It gets darker, cooler, and the air thins with each step toward the section of Mount Wood Tunnel that has collapsed, and when you reach it, the darkness is so dense that you can’t see your hand can’t in front of wide-open eyes.
The ground is damp in there, and in the Top Mill Tunnel, too, which was also part of the Wheeling Bridge and Terminal Railway’s 10-mile, three-tunnel system that delivered goods and people from Wheeling to Martins Ferry and back. The Mount Wood and Top Mill tubes were constructed simultaneously between 1888-89, and the span to Ohio’s oldest settlement was opened in 1891. Its tracks eventually were connected to other lines that traveled in all directions, one of many reasons why the Friendly City once was a leader in the country’s shipping industry.
Long before the Mount Wood and Top Mill tunnels were utilized to reach East Ohio, the Wheeling Baltimore & Ohio Railroad came to Wheeling in January 1853 after more than 25 years of construction through towns like Frederick, Harper’s Ferry, Martinsburg, Cumberland, and Fairmont.
On the first trip from Baltimore to this Northern Panhandle city, approximately 500 passengers boarded several train cars that were decorated elaborately with flags. The excursion stopped for a few hours in the larger cities situated along the line, but it also stopped at several intermediate stations to re-stock with wood and water.
More than 60 percent of those traveling were expected to continue their journey past Wheeling and to cities like Cincinnati and Louisville once they arrived in the Friendly City on Jan. 12, 1853.
“That was certainly a big day for the city of Wheeling,” said historian Margaret Brennan. “That opened this city’s economy to the rest of the country, to the shores of the Chesapeake, and to as far out west as was developed. And those rail lines played a big part in West Virginia becoming the 35th state in the country, too.
“Once the Wheeling Baltimore & Ohio lines reached here, the development in the Wheeling area continued, and, of course, the structure that now houses West Virginia Northern Community College was the primary train station for a lot of years,” she said. “This city attracted a lot of people, and that’s why the development continued until road transportation became the way to travel.”
The Wheeling Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Passenger Station, according to records archived by the Ohio County Public Library, was constructed between 1907-08, and passenger service from there to anywhere continued until 1961. The building, renovated in 1976 for the college, measures 250 feet in length and is 85.5-feet deep. It was included in the National Register of Historic Places 20 years later.
The Wheeling Terminal Railway Bridge was last used for passengers in 1938, and in 1982 the span supported its final shipment of freight. In 1993, the railway bridge was dynamited into the Ohio River and completely demolished in the months after.
Hidden in Plain Sight
When motorists travel up and down the Northern Parkway to and from the North Park area, they cruise past a small area from which they can see the front face of the Mount Wood Tunnel. During that same ride, those cars and tracks are approximately just four or five feet from the ceiling of the Top Mill Tunnel.
Close to 100 yards separate the two tunnels, and the city has tried to provide warnings and obstacles to stop sightseers from gaining access to these underground mysteries, but the will to venture has won those wars. Warning tape waves in the wind after being snapped away, and plastic barriers have been tossed aside from the pronounced path to rest in the growing weeds to the left and to the right.
The Top Mill is 537 feet long and the Mount Wood Tunnel was 1,203 feet in length, and both tubes were timber-lined and later updated with brick. It appears as if fencing once blocked passage to the Mount Wood Cemetery, but that, too, has been ripped away in the name of adventure.
Any visitor will soon realize a quick couple of things about the two tunnels. The Top Mill tube, for example, has provided blank canvases for a plethora of graffiti artists who have plastered much of the bending walls with legitimate art, and the Mount Wood passage still possesses a portion of its rails that continues south into the site of the collapsed ceiling, a failure that is believed to have caused the sinkhole along Mount Wood Road above. Although the roadway has been patched, the debris from the collapse still rests in the middle of the underground dig and blocks all light from its opening along McColloch Street.
It’s coldest there by at most 20 degrees from the outside, and to reach this point, it is necessary to trek under the area of the tunnel burrowed beneath the Mount Wood Cemetery, one of the most historical burial grounds in the entire Upper Ohio Valley.
Once through the double-tunnel system in Wheeling Hill, the south-traveling trains would either head northeast toward Pittsburgh or south to industrial areas in South Wheeling, Marshall County, and beyond, depending on what the locomotives were delivering. At the time engineers for the West Virginia Division of Highways were designing the W.Va. Route 2 bypass around downtown Wheeling, they believed the tunnels could be expanded to permit access north to River Road, but that part of the project was abandoned after the costs outweighed the importance, according to state road official Gus Suwaid.
“Of course, I wasn’t here back then, but that’s what I have always been told because so many questions get asked about the unconnected ramps that were built at the time,” he said. “For those ramps to be included, though, the people designing the project had to really think it was possible, but obviously something backed them off.”
Mysterious Holes in the Hill
Despite the uniqueness of a double-tunnel area in the small city such as Wheeling, not many residents know it exists, and not much history is known by those who have preserved so many of tales about the city’s past.
“I really don’t know much about them at all,” admitted Rebekah Karelis, historian for the Wheeling National Heritage Area. “I don’t even have a file on those tunnels. I’ve not seen any newspaper articles about the two tunnels or anything like that.
“I’m not sure why we have a lot more history on several of the other tunnels around the city of Wheeling but nothing about these two,” she continued. “And honestly, that’s because no one has done the research. I’m sure there is someone out there that knows more about them, and I’m sure there has to be some history out there, but no one has gathered it all into one spot.”
Brennan, who often works closely with Karelis and the other employees of Wheeling Heritage, also was at a loss for viable information about the Top Mill and Mount Wood tunnels.
“I don’t know much about them either, I’m afraid,” she said. “I’m sure they were connected with the Pennsylvania and Lake Erie railroads, but I just don’t have that in my mind.
“But I can tell you someone who might know something and that would Jack Fahey because he worked at the Benwood yard for a lot of years, and then he became the yardmaster,” she said. “He really knows the railroad history in this area, so he pretty much knows about the trains that carried both the goods and the people to and from this city.”
Fahey also is a former city council representative and mayor of Wheeling who lived in the East Wheeling area for several decades while he and his wife raised their family. In several more roles he has served the Wheeling area for decades as have many members of the Fahey family.
“I’m sorry but the only tunnel I really know about is the No. 1 (Hempfield) Tunnel on the B&O,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know anything about those tunnels, and I don’t know if they were still in use when I working the yard in Benwood.
“I worked for the B&O Railroad for around 40 years, but the names of those bridges do not ring a bell with me,” he said. “If they did, I’d be glad to talk about them, but … .”
Strike three, but it’s not likely that will derail Karelis from making effort to discover more.
“I did know they were there, and I have heard people ask questions about them, but that’s about it,” she said. “I do know that the Heritage Trail folks took a look at a possible inspection, but with the collapse of the one and the fact that the line ends at the end of the Top Mill, I believe they decided to look at other possibilities.
“But with more attention to them now maybe it will bring someone out with some more history about their use and when it was abandoned,” she added. “In this line of work here in Wheeling I am never surprised about what people know about the history of the city of Wheeling.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)