The Appalachians are plentiful with many natural resources, which outside industries often needed. This need prompted railways to create a way to ship raw product out of the mountains. To construct train lines running through the mountains, it often required tunnels to keep the grade smooth enough for train travel. This is the history of one of those tunnels, known as the Dingess Tunnel.
The History of the Dingess Tunnel
The people of Mingo County, West Virginia had lived in relative quiet and peaceful times for generations. They enjoyed their existence within the robust but unforgiving Appalachians. But times were about to change as the industrial revolution came to the mountains.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, coal fueled the fires of industry. You could find coal in abundance in the Southern West Virginia mountains. The Norfolk and Western Railroad saw a substantial business opportunity to service this need, and so they began developing a railroad line into the Appalachians.
This is where our tale begins.
The Tunnel Is Born
In 1892, the Norfolk and Western Railroad needed a railway between Lenore and Wayne, West Virginia. This railway required the railroad to build a tunnel through the mountainous area, and so they constructed the Dingess Tunnel. The construction was an impressive feat of engineering for its time. The project was over four-fifths of a mile long upon its completion.
The railroads brought in Chinese and African American immigrants to construct the tunnel. The workers, along with impoverished families of all backgrounds, flocked to the Twelve Pole Creek Line for the opportunities the construction provided.
The town of Twelve Pole became a busy place at this time, with goods transported to the area by rail and dispersed to other cities by the wagonload. Prosperity had come to the region thanks to the tunnel. But it was destined to be short-lived.
Clashes with the Locals
Unfortunately, the locals in the area did not take kindly to the influx of foreign people. This lack of tolerance resulted in a history of abuse and murder. Writer Huey Perry told of horrific ambushes taking place in the area in his 1972 memoir, They’ll Cut Off Your Project.
According to the stories, roving bands of angry locals would wait at the entrance and exit to the tunnel with guns, and they would pick off anyone that fit their target description. While there are no official records, there are estimations of hundreds of victims killed by ambush in this manner.
Sometimes the tales of our tunnel turn even darker. There are stories of masked men that would stop the trains and take passengers off in the middle of the night and murder them. It was an act of genocide against anyone that did not fit the profile of a local inhabitant.
The crimes against outsiders continued through the first half of the twentieth century, leaving behind it a bloody history of innocent victims.
Deadly Train Crashes
Our tunnel also experienced its share of working tragedy. In 1898 a fatal train wreck in the tunnel killed seven people. Seven years later in 1905, bad luck struck again.
A head-on collision between a fully loaded freight train and a work train echoed through the tunnel. The event rippled through the community, leaving three people dead in its wake. Our tunnel had claimed more victims.
The Trains Go Away, Leaving Only Despair and an Empty Tunnel
The Dingess Tunnel had its heyday between 1892 and 1904. Around that time, the railroad was exploring a way to avoid the steep terrain of the hills as it expanded. A better route was found by following the gentle grade of the Big Sandy River, so the railroad invested heavily into the new line.
Many argue that the impetus for switching away from the Twelve Pole / Dingess Tunnel line was because of the bloody actions of the inhabitants. Others claim it was merely the better business decision.
Whatever the real reason, the Norfolk and Western Railroad changed its route. By the time 1913 rolled around, our tunnel was no longer an active railroad line. The industry left behind unemployed families and pollution. Hard times had come back to the Twelve Pole area, now more severe than ever before.
Tunnel Conversion to Road Traffic
Since that time only local traffic uses the tunnel. By the 1960s it was officially converted to vehicle use by paving over the remnants of the railway.
While the tunnel was an impressive feat for the 1890s, it was made only as wide as it needed to be for rail traffic. This width works fine for trains, but it will not support the typical two-lane road. For that reason, our 3,300-foot-long tunnel could only support traffic going in one direction.
The impoverished residents of the area failed to get the funds badly needed to improve our tunnel, so it has remained true to its original construction ever since. To this day, our tale’s tunnel has stayed a single lane thoroughfare, even though it remains one of the major roadways for the area.
The dark history of the subject of our tale loaned itself well to macabre tales told during Halloween. Eventually, the stories grew, and the celebrations turned horrific.
Almost as if the area proved once again to be untamable, the youths of the town took to mischief. They would spend Halloween night building bonfires in the middle of the tunnel. With the smoke pouring out, the town itself was virtually blocked off from outside assistance. Our tunnel served to keep the residents locked in for the night.
From there, the nightmare continued. There would be rocks thrown through windows, buildings and vehicles set on fire, and other acts of damaging mischief. The dirty deeds would carry on throughout the night, but by the following day, things returned to normal. It was like a real life “Purge” movie.
In recent years this activity has for the most part gone away, but many of the locals still tell stories of those horrific nights.
The haunted history of our Southern West Virginia tunnel helped to give the place an unflattering title, namely “Bloody Mingo.” The hardy residents in this hidden part of the Appalachian Mountains have seen neither fortune nor rest, and in a way, they created the haunted tunnel history as part of their heritage. Like brothers in arms, the tunnel has shared in their misfortune and became part of the tale. This tale is but one story of the many railroad tunnels in the Appalachian Mountains.