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Tunnel Hill

By Kathleen Walls

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.

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