapse near the east end of the tunnel.
Crews broke through the opposite end of the mountain on May 31, 1872, and the first train passed through later in the year. 1 It was not until February 1873 that the Big Bend Tunnel was fully completed. 1 6
Originally lined with timbers, the tunnel was plagued with rockfalls. In one unfortunate incident, an entire train crew was killed by a massive fall. 1 Thereafter, the C&O began to line the tunnel with brick, an undertaking that required the laying of more than six million bricks over ten years.
The tunnel was also outfitted with two ventilation shafts that were spaced 2,000 feet from each portal to clear the tunnel of smoke from the steam locomotives. 2 After ventilation fans were installed in 1902, the shafts were sealed. A coal-fired boiler and steam engine at the east portal powered them. A ventilation plant was later added when a new concrete west portal was added in 1917, which extended the tunnel length to 6,560 feet.
A parallel 6,152-foot tunnel was added in 1931 to accommodate the double-tracking of the C&O mainline. 2 The ventilation fans were disabled in the 1950s with the transition to diesel locomotives.
The development of Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) on the C&O mainline in the 1950s led to the centralization of traffic control. 3 CTC, consisting of a series of electronic switches, or interlockings, are designed so conflicting train movements cannot be authorized. A train dispatcher could remotely control signals and powered switches. 4 CTC allowed the C&O to have greater operating and cost efficiencies in operating trains over single tracks with lengthy sidings versus maintaining double-track setups. In 1974, the mainline in the vicinity of Talcott was single-tracked, and the original Big Bend Tunnel was abandoned.
Historical research supports John Henry as one of the thousands of African-American railroad workers who helped construct the C&O mainline through West Virginia. 5 Henry was specifically a steel driver, part of a two-man team that specialized in the hand drilling of holes up to fourteen feet deep into solid rock to set explosive charges. Steel drivers swing a nine-pound hammer, hitting steel drill bits held by their steady and trusting partners called shakers, who placed and guided the drill bits. The pulverized dust had to be “shook” out of the resulting holes.
According to local legend, the C&O staged a contest at the Great Bend Tunnel to test the viability of purchasing steam-powered drilling machines to replace the human drilling teams. 5 Henry and his shaker faced off side by side with the steam drill and won, drilling both farther and faster. He reportedly died afterward, one of the estimated hundreds of workers who perished in rock falls, malfunctioning explosions, and dust inhalation. 5 6
Rumors speculated on John Henry’s burial, with popular theories agreeing that he was buried with his hammer and drill in a landfill alongside the tracks at the eastern portal of the Great Bend Tunnel. 5 6 Others believed his bones were buried near the highway crossing of Big Bend Mountain at the site of an old log church. But research indicated that Henry was buried at a Blacks-only cemetery on the slop at Hillside on farmland that was worked by Grover C. Allen, Jr., an engineer on the Allegheny Subdivision of the C&O. 6
Whether one believes fact over legend, John Henry was but one of the thousands of men whose strength and determination to build a new life for themselves and their families were the true foundation for the coming of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, the growth of Appalachia, and the expansion of the nation westward.
- State: West Virginia
- Route: Chesapeake & Ohio Railway
- Type: Tunnel
- Status: Abandoned / Closed
- Total Length: 6,500 feet
- Roadway Width: 13 feet
- Above Vertical Clearance: 17 feet
- Navigational Clearance:
- “Big Bend Tunnel.” West Virginia Explorer.
- Muller, Christopher. “Great Bend Tunnel.” Steamphotos.com, 2021.
- Bess, Doug. “Centralized Traffic Control on the C&O.” WVRails.net, 2 Oct. 2011.
- West Virginia Department of Transportation, 2013, pp. A1–1, West Virginia State Rail Plan.
- “John Henry and the Coming of the Railroad.” New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, 26 Jan. 2021.
- Motley, Charles B. Gleanings of Monroe County, West Virginia History, Commonwealth Press, Radford, VA, 1973, pp. 47–52.