Under the Water, Through the Mountain, Deep Underground – Records of Tunnels in the National Register of Historic Places

Mountain Railroad Tunnel
Payette River Scenic Byway – Payette River Rail Tunnel (National Archives Identifier 7721000)

Growing up in New York, we would frequently travel through the Lincoln Tunnel, connecting Manhattan with New Jersey.  There is a scene in the Stephen King book, The Stand, where characters escape New York by making their way across the roofs of cars stranded in the tunnel after the apocalypse.  To this day I cannot think about anything else when I travel through that tunnel.  I also remember being in either the Fort McHenry or Baltimore Harbor Tunnels and waving to the attendants in the booths inside the tunnel.  There are more than 1700 references to “tunnel” in the records of the National Register of Historic Places, including railroad tunnels, tunnels through mountains, tunnels under water, and non-transportation tunnels.

mountain tunnel petroglyphs
Red River Gorge Scenic Byway – Signs at Nada Tunnel (National Archives Identifier 7721178)

Inside the Nada Tunnel in Kentucky, you can see prehistoric petroglyphs, which are on the National Register, but are currently restricted by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 16 USC 470hh.  “The Nada Tunnel, also known as The Gateway to The Red River Gorge is a must-see when taking a vacation in Kentucky . . . The Nada Tunnel looks like a hole that has been carved into the side of a mountain . . . The Nada Tunnel – pronounced “nay-duh” – was built originally for the Dana Lumber Company in the early 1900s and it was named for Nada, Kentucky, (a now-forgotten logging town 10 miles past the entrance of the tunnel) . . . During the year-long creation of the Nada Tunnel, one man was killed when he placed a stick of dynamite that had frozen near a fire for it to thaw . . . Sprinkled around the Nada Tunnel area, you’ll get the opportunity to see some cool Petroglyphs. These are in a shallow cave, and the designs were inscribed on the rear wall, with narrow lines that form a series of V shapes. Some believe that these are marks of tool sharpening, whereas others see the purposeful pattern that they create.” [from https://www.cliffviewresort.com/things-to-do/nada-tunnel/]

Norris Dam access tunnel
Norris Dam Tunnel Construction (National Archives Identifier 214438258)

If you find yourself in Norris, Tennessee, you can visit the Norris District, “located about fifteen miles northwest of Knoxville, is a planned community of 1400 residents covering an area of approximately 4,000 acres. Located within its boundaries are some 400 dwellings, approximately eighty-five per cent of which were built from 1935 to 1937 when the town was begun. The town was based primarily on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City approach to town planning. Norris still possesses its original green belt area and the original section of the town is still very much pedestrian oriented with foot paths segregated from traffic and winding tree lined streets which reduce car speed. The buildings were consciously placed in harmony with the topography and in some cases clustered around a common green.”

“Norris was the first project totally planned and built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, in conjunction with the construction of Norris Dam, the first power dam built by TVA. Because of the urgent need for housing for workers at the dam, it was necessary to proceed with the construction of houses before the overall town plans were complete. The first building was a rambling frame cafeteria, now the headquarters of TVA’s Forestry, Fisheries, and Wildlife Development Division. The only roads were mere tracks through woods and farmland when the cafeteria started serving construction workers on three shifts. Cooks worked in overcoats when cold weather struck before windows were installed; but they kept the chow lines open with food at twenty-five cents a meal for all they could eat. Buses shuttled men to the construction site and barracks-like dormitories were built to replace tents where many of the workers had been living. Permanent houses soon appeared for 2,100 workers.”

railroad tunnel
The First Railroad Tunnel in America, Built in 1832, on the Allegheny Portage Railroad (National Archives Identifier 135805323)

What is believed to be the first railroad tunnel constructed in the United States is in central Pennsylvania on the Allegheny Portage Railroad was built in 1832. “The Allegheny Portage Railroad was built 1831-34 to link the eastern and western sections of the Pennsylvania Canal. Constructed in 1826-34, at the height of the “canal era” of our history, the latter was the State of Pennsylvania’s answer to the Erie Canal, completed in 1825. With the Allegheny Mountains seemingly an insuperable barrier in the western part of the route of this “main line of public works” from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, the unique Portage Railroad was devised, an engineering accomplishment, which Edward Stevenson, a noted English engineer of the time, compared favorably with European engineering feats at the Simplon Pass and Mount Cenis. Thirty-six miles long when completed, the Portage Railroad consisted of ten inclined planes with level track sections between – one of these, the so-called “long-level” – 13 miles in length. Five planes overcame the nearly 1400-foot rise from Hollidaysburg to the Allegheny summit at Blair’s Gap; five more – and a 900-foot tunnel, perhaps the first railroad tunnel in America – overcame the nearly 1200-foot drop to Johnstown.”

railroad tunnel
Tunnel Hill (National Archives Identifier 167247238)

In Georgia, you can see the Western and Atlantic Railroad Tunnel at the eponymous Tunnel Hill, “a quarter-mile-long antebellum railroad tunnel under Chetoogeta Mountain (Tunnel Hill Ridge) in northwest Georgia. It is located about one-half mile east of the small community of Tunnel Hill and about five miles northwest of Dalton, the nearest large community, in Whitfield County . . . The tunnel, which is no longer is use for railroad transportation, is located on a short abandoned stretch of the former Western and Atlantic Railroad line next to an active early 20th-century rail tunnel which superseded it. The Western and Atlantic Railroad was built to connect Atlanta, Georgia with Chattanooga, Tennessee; it is now operated under lease as part of the CSX Transportation system. The Western and Atlantic Railroad Tunnel at Tunnel Hill was built in 1848-50. It is 1,477 feet long and just wide enough for a single railroad track . . . The tunnel was cut through limestone, chert formations, clay, gravel, and mud.” “After being bypassed in the early 20″” century, the tunnel was abandoned. Rails and crossties were removed, and the ends of the tunnel were partially blocked with dirt fill and fencing. Over the years, the tunnel fell into disrepair. Portions of the brick vault deteriorated and the retaining walls became overgrown with kudzu. Trenching to bury a fiber-optic cable allowed water to seep upwards onto the tunnel floor. In 1996, the State of Georgia transferred ownership of the abandoned tunnel and short stretches of its approaches to the City of Tunnel Hill which plans to restore the tunnel and open it to the public as a recreational and historical site. Recently, using grant funds from the state historic preservation office and other sources including the Georgia Department of Transportation (Transportation Enhancement grants), the City of Tunnel Hill and the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation have prepared a master plan for restoring and interpreting the tunnel, cleared overgrown vegetation, stabilized the tunnel vault, and controlled water seepage. A small visitor’s center is about to be constructed on vacant land adjacent to the west approach to the tunnel.”

Broadway Tunnel California
Broadway Tunnel (National Archives Identifier 169147181)

In San Francisco, California, over the Russian Hill – Vallejo Street Crest District lies the Broadway Tunnel. “The Russian Hill/Vallejo Street Crest District consists of the southeastern crest of Russian Hill in San Francisco, a rural-seeming residential enclave surrounded, defined and protected by walls and natural bluffs . . . the central portion is a Beaux Arts-planned street running from the dense western wall through greenery and past scattered buildings to a panoramic view . . . The City has contributed a set of stairs within a paneled concrete retaining wall across Florence at Broadway and a paneled safety wall across Broadway at the top of its hill. Informal landscaping with many trees unifies the district and contributes to its rural enclave feeling by hiding and protecting the buildings within . . . This feeling of “wilderness enclave and compound amid the dense urban fabric” has been largely maintained up to the present by concerned owners (often of multiple properties) with long-term working interrelationships, aided by a succession of three dead end east-west streets and the traffic-diverting Broadway Tunnel underneath. The few modern buildings in the district have been restricted to minor intrusions by their placement, height, massing, materials, and/or landscaping.”

Oakland Bay Bridge-Tunnel California
San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge (National Archives Identifier 169144866)

Also in California, the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, “was the longest bridge in the world at the time it was built. It is also among the world’s most complex bridges in that it incorporates a variety of different bridge types connected to form a single structure carrying two levels of traffic between San Francisco and Oakland, California. The Yerba Buena Island tunnel links the west spans and the east spans. The upper deck originally carried six lanes of two-way auto traffic; the lower deck originally carried three lanes of two-way truck traffic and two sets of rails for inter-urban rail vehicles (streetcars). The Bay Bridge is formally called the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (SFOBB). As the name clearly indicates, it extends across San Francisco Bay between Oakland and San Francisco. The physical and cultural setting for the bridge is that of the most intensively urbanized parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. When it was built, the bridge began and ended in major harbor areas – the bustling San Francisco harbor and the Port of Oakland, which was then just emerging as a major harbor facility.”

“The bridges, viaducts, and tunnel total about 5 miles of which approximately 4 miles are over water. In 1936, the State of California claimed the bridge was 8 14 miles long, a figure that included a mass transit elevated loop in San Francisco and long approaches on the East Bay, many of which no longer exist. The San Francisco Viaduct to the anchorage is 3,707 feet. The distance from the San Francisco anchorage to the Yerba Buena Island anchorage is 9,528 feet (1.8 miles). The distance on the island is 1,663 feet, which includes a tunnel and viaducts. The distance from the island to the Oakland Toll Plaza (outside the NR boundaries) is 20,942 feet, about 4 miles, some of which is on fill.”

“The Yerba Buena Island tunnel, one of the superlatives of the Bay Bridge, represented the largest diameter tunnel in the world at the time it was built. It still remains the largest diameter tunnel in the world. Its construction introduced several new and innovative technologies, including the practice of placing the sidewalls before excavating for the arched roof. The tunnel is in the shape of what is often called a “horseshoe” tunnel, although it is more accurately described as a segmental arch, with vertical sidewalls and an arched roof. The tunnel portals, particularly the west portal, are among the most interesting elements of the entire bridge structure from the standpoint of architectural design. The San Francisco portals include stepped concrete elements that appear as large blocks at either side of the tunnel and as three segmental arched forms at the tunnel itself. These interesting forms are now difficult to see, however, owing to the fact that traffic is unidirectional heading west on the top deck, making these elements visible only through the rear view mirror of the driver.”

Holland Tunnel New York City
Approach to Holland Tunnel (National Archives Identifier 169147685)

The other Hudson River Tunnel in New York (other than the aforementioned Lincoln Tunnel is the Holland Tunnel, which “carries vehicular traffic through two parallel tubes beneath the Hudson River, connecting the lower west side of Manhattan, New York with Jersey City, New Jersey . . . Portal to portal, the north tube of the Holland Tunnel is 8,558′ long and the south tube is 8371′ long. The north tube carries two lanes of traffic from New York to New Jersey, and the south tube carries two lanes of traffic from New Jersey to New York . . . The subaqueous portions of the twin tubes are slightly more than a mile long (5,480′) . . . The entire length of the tunnel was originally paved with granite blocks from Maine. In 1955 the granite was replaced with an asphalt roadway.”

“Opened in 1927, the Holland Tunnel was the first subaqueous tunnel in the world specifically designed for the requirements of automotive traffic. The most significant aspect of its design was the extensive program of clinical research conducted to determine the effects of auto emissions on tunnel motorists, and the most efficient ventilation system to eliminate the associated health and safety risks. The conclusions of this research influenced the design of every subsequent subaqueous vehicular tunnel.”

“The New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission, which shared overall responsibility for the tunnel project, selected Clifford M. Holland as chief engineer. Holland was born on March 13, 1883, in Somerset, Massachusetts. The day after graduating from Harvard University in 1906 he began a career of working with New York City’s tunnel projects. During his short career he worked on 28 tunnels of every type. Holland died of angina pectoris in 1924 at the age of 41, only two days before the north tube of the Holland Tunnel was “holed through.” He was succeeded by his assistant, Milton H. Freeman, until Freeman himself died from pneumonia five months later. Ole Singstad, Holland’s engineer of design for the tunnel, then completed the project. Before its opening, the tunnel was named for Holland, and the toll plaza on the New York side was named after Freeman.”

So if you choose to take a trip in 2023, be on the lookout for tunnels across this great nation and find out which ones are on the National Register.

President Obama - Port of Miami Tunnel
President Barack Obama Tours the Port of Miami Tunnel (National Archives Identifier 176546592)

This post is part of an ongoing “road trip” featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.

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