Walk Inside a Mountain at Stumphouse Tunnel
ON SATURDAYS when he was a child, Luther Lyle, director and curator of the Museum of the Cherokee in Walhalla, South Carolina, would hike up Stumphouse Mountain with a group of friends. Among those friends were a few show offs, always up for a dare, and Stumphouse Tunnel was a welcoming location for dangerous feats. The boys walked on power poles stretching across the 60-foot-deep mining shaft. Other days, they’d travel so far into the tunnel that they could no longer see light without a flashlight, feeling their way across the grooves of the tunnel made many years ago. Today, the tunnel is a much safer place. But the wonder that surrounds it hasn’t changed.
It’s open to visitors now, but only about the first 550 feet. The rest of the 1,617- foot passage was closed off in 2009, when several boulders fell from the ceiling to the pools of water and gravel below. But going even 550 feet is enough to make you feel like a kid on a dare. With each step, you walk toward the black space, and the light behind you at the entrance grows smaller and smaller. In darkness such as this, little things make you jump, and the sounds of the dripping water from the ground above become amplified as they bounce off the close walls of the tunnel.
A path along the middle of the tunnel keeps your feet out of the pools of dark water, and the light of your flashlight on the walls reveals the pockmarks of picks heaved by the arms of the Irish immigrants who began digging out the tunnel about 160 years ago.
They came here to Oconee County in 1853 to begin carving through Stumphouse Mountain as part of a railroad project to take trains from Charleston, South Carolina, to Knoxville, Tennessee, and back again. Miners equipped with hand drills, black powder, hammers, chisels, and picks slowly made their way through the blue granite mountain. Despite 12-hour workdays, the miners passed through only 200 feet of rock every month. Unmarked graves near the first air shaft memorialize those who lost their lives constructing this tunnel that would never be finished.
Mismanagement and a resulting lack of funds put construction on hold in 1859 with the tunnel about 1,600 feet deep. After the Civil War began in 1861, crews never dug another foot out of Stumphouse Mountain.
In the 1950s, nearby Clemson University used the tunnel’s cool, stable temperature for aging blue cheese. You can still see the brick wall and gate the students installed to keep their cheese safe from visitors. The tunnel was later part of a sale to a developer, who planned to build a development on the mountain, cutting off the community’s access to the landmark. The people of Walhalla came together to buy back the land, keeping the tunnel open to the public. It has since remained a popular tourist destination, a reminder of the past, and a source of curiosity for people such as Lyle, his friends, and anybody else who wants to know what it’s like to take steps into the dark.
This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Charlotte Magazine
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