It’s dark and dank with orange moisture seeping from its rotting walls and bricked ceiling, and it’s been decorated with graffiti and reinforced and blocked with steel fencing.

During the spring and summer months its entrances are smothered with vines and weeds, but those who are familiar with those portals along 20th and Jacob streets have used it for shelter or a shortcut from downtown to near South Wheeling.

The north entrance rests along 20th Street near the Ohio Valley Medical Center.

The north entrance rests along 20th Street near the Ohio Valley Medical Center.

This is the Chapline Hill Tunnel, and drillers, blasters, hammer men, walking bosses, and foremen used 60,000 pounds of dynamite and shrewd labor to remove more than 71,000 cubic yards of earth to create the bore and nearly 14 million feet of timber to arch this railroad tube.

Paige, Carey & Co. orchestrated the construction of the tunnel, a project that began on Dec. 23, 1889, and the “breakthrough” took place on March 13, 1891.

“There’s not a lot of records about the tunnel, but I did find one lengthy article about the construction of it from the day the breakthrough was accomplished,” said Rebekah Karelis, historian for the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. “That’s the day when daylight from both ends hit the tunnel for the first time, and they started on both ends to meet in the middle.

The south entrance is located near Wood Street in South Wheeling.

The south entrance is located near Wood Street in South Wheeling.

“After breaking ground for the tunnel on Dec. 23, 1889, the crews worked day and night to get the job done because of how important the tunnel was going to be for the railroads that came to Wheeling,” she continued. “At that time trains were everywhere in and around Wheeling, so extending the reach of the railroads meant the expansion of the commerce that would take place here.”

The newspaper report, from March 14, 1891, shared several facts about the tunnel:

  • A crew of 104 men worked continuously, day and night, once ground was broken.
  • The Chapline Hill Tunnel is 2664 feet in length, 24 feet longer than a half-mile.
  • A total of 3,400 pounds of octagon steel was used to create the necessary drills.
  • C. M. Frissell, the Wheeling resident who in 1860 ignited the final blast for the Hempfield Tunnel (referred to today as “Tunnel Green”), performed the same duty for the Chapline Hill Tunnel.
  • Two employees of Paige, Cary & Co. were the first to travel through the tube. James Kelly began his trek in South Wheeling, and Thornton Shelton entered from the north along 20th Street.
Trespassers have decorated the walls of the Chapline Hill Tunnel.

Trespassers have decorated the walls of the Chapline Hill Tunnel.

The city of Wheeling has reinforced the tunnel's ceiling.

The city of Wheeling has reinforced the tunnel’s ceiling.

Little information, however, could be discovered concerning its use or closure.

“This is kind of typical that there isn’t a lot of information available, but I believe there is someone out there with a lot of history on this tunnel,” Karelis said. “They may not even know that they possess it because it could have been something that they inherited from a relative.

“This is an example of a piece of history that hasn’t been researched that much, but it’s also something where a person can’t just skim the top. They would have to really dig deep,” she added. “We know it’s out there. We just haven’t found it yet.”

City workers have placed barriers at the tunnel's entrances, but vandals have ripped them away.

City workers have placed barriers at the tunnel’s entrances, but vandals have ripped them away.

The first train traveled through the Chapline Hill Tunnel in 1891.

The first train traveled through the Chapline Hill Tunnel in 1891.

Karelis did discover a newspaper report that indicated that the blasting process for the Chapline Hill Tunnel was not met with approval by property owners in the general vicinity of the project.

“When they were dynamiting for the tunnel, the explosions were blowing out the glass windows in the houses and buildings in the area,” she said. “The shattered windows were reported in South Wheeling and along 19th Street in East Wheeling. The article said this was taking place every day for a year.

“Right now the majority of the Chapline Hill Tunnel runs under W.Va. Route 2, but when it was built there were houses that were located on that land,” Karelis said. “Houses were built a fair way up that hill, so I’m sure the people who lived above felt the dynamite, too.”

Orange-colored moisture drips from the walls and the ceiling.

Orange-colored moisture drips from the walls and the ceiling.

Five lives were lost during the construction process, and the newspaper article from March 14, 1891 stated, “Considering the magnitude of the job, the list of casualties is remarkably small. … “All had been warned, but persisted, so the contractors say, in disregarding the injunctions by the foremen.”

“In the article the casualties that happened during the construction of the Chapline Street Tunnel were pretty much brushed off as not that big of a deal, and the report pretty much blames the men who died for the accidents that killed them,” Karelis said. “These men were killed in the first 15 months of the project, and none of them met their demise very pleasantly.

Erosion is very apparent inside the tunnel.

Erosion is very apparent inside the tunnel.

“Two were electrocuted by live wires, one was fatally injured when struck by a rock in the stomach, and two were buried in falls of dirt,” she explained. “The article also states that another five accidents took place but that those men were able to continue working on the tunnel.”

While tales of haunting do exist about the Hempfield Tunnel and were “confirmed” by the Wheeling newspaper in the late 1800s, Karelis has yet to hear one pertaining to the Chapline Hill Tunnel.

“Usually when people die during the building process, you hear the stories about their spirits being stuck inside, but I’ve found no reference to that for the Chapline project,” she said. “That is the case with the Hempfield Tunnel, and there are a lot of different stories about that one.”

No haunted tales exists concerning the Chapline Hill Tunnel.

No haunted tales exists concerning the Chapline Hill Tunnel.

In early 2011 officials with the Wheeling-Ohio County Rails to Trails organization possessed plans to use the Chapline Hill Tunnel in order to extend access to walkers, runners, and bikers. At that time the reclamation project was projected to cost just under a half-million dollars and a grant from the federal Transportation Enhancement Program for $369,806 was received.

According to Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron, that grant was never realized because the projections to re-use the tube were re-examined.

The Chapline Hill Tunnel linked downtown to South Wheeling and beyond.

The Chapline Hill Tunnel linked downtown to South Wheeling and beyond.

“The city did receive a grant for an estimated $400,000 to refurbish the tunnel, but a study that was conducted indicated that it would take as much as $4 million for the work, so I do not see anything happening with it for the foreseeable future,” the city official explained. “We pulled out the tracks about six years ago, and we do keep an eye on it, but right now there’s no active project in motion that would lead to the re-use of it.

“There is supposed to be fencing up that keeps people from going inside, but the fencing has been ripped down in the past,” Herron continued. “We’ve also taken measures to keep it the way it is today because of what is located above it.”

(Photos by Steve Novotney)

18 Responses

  1. Carole Roman McCormick

    I left Wheeling in 1971. I love the history an keep the stories coming. Wheeling will always be my hometown. I went back for my 50th class reunion for Triadelphia H.S. Many moons ago. Did lots of exploring as a kid an so much more to read about the old an new an good or bad. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a town that most kids these days have no idea what is was like to have the freedom we had an no drugs in schools. Life was good. Even the bad was wasn’t all that bad.

  2. Mike Breiding

    “The city did receive a grant for an estimated $400,000 to refurbish the tunnel,…”
    Almost half a million dollars – gone!
    Could not this money have been used to at least start the process of rehabbing the tunnel?
    What a shame…

  3. Chuck Gruber

    I grew up in Wheeling and lived there until the 1970’s and it will also always be by my “home town”. I believe the Chapline Hill tunnel was part of the Wheeling & Lake Erie RR. That was the line that crossed the old bridge over River Road and then through the Mt. Wood tunnel to go past the old Blaw-Know plant on the peninsula. The line then went under the tracks by Tunnel Green and followed the creek for awhile before moving into the Chapline tunnel. It then crossed 29th Street, the B&O tracks and ended up along the river by the Penn. RR tracks in South Wheeling. I just found out about Weelunk a few weeks ago. I enjoy it since the newspaper offers nothing on-line without a subscription.

  4. Eric walker

    I grew up in East Wheeling myself and many friends found unexplored tunnels and grave yards when we were younger, if you get the chance theres a tunnel that goes through hill over on Bo Street and a unexplored grave site from the 1500 to 1600 on the hill side above tunnel green about 100 yards from the top of rock point road.

  5. Sharon Marshall RN

    Very very interesting. I grew up in “south wheeling” in the 1950’s and ’60’s. Valley Boulevard off 29 th street and 43rd and Eoff streets. We always considered south wheeling starting at 29th street. I have never been in any of these tunnels and wasn’t even aware that they were there apparently near the 26th street pool and playground and also near ovmc where I worked for 14 years in the 1970’s and ’80s. I haven’t lived in the Wheeling area since 1988 but still consider Wheeling as “home”. Love the articles. Love the history. Keep them coming…..

  6. Tom

    I grew up in Center Wheeling and we played in and around this tunnel every day. We would walk through it to the other end at the old Cave Club ball field by the Bronze foundry. Trains would go through on occasions to pick up scrap metal cars from Wheeling Closure and Continental Can. There were insets that one man or two boys could stand in to be safety out of the trains way but it was still scary. It had orange water in it when we played in1960.

  7. Scott McNickle

    When you look at old photos of Wheeling you see what a huge part railroads had in shaping the city. You can still see remnants, like the tunnels, some oddly shaped and placed buildings, remains of viaducts and paths leading diagonally across streets.
    Kind of spooky knowing what used to be there and is now forgotten.

  8. Dan Phillips

    I can’t help but wonder where that $400,000 grant money went. It couldnt have cost that much to pull out the tracks.

  9. Barbara

    Very interesting. It was also known as Tunnel Green 0ne opening in Fulton. Near Big Wheeling Creek. I grew up near there but there were always stories that if you went in, you would never come out.

    • Rochambeau

      I think you’re thinking of the Mount Wood Tunnel, which goes from Fulton to North Wheeling. If you go in, you will never come out the other end because it’s blocked in the middle. The one that’s supposed to be haunted is Tunnel Green, also called the Hempfield Tunnel, visible from the interstate near the East Wheeling baseball fields and now part of the rail trail system. Not very spooky anymore with the electric lights inside.

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