Chattanooga Railroad Series: Tunnel Hill Depot And Tunnel

Thursday, July 10, 2014

One of the major obstacles to constructing a railroad from Atlanta to Chattanooga was the mountainous section north of Dalton, Ga.

The route finally selected involved building a tunnel 1,477 feet through the base of Chetoogeta Mountain.

Workers armed only with rudimentary tools worked 24-hour shifts digging on both sides. At some points in the mountain the workers encountered solid rock. Where there was not rock the sides and top were fashioned of brick.

The work of constructing a tunnel for the Western and Atlantic Railroad was finally completed after 22 months of toil. The first train went through the tunnel on May 9, 1850.

Just 12 years later, the Andrews Raiders drove The General through the tunnel, though they would run out of fuel just past Ringgold.

This narrow tunnel served until 1929 when a larger parallel tunnel was built. The larger locomotives had been having trouble getting through the tunnel, and there are still marks where some got stuck.

The historic tunnel lay neglected for many years, and damaging water marred some of the brick. An historic group eventually made plans to rescue the tunnel and get it in shape for tours. This was accomplished by 2000 - in time for the tunnel's 150th anniversary.

The preservation group also established a museum across from the old Tunnel Hill Depot that is near the tunnel. It includes many items detailing railroad and Civil War history.

The group also now owns the historic Clisby Austin House and 85 acres nearby. It was deeded to the group by businessman Kenneth Holcomb, who restored it and fitted it with period pieces. It includes several original outbuildings and a general store.

The two-story brick mansion was built in 1848. Its builder was a Union sympathizer during the Civil War so he did not feel it safe to return. The house served as a hospital for soldiers brought from the Battle of Chickamauga. Confederate General John Bell Hood was sent to the house to recuperate after losing a leg. He carried it with him so it could be buried with him in case he died. Hood survived, and the leg was buried near the house. It is marked by its own tombstone.  General William Sherman stayed at the Clisby Austin House on his March to the Sea.

The 1850 depot still survives, and there are plans to restore it. The depot was once surrounded by grain silos, but they have been removed.

Civil War re-enactments are held in fields near the mansion and the tunnel.

The museum center, Clisby Austin House and the tunnel are open for guided tours. Guests are taken via golf cart to the mansion, the general store and the tunnel after first visiting the museum and ticket office.

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