Just about everybody is familiar with Stumphouse Tunnel but it is much less known that there were actually 3 tunnels started in the 1850s as part of the plan to bring the railroad from Charleston over the mountains to Knoxville.
Along with the tunnels, a road bed for the rails was also constructed. Abandoned just before the start of the Civil War, the road bed can be hiked via the Blue Ridge Railroad Historical Trail.
The unmarked trailhead can be found in the Stumphouse Tunnel/Issaqueena Falls park located about 5 miles up SC 28 from Walhalla. Enter the parking lot and walk across the little wooden bridge to the kiosk with the story of Issaqueena. Then look to your left about 15 feet. You will see a trail coming out of the woods with 2 metal posts where there used to be sign. Marked with yellow blazes, this is the start of the 2.5 mile trail. However, it is only about a half mile to Middle Tunnel.
You immediately start a short, steep ascent up the side of the ridge. When you stop at the top to catch your breath, you’ll realize you’re standing on the old railroad bed. The rest of the trail is wide and well-maintained with an easy slope. You’d expect an easy slope since a train was going to use this approach.
You’ll see some pretty good cuts where the ridges had to be cut away for the roadbed and the fill then used to fill in the low spots. In the first cut, the environment seems to be an excellent habitat for a large trillium, Trillium underwoodii (Underwood’s Toadshade). Also be watchful for drill marks in the rocks where the rocks were drilled prior to blasting.
After about a half mile, you’ll find a short side trail to the mouth of Middle Tunnel, a 385 foot effort, which was actually finished. Over the years, it has collapsed and filled with water and, at one time, had the mouth filled in. It has been the excavated to the point you can get into this end of the tunnel. In 2008, the tunnel was declared a bat sanctuary and a “bat gate” installed.
You can enter the tunnel for about 20 feet to the gate. Looking beyond the gate, you will probably see (with the aid of a flashlight) some bats hanging from the ceiling of the tunnel. While the tunnel feels cramped, when it was finished, a man could ride through on horseback.
The trail goes on for more than another mile and a half to Saddleback Tunnel, which was never finished. There is no entrance to Saddleback.
The Blue Ridge Historic Railroad Trail is a fascinating piece of history that we literally can walk right by. Next time you’re up around Stumphouse Mountain, stop in and take the short hike to Middle Tunnel. It will give you a whole new prospective of the area.