Railroads & Locomotives History America’s oldest railroad tunnels

America’s oldest railroad tunnels

By William D. Middleton | May 14, 2024

How do you define the oldest?

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America’s oldest railroad tunnels

black and white photo of tunnel
America’s oldest railroad tunnels: The Park Avenue Tunnel was built in 1834 as an open cut for the New York & Harlem Railroad (NY&H). This 2-3/4 mile-long tunnel encompasses the Mount Prospect Tunnel — America’s longest-serving railroad tunnel, which opened in 1837. NYC Department of Records

What seems like a straightforward question can have three different answers, depending on how you define “oldest.” Partisans of the Pennsylvania, the New Haven, and the New York Central (and their ancestral lines) will have their own takes on it — and each will be right.

Ask where is the first one built … and the answer is near Johnstown, Pa., the Allegheny Portage Railroad’s Staple Bend Tunnel. Its origin dates back to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Main Line of Public Works plan of 1828, a linked system of railroads and canals from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, but it hasn’t seen a train in almost 150 years.

The railroad was the Philadelphia & Columbia, from Philadelphia to Susquehanna River. Canals connected Columbia with Hollidaysburg, at the foot of the Alleghenies, and on the west slope, Johnstown with Pittsburgh. The canals in turn were linked by the extraordinary 37.7-mile Allegheny Portage Railroad, which lifted freight and passengers across the mountains by inclined planes and railroad tracks.

Work began on the railroad in 1831, it and the canals opened to traffic in March 1834. Sections of graded track connected 10 inclined planes, five on each slope. At the inclines, stationary steam engines and cables lifted traffic to a summit 2,334 feet above sea level.

Four miles east of Johnstown at the top of the first inclined plane, at Staple Bend in the Conemaugh River, the builders shortened the route by 2 miles by driving North America’s first railroad tunnel 901 feet through a spur of the mountains.

The tunnel, begun in 1831 and completed in June 1833 for $37,500, was built with an arch section 19 feet high and 20 feet wide. Contractors J. and E. Appleton excavated 14,900 cubic yards of rock by hand drilling and blasting with black powder. The tunnel was lined with cut stone for about 150 feet at each end. Elaborate stone portals in a Roman Revival style, with a low relief lintel supported by Doric order pilasters flanking the arch, accounted for almost half the entire cost.

Staple Bend Tunnel was in service less than a quarter century before the entire Portage Railroad was rendered obsolete by completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s all-rail route across the Alleghenies in 1854. The Main Line of Public Works was sold to PRR at public auction in June 1857, and within a few months Pennsy closed and dismantled it.

The tunnel, as the last significant remaining original APR structure, is part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, whose several components (others are near Gallitzin) were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1967 and designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1987.

On July 5, 2001, the National Park Service celebrated the completion of preservation and restoration work at the tunnel. The bore’s stone masonry lining has been injection-grouted, the ornate west portal cleaned and pointed, and surviving portions of the east portal put back in place. Visitors may walk through the tunnel, which is reached from Beech Hill Road over a 2-mile bicycle and hiking trail along the alignment of the old Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Ask where the oldest still operating is … and the answer is near Taftville, Conn., site of the Norwich & Worchester’s Bundy Hill Tunnel (also known as Tafts Tunnel form the railroad point where the now-abandoned Taftville branch diverged).

An early New England railroad and the first to need a tunnel, N&W extended from a connection with the Boston & Worcester at Worcester, Mass., to Norwich, a Thames River port for steamships to New York.

A contract was awarded in the late 1853 for grading the first segment from Norwich to Jewett City. This was the most difficult and expensive portion since it involved steep grades and the drilling of a tunnel under Bundy Hill (sometimes called Bundo Hill) at Quinebaug Falls, on the Quinebaug River north of Norwich.

Norwich & Worcester engineer James Laurie and his crew found that the hardness of the rock made construction of either portals, or a lining unnecessary. Laid out on a curve, the tunnel is 300 feet long, 23 feet wide and 18 feet high.

Completed for $30,000, the tunnel was ready for track on Aug. 26, 1837, and a ceremony to mark the achievement held two days later. It was another two years, though, before the track was completed and operation through the tunnel began. The railroad was reported to have begun regular service between Norwich and Central Village on Sept. 9, 1839, though a formal opening of the entire line did not take place until the following year.

When trains ceased running through Staple Bend Tunnel in Pennsylvania in 1857, Norwich & Worcester’s bore became the oldest railroad tunnel in service in North America, a distinction it has held ever since. The Norwich & Worcester eventually became part of the New Haven and followed it into Penn Central in 1969. Instead of being swallowed up into the new Conrail, though, the former Norwich & Worcester and its historic tunnel became part of the newly independent Providence & Worcester, the carrier it still serves today.

Ask where is the one in service the longest … and the answer is New York City, home of the New York & Harlem’s Mount Prospect Tunnel, a component of what is collectively called the Park Avenue Tunnel.

A close contemporary of Bundy Hill, Mount Prospect Tunnel was blasted through the hard rock of Manhattan on the “Harlem line” in 1837. This became New York Central’s main line and today is that of commuter railroad Metro-North.

The Harlem line was organized in 1831 to build from the vicinity of 23rd Street in Manhattan north to the Harlem River. Work began the following year, and the first train — propelled by a team of horses — operated along the Bowery on Nov. 26, 1832. Over the next few years track gradually was advanced north, and on May 1, 1834, the line began operation up Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) to 85th Street in Yorkville. Just ahead lay the heights at Observatory Hill, or Mount Prospect, a substantial barrier to the railroad.

A deep rock cut and a tunnel were both considered, and after much debate, the railroad decided to drill the tunnel. A committee report that recommended the tunnel cited “considerable publicity value.”

Contractor John Rutter used the same hand-drilling and black-powder-blasting methods as on other early tunnels. Extending from 92nd to 94th Street, the 596-foot-long tunnel was a double-track, arch-roofed structure lined with brick and masonry that was 21 feet high and 24 feet wide. It cost New York & Harlem a then-considerable $96,ooo.

NY&H began service to Harlem despite the tunnel’s not being finished. Track had been put in north of the tunnel site, and passengers walked the five or six blocks in between. The entire line was done by Oct. 10, 1837, and the full railroad was finally opened through the tunnel on October 26. Thousands were said to ride just for the novel experience of going through the tunnel.

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired control of the New York & Harlem in 1863, and within the next decade had merged it into his New York Central & Hudson River. As the entrance to Grand Central depot in Manhattan for both the New York Central and the New Haven, the old Harlem line handled heavy traffic.

During 1872-74, the line along Fourth Avenue was depressed below grade in cut or tunnel and widened to four tracks. The original Mount Prospect Tunnel accommodated the two center tracks, and new single-track tunnels were bored on either side. The expanded tunnel was renamed the Park Avenue Tunnel.

In 1983 Metro-North (successor to Penn Central and New York Central) conducted a detailed engineering survey of its tunnel system from the 97th Street portal to Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street. Water leakage had caused some damage to the brick lining, but the rock walls and ceiling of the old Mount Prospect Tunnel were judged sound. Metro-North’s contractors installed rock bolts, steel mesh, and gunite to stabilize the brick arch, and new drains below the tunnel wall to remove water from behind the brick lining.

Although hidden inside the 2-3/4 mile-long Park Avenue Tunnel since 1874, the Mount Prospect Tunnel — America’s longest-serving railroad tunnel — is still there. And with hundreds of Metro-North commuter trains serving the Hudson valley and Connecticut each day, it’s among the busiest North American railroad tunnels as well.

The original article, “Where is America’s oldest railroad tunnel?” appeared in the May 2002 issue. For further information, here are some other sources.

General references

  • Early American Railroads, by Franz Anton Ridder von Gerstner, Edited by Frederick C. Gamst, published in 1997 by Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.
  • The Story of Tunnels, by Archibald Black, published in 1937 by McGraw-Hill, New York.
  • Tunneling: A Practical Treatise, by Charles Prelini, with additions by Charles S. Hill, published in 1901 by D. Van Nostrand Company, New York.
  • Staple Bend Tunnel
    “Reminiscences of the First Railroad over The Allegheny Mountain,” by Solomon W. Roberts, in Bulletin No. 44, Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, 1937, pages 6-23.
  • Bundy Hill Tunnel
    The Quickest Route: The History of the Norwich & Worcester Railroad, by Elmer F. Farnham, published in 1973 by Pequot Press, Chester, Conn.
  • Mt. Prospect Tunnel
    Men and Iron, by Edward Hungerford, published in 1938 by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.
  • The Road of the Century, by Alvin F. Harlow, published in 1947 by Creative Age Press, New York.
  • The Park Avenue Railroad Tunnel: A Program of Restoration, brochure ca. 1985 by Metro-North Commuter Railroad, New York.

One thought on “America’s oldest railroad tunnels

  1. No love for the oldest tunnel west of the Mississippi I see… The West Barretts Tunnel (one of two dug near each other from 1851 to 1853 and slightly shortened in 1929) still exists, and is on National Museum of Transportation of St. Louis, Missouri, property. It was used up until the early 1940s when a double-track cut was made nearby due to WWII traffic, rendering the tunnel obsolete. (The new cut is still used by UP to this day.)

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