Memorial Tunnel

Memorial Tunnel formerly carried the West Virginia Turnpike under Paint Creek Mountain in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

The West Virginia state legislature authorized the expenditure of funds toward the study of the feasibility of building a superhighway similar to other projects being planned and constructed in other states. Early proposals called for a highway to be built between Parkersburg and Princeton, while another envisioned a modern highway from Wheeling to Princeton. Those plans were shelved in a 1951 study because of very high costs. It instead recommended that a toll road be built from Ripley to Princeton and that it be built as a two-lane facility with provisions for future widening to four lanes. 1

The ground was broken for the construction of the West Virginia Turnpike in November 1951, but by the time construction began, the northern terminus had been relocated to Charleston. 1 Work included the boring of a 2,802 feet tunnel through Paint Creek Mountain and the construction of a deck truss bridge over Paint Creek, 3 which opened to traffic on November 8, 1954, 2 at the cost of $5 million. 4 Its construction required the removal of 91,000 cubic yards of earth, and it was the first tunnel in the United States to feature closed-circuit television monitoring.

Studies were undertaken to upgrade the Turnpike in the early 1970s, and work to upgrade the highway to four lanes had commenced because of escalating traffic counts and congestion, and because of a high number of accidents. Central to the project was Memorial Tunnel which had become a bottleneck. Instead of building a second bore through Paint Creek Mountain, it was decided to construct a 1.72-mile bypass of the Memorial Tunnel and Bender Bridge over Paint Creek. 3 Requiring the removal of ten million cubic yards of earth, in addition to 300,000 tons of coal, the Memorial Tunnel bypass opened to traffic at the cost of $35 million on July 7, 1987. 4

Between 1992 and 1995, the Department of Transportation entered into a deal with the state to utilize the tunnel for smoke, fire, and ventilation experiments to help design better systems for the tunnels being constructed as part of the Big Dig project in Boston. 5 The results of the tests were also incorporated into the design of the Channel Tunnel. 6 Those experiments also resulted in the Federal Highway Administration allowing the use of jet fans for ventilation in tunnel construction 5 and in the modification of ceiling materials. 7

By 2000, the tunnel was being used by the Center for National Response for anti-terrorism training exercises. 6 It included a rubble area to simulate collapsed buildings, a subway station complete with 800-feet of track and two subway cars, a highway tunnel section complete with a bus, fire trucks, a tractor-trailer, and automobiles, a 50-car pileup wreck complete with hazardous materials, an emergency egress trainer, and a drug enforcement section. 8 In all, about 160,000 first responders were trained in Memorial Tunnel.

In February 2022, the West Virginia National Guard announced that the Center for National Response would depart from Memorial Tunnel and that the facility would be converted into a mushroom farm operated by Hernshaw Farms. 7



  1. Monday, Christopher R. “The West Virginia Turnpike: 88 Miles of Miracle.” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. Vol. 11, no. 2, 2 Mar. 2003.
  2. Tunnel History.” Center for National Response.
  3. Monday, Christopher R. “The West Virginia Turnpike: ’88 miles of miracle’.” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, 2004.
  4. “Snapshots of the 20th century.” Charleston Gazette, 14 May 1999, p. 15A.
  5. Williams, Susan. “Tunnel vision: Fiery, one-of-a-kind experiments saved designers $20 million.” Charleston Gazette, 9 Apr. 1998, p. 1C.
  6. Lily, Roger. “T ‘Terrorism’ on the Turnpike: Officers train for worst-case scenarios in closed Memorial Tunnel.” Charleston Gazette, 18 Dec. 2000, p. 1A.
  7. Sergiu F. Luchian. “Memorial Tunnel Fire Test Program.” TR News, May-Jun. 1997.
  8. Steelhammer, Rick. “A smashing success: Turnpike tunnel still has value Disaster training site’s popularity explodes globally.” Charleston Gazette, 19 Jan. 2002, p. 1A.
  9. “Memorial Tunnel in West Virginia will soon be used to grow mushrooms.” WOWK-13, 16 Feb. 2022.

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