Exploring the CNO&TP Tunnels

Cincinnati Southern Railway

The Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP) feature 27 tunnels in Kentucky and Tennessee, many of which stand abandoned after they were bypassed. I set out to explore four of them.

The Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP) feature 27 tunnels in Kentucky and Tennessee, many of which stand abandoned after they were bypassed.

The CNO&TP is a railroad that extends from Cincinnati, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. The railroad it operates, the Cincinnati Southern Railway, is owned by the city of Cincinnati and leased to the CNO&TP under a long-term agreement.

When completed in 1879, the route included 27 tunnels, most of them concentrated in “The Rathole” between Danville, Kentucky, and Oakdale, Tennessee. The tunnels, designed to be about 15 feet wide and 20 feet high, included:

  • Tunnel No. 2 at King’s Mountain, which was 3,992-feet long
  • Tunnel Nos. 3 and 4 at Burnside
  • Tunnel No. 5 north of Sloans Valley

Some tunnels were initially lined with timber and later renovated with stone and brick unless they were bored through solid rock.

When the Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River in Kentucky was proposed in the 1940s, the high water level in the new reservoir was projected to flood a portion of the Pittman’s Creek Bridge at the portal to Tunnel No. 4. Work began later in the decade to reroute the CNO&TP, and on August 3, 1950, Tunnel Nos. 3 and 4 were closed and the new alignment over Pittman’s Creek, bypassing the two tunnels, opened on August 8.

The CNO&TP undertook a massive construction project between 1961 and 1963 that saw numerous tunnels bypassed with extensive rock cuts, the reduction of steep grades, and the softening of curves at the cost of $32 million. Project 1 of the project removed Tunnel No. 2 at King’s Mountain with a 140-foot cut and Project 2 removed Tunnel No. 5 with 215-foot fills and 160-foot cuts. The construction project was completed when the New River bridge near Robbins, Tennessee opened on July 10, 1963.

Last weekend, I set about to explore Tunnel Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5 as they were within proximity to each other and generally accessible when dry. Tunnel No. 2, at King’s Mountain, was the easiest to access from a local roadway. It diverged from the mainline and proceeded into a narrow tunnel for nearly 4,000 feet.

Tunnel Nos. 3 and 4 were bypassed with a major line change due to the damming of the Cumberland River. Both were bored through solid rock and were never lined.

 

Tunnel No. 5, located south of Burnside, was at one point relined and improved with concrete walls.

3 Comments

  1. I am from the Cincinnati are and have looked at several maps trying to find where to get go to get onto these abandoned tracks are there any suggestions or maybe even coordinates? Thanks for your time! Dave W.

  2. Nice photos and presentation. I’m from Somerset and did a fair bit of exploring of the old Cincinnati Southern and its history. There was no Pittman Creek crossing at the north ends of Tunnels 3 or 4. The old ROW parallels the present alignment, and rejoins it about where the spur to the John Sherman Cooper power plant veers off at the former end of double track at CP Grove. The line crosses Pittman Creek a few miles north at Elihu, with one track on the old bridge, and the other on a newer parallel span built a few years ago during the double-tracking between CP Grove and CP Woods.

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