Historical Markers
Staple Bend Tunnel Historical Marker
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Staple Bend Tunnel

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
PA 271, 5 miles N of Johnstown

Dedication Date:
August 19, 1947

Behind the Marker

"On effecting the junction of two [excavations], James and E. Appleton, the Contractors for the Tunnel and Section 7 of the Portage Railroad, gives celebration to the Foremen, Miners and Laborers employed on their works, on Tuesday the 25th inst. The North end of the Tunnel was tastefully decorated by the Miners with Laurel and a table set to accommodate about one hundred persons. After partaking of the good things attainable in the wilderness for a Christmas dinner, the company assembled in the Tunnel at 3 o'clock P.M. accompanied by Messers, Gorton, and Johnson of the Engineer Corps... following [which] toasts and c. were given."

                                  -Ebensburg Sky newspaper, January 3, 1833.

Staple Bend Tunnel
Staple Bend Tunnel, Cambria County, PA, circa 1950.

When the team of engineers laying out the markerAllegheny Portage Railroad reached a stretch in the mountains known as Staple Bend, they faced an impassable rock outcropping. Some engineers suggested diverting the railway along the mountains and around the ridge. But this would have meant a diversion of many miles. Instead, the engineering team settled on a plan to dig a tunnel directly through the rock. To do so, they would have to do what no Americans had ever done before.

When the engineers made this decision in 1827, no one had ever built a railroad tunnel in the United States. Taking measurements from both sides of the outcropping, they found that someone would need to burrow through 901 feet of solid rock. To do this, three-men crews, most of whom were Irish and Welsh immigrants, worked long hours to dig nine to ten thirty-six-inch holes, each of which they then blasted with black powder, half the length of the hole at a time. Working from each end of the tunnel toward the center, laborers could cut away only eighteen inches a day. For six long years, the workers chipped and blasted away at the rock.

When they finally broke through from one side to the other, one of them offered this toast: "It is an opening through which the treasures of the east will flow to the west, and the endless riches of the vast west shall rush to the east." When completed in 1834, the Staple Bend Tunnel drew praise for its unique craftsmanship, which included decorative sandstone facing on the entrances and cut stones placed along the walls and ceiling of the tunnel for the first 150 feet in each direction.
Stereoscope of a tunnel through the Alleghenies.
The Gallitzin tunnel

The men who built the Staple Bend tunnel were well aware of their achievement. The tunnel, however, did not remain unique for long. In the great era of expansion (1840-1890), the new railroads that crossed and re-crossed the state built dozens of tunnels to keep their routes as direct as possible.

Today, the longest active railroad tunnel in Pennsylvania is the 4,475-foot-long Sand Patch Tunnel near Meyersdale in Somerset County, which carries the double-track Baltimore-Pittsburgh-Chicago main line of CSX Transportation (formerly the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad). One of the shortest, the 253 feet Howard Tunnel, a few miles south of York in York County, is almost as old as Staple Bend Tunnel, having opened in 1838 on what became the Northern Central Railway.  Staple Bend Tunnel, now a National Park Service site, is open to visitors and hikers.
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