Taking A Stroll Through History At The Tunnel Hill.



Taking A Stroll Through History: Tunnel Hill

A Solemn Stroll Through History, And A Stark Reminder Of How Much The Country Lost In The Civil War

Tunnel Hill [Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen]

The small hamlet of Tunnel Hill, in north Georgia, was a critical stop on a long march of destruction. It was here, in the spring of 1864, that General William T. Sherman, the leader of the Union army, laid his plans to take Atlanta.

The Civil War, of course, had been raging for about four years by that time, and the Southern army was on its heels, with Union forces pushing deeper into the South.

In the next few months, Sherman’s army would nimbly decimate what remained of the Southern strongholds in Northern Georgia, but not without tremendous loss of life.

Atlanta is about 90 miles south of Tunnel Hill, and as Sherman eyed the possibility of clinching the war for the Union, he stopped in Tunnel Hill for a week of planning. At his sides were his military advisors and between 80,000 and 120,000 troops. The house where Sherman stayed for a week during his military campaign was also built in 1848, and it still stands as a historically preserved property today.

Interestingly, the story of Tunnel Hill -- set up as a supply base for the construction project -- must also acknowledge the slaves who, in bondage before the war, labored to construct the tunnel that gives the town its name.

In the pastoral hills of green forests of Whitfield County, the railroad planned to bore straight through Chetoogeta Mountain.  The work was arduous and dangerous. Black slaves were involved in the effort, which began in 1848, a full 12 years prior to the start of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln declared all Southern slaves to be freemen, and in 1860 the Civil War, the bloodiest American conflict in history, got under way.

Erin Johns, Manager of Visitor Centers, Dalton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said the collaboration of slave labor and Irish labor was an interesting factor in the creation of the tunnel through Chetoogeta, and ultimately what made it possible.

Women Taking A Stroll Through The Tunnel [Photo Credit: Brian Ragsdale]
Clisby Austin House [Photo Credit: Tunnel Hill Free Press]

“Slave owners wouldn’t let them to work in the tunnel because they were worried about a cave in,” said Johns, who holds a degree in history. In other words, the slave owners were worried about losing their property.

African slaves were brought in to form up the bricks at the entrance of the tunnel, while the work of boring through a quarter mile of dense rock fell to the Irish, disparaged immigrants in those days. Slaves would dig the rocks out of Rocky Face Ridge and cart the materials to the tunnel entrance by horse and buggy, where they made the bricks.

The Irish were seen as somewhat more expendable and ordered into the darkness of the hole in Chetoogeta, an interesting commentary on the state of race relations in the run-up to the Civil War. The tunnel was finished about two years later, in 1850, and it became the first tunnel like it built south of the Mason Dixon line, which divided the political North from the political South.

The tunnel as used in some capacity for more than 70 years for train passage, but eventually the engines got too big and the tunnel was abandoned by the rail companies. (Another tunnel was built through the same mountain in 1928 which is in use today.)

The original tunnel was part of the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862, when Union agents hijacked a locomotive and tore through the South, severing communications lines and rail lines. Over the decades, the tunnel fell into disrepair and the steady march of Kudzu, an invasive plant known to most Southerners, encroached and covered the tunnel from sight.

“People knew it was there, so, kids would go sneak in there,” Johns said, noting that by the early 1990s, a resurgent interest in the tunnel by locals set a course for its refurbishment.

The Covered Bridge [Courtesy/Tunnel Hill]
Clisby Austin [Courtesy/Tunnel Hill]
Tunnel Hill In 1905 [Courtesy/Tunnel Hill]

“Local people found out that someone was trying to take their tunnel away – so they went up to city hall in Tunnel Hill,” Johns said. The mayor of tunnel hill called the state of Georgia and said, we want the tunnel, so how do we make that happen?”

It took seven years to answer that question, but the townsfolk raised enough money for the restoration of the tunnel. The Kudzu would be cut away, the floor would be paved, drainage systems would be installed, motion sensor lights would be installed. The grand vision was to make it into a friendly pedestrian walkway, and that’s what the tunnel became at the conclusion of the project around 2000.

“When you come to the property, and you come into the museum – all of the artifacts were found on the property or donated by local people,” said Johns. “You see that and we take you to the house built in 1848 (where Sherman stayed) – the same year the tunnel was started.”

The Atlanta campaign was a devastating military campaign. It included at least two skirmishes in or near Tunnel Hill in May of 1864 (which is still reenacted annually) and ended in September of that year, when Sherman’s forces occupied the great city of Atlanta, a railway and communications hub. He wired Washington DC to say, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”

Atlanta would not remain in fair condition, though. The brutal campaign to take the city, which began with Sherman’s planning in Tunnel Hill, claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Union soldiers and nearly 35,000 Confederate soldiers, through various battles and skirmishes.  Two months after its capture, Sherman left on a new campaign push to the Gulf of Mexico, and – although there is some disputes over the causes -- large parts of Atlanta were left burning and smoldering in his wake

Visitors to Tunnel Hill can relive some of this history of this place. Walking a path carved out and laid by preservationists is a solemn stroll through history, and in the end, a stark reminder of how much the country lost in the Civil War.

David Irvin

A graduate with a Masters Of Science from the University Of North Texas, David has written on many beats including crime and business for such outlets as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Montgomery Advertiser & USA. He enjoys RVing and surfing the Internet.

Battlefield Campground & RV Park

Make Sure To Stay At:

Battlefield Campground & RV Park, only minutes from Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain. Available are 50 and 30 amp pull-through, back-in and tent sites. Campsites are graveled and feature a picnic table, grill and firepits.

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