NEW ALBANY —
Railways in the late 1800s had a way of expanding to some pretty remarkable places. Hills that once had to be circumvented were suddenly being burrowed through at ever-increasing lengths and depths.
In fact, nine different tunnels were built around this time on the Louisville, New Albany and St. Louis Air Line, four of which are still used.
Yet none of those could beat the Edwardsville Tunnel. Completed in 1881, the passage — also called the Duncan Tunnel — is the longest rail tunnel in Indiana. For nearly a mile, the path starts in Georgetown, descends 89 feet below the town of Edwardsville and ends in New Albany at the foot of the Knobs.
Developers early on saw the necessity and earning potential of a rail line that would connect St. Louis to New Albany. But big obstacles stood in their way, namely the hills. In addition to being long and deep, these knobs contained limestone, a strong, worthy adversary to workers attempting to dig the tunnel.
Construction of the marvel didn’t always go as planned. According to an article in the February 11, 1960, edition of the New Albany Valley News, work began on the project in 1870 but funding soon ran dry.
“The tunnel is 15 feet wide and 24 feet high. Cost of it has been estimated at a million dollars,” the 1960 news story said. “Records indicate that it is 4,689 feet long and that but 20 feet of this distance remained to be dug when the first company was forced to abandon the work for want of funds.”
Three years ago, local historian Vic Megenity discovered one of the first attempted tunnels. Close to the existing one, the abandoned passage was much shorter than the one the railroads currently use.
“They dug one tunnel and almost had it completed and it went bankrupt. So they brought another company in and they completed that tunnel but once they got it completed they thought, you know that’s not going to be the best way through that big hill,” Megenity said. “So another company came through and abandoned that first tunnel that was never used.”
In April 1881, construction began again on the main tunnel by contractors Hay, Meyer and Co. Men worked around the clock to complete the dangerous task. Mother Nature didn’t help matters any. Mud continued to enter the west end of the tunnel whenever a local stream flooded.
And then there was the uncertainty of the structural integrity of the shaft itself. During the month of October 1881, two workers died after a portion of the roof caved in. Another man was injured a few weeks later from a similar occurrence.
“The work is continued night and day by about 30 workmen, the drilling and blasting being done without machinery,” said a passage in the 1882 History of the Ohio Falls and their Counties Volume II. “Very soon the scream of the locomotive and the thunder of the rushing train will be heard in the land.”
The book was right. On Oct. 9, 1882, the first passenger train roared through the completed tunnel. Along the way, steam shot through two vents that had been burrowed into the hills, providing an outlet for the toxic fumes given off by the locomotives while underground. Located in Georgetown near Interstate 64, both vents are still operational and smoke can be seen flowing from them today.
For a time, earlier trains needed assistance chugging up the steep 2.9 percent grade of the tunnel. Special cars were kept nearby to help the locomotives make it up the incline. Later, trains would need to split their cars into two trips. Nowadays, according to the Southern Railroad Company, no additional aid is needed.
Shenanigans around the tunnels from the locals were also quite common, so much so a man lived by the passage and stood guard over its entrance.
Of course, train jumpers could always find a way to board an open box car. As a senior in high school, Megenity rode through the tunnel on a friend’s dare. On the way back from Naval Reserve training in Louisville to his home in English, the boys stopped by the train tracks on Corydon Pike, the main thoroughfare before I-64 was built.
“I said, ‘Well you know. I bet we can hop that freight train and get to English before this car can get to English.’ There were two guys who said, ‘Well, I’ll challenge you Vic to do that,’” he said. “So we jumped out of the car and ran and got in the open box car. We just about choked going through the tunnel with all the fumes.”
Megenity lost the race. Worse yet, he could only wave to the winners sitting at a stop light. No stops were scheduled for English that night, and with the train going full speed, he rode on to the next town up. Eventually by morning, an old pickup truck had given him a ride home.
Stories abound about adventures like the one by Megenity, proving again and again that you didn’t necessarily need to be a train engineer to enjoy the mystique of the Edwardsville Tunnel.