By Kathleen Walls
|The tunnel for which Tunnel Hill
is named. Credit Dalton CVB
Tunnel Hill is a tiny community in the northwest corner
of Georgia. Today, their claim to fame is the Western and Atlantic Tunnel.
The small tunnel built in 1850 was the first railroad tunnel built south
of the Mason Dixon line. It was strategically important to both the North
and South in the Civil War. Because of this, it was one of the bloodiest
battle sites of the war.
The tunnel gave the town its name, first incorporated
in 1848 as Tunnelsville, it later became Tunnel Hill. The engineering
marvel of its time, the 1477 feet tunnel took two years to blast its way
through Chetogetta Mountain. Upon its completion, the celebration was
tremendous. The newly open tunnel was christened with both wine and holy
water. Its first train passed through on May 9, 1850. The tunnel played a
role in the Great Locomotive Chase, as the daring kidnapping of the
Confederate engine The General by James Andrews and his Union raiders and
the subsequent chase by the Rebels, came to be called.
|Rare view of the tunnel
interior. Credit Gary Keeble
As trains became larger, the tunnel became obsolete and was replaced
with a larger one built next to it. It continued to sit quietly
alongside the bigger tunnel now just routine engineering, and witness
the flow of history through Whitfield County. By the 1990s, the tunnel
wasn't even visible. Anyone visiting the historic landmark then was
greeted with an overgrown, Kudzu covered hollow in the ground. In
fact, the tunnel was in danger of being filled in, in the name of
progress. Realizing the loss of a historic treasure, local townspeople
banned together to save the tunnel. Ken Holcomb and his wife, Barbara,
were at the forefront of the battle to save the tunnel.
|Reenactors gather in front of
the Clisby Austin House, Credit Dalton CVB
They owned the historic Clisby Austin House
that sits just feet from the tunnel and the battlefield. Constructed in
1848, it was originally home to Clisby Austin. When the war broke out,
Clisby moved to East Tennessee. His son, James, who was an active
Confederate and member of the Tunnel Guards, a local militia unit, opened
the mansion first as a hotel then, as the casualties began pouring in, as a
hospital. The cemetery behind the house gives mute testimony to the poor
recovery rate in understaffed, under equipped makeshift hospitals that
sprang up all over the South.
One of the most
famous patients was General John Bell Hood. General Hood was severely
wounded and had his leg amputated in the battlefield medical tents. The
doctors believed Hood would not recover so they sent the leg along with the
general to the Clisby Austin House. Hood did recover but local history says
his leg is still buried in the cemetery there.
Perhaps there are some �things� at Tunnel Hill that the
average visitor doesn't see. Colonel Kenneth Sumner, 35th Tennessee
Infantry, Commanding Officer who takes part in the annual �battle�,
reported seeing several apparitions of long dead soldiers near the tunnel.
The Georgia Branch of The Foundation for Paranormal Research conducted
scientific research there and reported some astonishing findings. In one
case, Col. Sumner was able to hold a conversation with an entity by means
of beeps on a sensing device.
|The Tunnel Museum. Credit
Whether you believe in ghosts or not,
there's more to see in Tunnel Hill than the tunnels. Confederate cemeteries,
19th century churches and a restored antebellum mansion and of course their
great annual reenactment are just a few treasures the town has to offer. The
Heritage Center Museum showcases the Civil War, Native American, railroad
and transportation heritage of north Georgia. The originals train depot,
built in 1850, still stands in downtown Tunnel Hill. It barely escaped
destruction during the Civil War. Union Soldiers burnt the roof and the
platform but were unable to knock down the foot-thick walls. The building
stands empty today. It is owned by ConAgra.
In the mountains behind Tunnel Hill there are
remarkably well-preserved cannon and rifle pits that the Confederates dug
there on the order of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Johnson did succeed in
keeping the Union troops out of Dalton but Tunnel Hill was occupied by
Sherman who used the Clisby Austin House as his headquarters for six days
as he plotted the strategy that would give him Atlanta for the start of
his fiery march to the sea.
|Reenactements draw big crowds at
the Clisby Austin House. Credit Dalton CVB
An annual re-enactment features over 1000
Union and Confederate soldiers, sutlers, blacksmiths, southern bells and all
the other trappings of life in the opposing encampments of the two armies in
1864. The two day event draws visitors and history buffs from all over. It
also brings this terrible struggle to life for school children as no
textbook ever could. The event is held the weekend after Labor Day on
Saturday and Sunday for the public and on Friday for the students.
Through the years, the tunnel has been a silent sentry
to the history making events that swirled around and through it. Judging
by the renewed interest, it will witness much of North Georgia's future
history as well.
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