The Sand Patch Tunnel

The following year, my father and his brother Patrick began to take contracts all up through Pa., Va., and West Va., and began to build the railroads to open up the three states. It took years to finish them. It was they who built the Sandpatch Tunnel, Hawks Nest, a work much admired at the time, a great achievement.

Sister Agnes Keating in a letter to Jeremiah Counihan, 15 August 1948.

Years ago, after reading this paragraph describing the railroad work my immigrant ancestor did upon arriving in America, I found some recent photos of the Sand Patch tunnel and grade[7] that currently cuts through a mountain near Somerset, Pennsylvania. Considered the highest tunnel in Pennsylvania and the steepest grade[1], it is a popular trainspotting location for railroad buffs around the world.

What I didn’t know then was that the pictured tunnel was not the original tunnel that my ancestor and his brother helped to build, but a newer and wider tunnel, capable of allowing two trains to pass side-by-side. The newer tunnel was built in 1914, and opened for rail travel in 1917.

The original–and much thinner–tunnel that John and Patrick built was started in 1854[1] (the year John and his wife Julia immigrated to the United States[5]). As building the tunnel was expected to be the most time-consuming part of the new railroad line between Cumberland and Pittsburgh, the tunnel was started at the same time as the rest of the line[4]. The whole project was finished in 1871[4]. This corresponds with the time period when John’s young family moved from Connecticut (where their eldest daughter, Catherine, was born in 1855[6]) to Morantown, a small village between Frostburg and Mt. Savage.

Christopher Muller, an intrepid railfan, has taken several photographs[2] of the original abandoned tunnel. It currently sits on private property[3,8], but you can see Christopher’s photos (and purchase printed copies of them) on his website (Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3, Photo 4, Photo 5, and Photo 6).



3 Replies to “The Sand Patch Tunnel”

  1. Very interesting article. I was not aware that my great grandfather worked on this tunnel, Thanks John.

  2. The place in Morantown, where the John C. Keatings moved and lived is now part of the home of the late Michael V. Larkin. It is lived in by Kay Winner Larkin. Michael is the brother of Mary Louise Larkin Keating and widow of Joseph J. Keating (son of John W. Keating and Mary Ellen Winner). Kay Winner Larkin’s grandfather was Mary Ellen Winner Keating’s sister. Nothing remains of the house they lived in. Thanks John.

  3. My great great grandfather worked on the sandpatch tunnel, he died in march 1869 or 70 and is buried in somerset county, but no funeral home,no obit,no record,nothing,,,,i guess they just were poor irish,to poor to even be recorded in death. His name is Patrick Howard,born Ireland 1821 to 1826,where in Ireland, I wish I knew,,,,,

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