Stumphouse Tunnel, located near the Oconee County community of Walhalla, was designed in the early 1830s with the goal of connecting rail lines in Charleston to Knoxville, Tennessee, and eventually Cincinnati, Ohio. South Carolina governor Robert Hayne wanted an alternate route for the Blue Ridge Railroad because, at that time, the route bypassed the mountains of South Carolina, extending instead to northern Georgia and on to Tennessee.
It took two decades for the tunnel to begin to take shape, being built primarily by Irish immigrants in the 1850s. From 1853 to 1859, a temporary town formed around the largest section for workers and their families. Known as Tunnel Hill, it was home to roughly 1,500 inhabitants. Tunnel Hill consisted of a schoolhouse, a Catholic church, a post office, and several saloons.
The town is said to have been a violent one, and mining-related deaths were common. Life there is described in detail by Jim Houghey in The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association, 2004. He notes, for example, that “living conditions were, at best, primitive. Contemporary observers mentioned the constant noise of drilling and blasting around the clock. Air quality was impaired by the plumes of smoke and dust circulated by the wood-burning steam engines, the blacksmith forges and the powder mill.”
Houghey goes on to explain that “practically all the dwellings were flimsy wooden frame structures that provided little shelter from the elements. While miners with families lived in primitive cabins, unmarried miners often lodged in boarding shanties provided by other railroad workers and their families.”
In a letter to Bishop Lynch, the Rev. J. J. O’Connell, a priest sent to minister to the miners, described the austerity of the community: “I have just returned from the up-country mission where I have had a pretty rugged time. The cold was excessive and I suffer from chills all the time.”
By 1859, over one million dollars had been spent on the construction of the tunnel and South Carolina’s legislature refused to fund the project any further. Of the proposed 5,863 total feet only 1,617 were excavated. The Civil War and the collapse of the state’s economy ensured the tunnel would not be completed. Plans to revitalize the project in 1875, 1900, and 1940 failed. A 365-foot portion of the tunnel, known as the Middle Tunnel, was completed but has partially collapsed and was sealed off in the mid-1900s. It can still be accessed but is notorious for flooding.
Clemson University bought the tunnel in 1951 and used it to cure their famous Clemson blue cheese for many years. Later the cheesemaking lab was moved to the Clemson campus, with the conditions of the Stumphouse Tunnel replicated to allow the cheese to retain its its distinguished flavor.
A developer attempted to purchase the property in 2007 but Naturaland Trust, a conservation agency created by C. Thomas Wyche, who was largely responsible for the revitalization of downtown Greenville, pledged nearly $2 million to protect the property. The 40-acre site consists of the tunnels, camping areas, picnic shelters, and a museum of railroad history. It is frequented by daytrippers from across South Carolina and the surrounding areas. If you are able to visit the tunnel, make sure to also see the legendary Issaqueena Falls.
The Stumphouse Tunnel is listed on the National Register:
The Stumphouse Tunnel Complex is comprised of forty acres of land, two acres of water, and includes Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel, Middle Tunnel, and the 385-foot original railroad bed connecting them, picnic and camping areas, and a museum of railroad history in an old caboose. Stumphouse Mountain and Middle Tunnels were part of the Blue Ridge Railroad project, which was planned as the final link in a shipping route from the Mississippi to the Atlantic seaboard. The 1850s project involved the construction of tunnels, cuts, and embankments in four states, and was first proposed in the 1830s by South Carolina Governor Robert Hayne, who hoped it would help to harmonize conflicting sectional interests in the nation. It would have provided railroad lines to the midwest for Charleston, SC, Wilmington, NC, and Savannah, GA. Had it been completed, the Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel would have been the longest tunnel in the United States. Cut through solid blue granite, it was the largest of three tunnels which would have pierce Rabun Gap and comprised a final section of the line from Charleston to northeastern Georgia. Only one of these tunnels, the 365-foot Middle Tunnel, was finished. The Civil War and subsequent collapse of the state’s economy sealed the tunnel’s doom. Despite attempts in 1875, 1900, and 1940 to revive its construction, the tunnel was never completed. Stumphouse Tunnel was the 1950s site of the first successful attempt to age blue cheese in the South by Clemson University.