“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 that currently cuts through a mountain near Somerset, Pennsylvania. Considered the highest tunnel in Pennsylvania andÂ the steepest grade, 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 (the year John and his wife Julia immigrated to the United States). 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. The whole project was finished in 1871. This corresponds with the time period when John’s young family moved from Connecticut (where their eldest daughter, Catherine, was born in 1855) to Morantown, a small village between Frostburg and Mt. Savage.
Christopher Muller, an intrepid railfan, has taken severalÂ photographs 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 SteamPhotos.com website (Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3, Photo 4, Photo 5, and Photo 6).