Who could pass a roadway sign pointing the way to “Stumphouse Tunnel” without stopping to check it out? What a name! Even those who know nothing about South Carolina history would find it interesting. The name alone is enough! What in the world is a “Stumphouse”? Let alone, a “Stumphouse Tunnel”!
Well, when your travels take you up – or down – Route 28 in South Carolina’s Oconee County, just submit to temptation. Make the turn; enjoy driving down the sharply curving switch-backs, glad you’re not pulling a trailer, then park near the entrance of Stumphouse Tunnel.
Here, you can enjoy Oconee County’s beautiful mountain scenery while experiencing an important part of South Carolina’s history. Here’s a pretty good summary of the tunnel project’s significance, from Wikipedia.
Speaking of wildlife, look at these trash containers! When you see containers like those, be especially careful to pick up every scrap of food, paper, and plastic before leaving. They’re made to be bear-proof. They’re expensive, more difficult to service, and not here just for looks!
Stumphouse Tunnel, it turns out, was named for Stumphouse Mountain, the ruggedly beautiful section of Oconee County through which the railroad tunnel’s promoters hoped to burrow.
Explanations differ on the origin of the name. One group, we’ll call them the Modernists, claims the Mountain was named for an enormous hollow tree stump where mid-19th century bootleggers stored their elixir during inclement weather.
Another group, let’s call them Traditionalists, offers an earlier, even more colorful, explanation. They claim 18th Century Cherokee Indians living in the area named the mountain for a nearby large hollow stump that had been adapted for a residence by a local couple. Hence, the “Stumphouse.”
Both explanations make great stories. Both could be true! So, it doesn’t really matter. All we know for sure is that this beautiful section of South Carolina’s Oconee County has been called Stumphouse Mountain for a very long time. And the Mountain gave its name to the railroad tunnel project we’re about to enter.
An internet search for “Stumphouse Tunnel” will turn up dozens, if not hundreds, of references. This is an important historic site. Many of the web pages include beautiful photos and descriptive text. Some of them explain the significance of this historic South Carolina site. Here are two that seem to be especially reliable.
And the 1970 U.S. National Park Service form nominating the Stumphouse Tunnel Complex for the National Registry of Historic Places. What this document lacks in color and pizzazz is more than compensated for by its reliable and detailed description of the site circa the 1970s.
Be sure to look through the many other sites for additional information and some stunning photos.
Let’s walk up now toward the mouth of the tunnel. Look at that rock! Preserving evidence of just how the 1,500 or so Irish immigrant workers had to blast and chisel granite out of the way to create this tunnel.
According to the trailside marker, they used “ … only sledge hammers, hand drills, and black powder” to accomplish their work. Here, just beside the tunnel entrance, you see the challenge they faced. That’s granite! No wonder the project ended in 1859 with only 1,600 feet of tunnel drilled.
Now, this is what you’ll see once inside. Well, it’s what you’ll see if you were sensible enough to bring along a bright flashlight of some kind. I’d left mine in the car, and had to make do with the beams of better equipped visitors, and the flash on my cameras.
It’s dark as the inside of a cow in this tunnel. One wonders why the site’s curators haven’t placed a few electric lights here and there. Even dim ones, if there’s some ecological concern. Since the tunnel walls are well worth seeing.
No sense hanging around in the dark. Time to move on to nearby Isaqueena Falls. So stay tuned.