Exploring the “Land Beside the Water”
When I was a child visiting my grandparents in Seneca, South Carolina I had no idea then, that the places I loved to visit were steeped in Cherokee history and folklore and Civil War History.
Oconee County, the county in South Carolina closest to Rabun County and separated by the Chattooga River, was named “Ae-quo-nee” by the Cherokees or “land beside the water”. Oconee was a Cherokee Town at a location now called Oconee Station situated off of the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway or Hwy 11 near Walhalla, South Carolina.
One of my favorite places to visit as a child was Stumphouse Tunnel north of Walhalla off of Highway 28. My brothers & I would sing “She’ll be Coming around the Mountain” as my grandmother drove her Oldsmobile up the winding roads heading towards Stumphouse Tunnel. Our anticipation and excitement were only dimmed slightly by the eeriness of the vast, cavernous entrance to this dark and dripping seemingly endless tunnel. Hugh puddles of water made navigation difficult in the inky blackness and somehow we never had flashlights but we would edge each other forward until our older brother would grab us or make hideous sounds to terrify us back to the entrance.
Stumphouse Tunnel is still there, sadly abandoned during the civil war because of lack of money. The tunnel was part of the Blue Ridge Railroad system. It was started in 1852 to connect Charleston South Carolina by rail to Knoxville, Tennessee. Stumphouse tunnel is 1617 feet long but unfortunately you cannot explore the full length. There is a gate preventing exploration of the complete tunnel to protect visitors from falling rock from an airshaft further down the tunnel.
In the heat of midsummer the tunnel can be wonderfully cool and damp. I remember being fascinated when my Uncle who taught Mechanical Engineering at Clemson University would tell us stories about the blue cheese making process that was started in the cool damp environment of the tunnel. The tunnel is still owned by Clemson University but the cheese is no longer cured there!
As well as Stumphouse Tunnel in South Carolina there are also abandoned tunnels in Northeast Georgia. In Rabun County there are the Warwoman and Dicks Creek tunnels. These tunnels were started in 1854 but were abandoned due to lack of money in 1858. What is most fascinating to us today is that these tunnels of this long abandoned railway system were built entirely with hand tools and human labor. Many of the laborers were of Irish descent and lived close to the Stumphouse Tunnel in a small town, aptly named Tunnel Town.
Dicks Creek tunnel was finished about half way. From the west end more of the tunnel was completed and extends 1400 feet into the mountain but because the slope of the tunnel goes downhill it has flooded. The west end is not accessible to the public due to being located on private property. The east end of the tunnel is much shorter, only about 59 feet. The entrance is on Chattahoochee National Forest but is difficult to find.
Close to Warwoman Dell picnic area in Clayton you can find the east end of the Warwoman tunnel but the entrance was closed off by landslides and has not been reopened. There is still evidence of the old railway bed at Warwoman Dell. The west end of the Warwoman tunnel was lost during road construction and grading many years ago.
If you are interested in bringing the past to life there are many reminders of the abandoned Blue Ridge or Black Diamond Railway in Rabun County. The history is reflected in road names such as Black Diamond Road in the Warwoman Community or in the remains of the 30 to 40 foot tall stacked stone abutment on Warwoman Creek which was built to support a section of what could possibly have been one of the most scenic railways in the Southeastern United States.