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The Grand Tunnel in Scott County

This letter to the editor appeared in the December 1844 Southern Literary Messenger

MR. EDITOR:-Few countries surpass Western Virginia in beauty and sublimity of natural scenery. The lofty and almost interminable ranges of mountains, which extend in all directions through this region, compose a mighty network, through whose mazes the traveler wanders in delighted amazements; his eye, at one moment, measuring the steep ascent of some huge mount, hoary with cliffs, or rustling with foliage; anon, resting on some broad, deep valley, robed in green and gorgeous in beauty and again, tracing the course of some mountain river, rushing over a rocky chasm, or gliding softly through a quiet glen, its waters dashed into foam, gleaming in the sunlight, or resting, deep and still, in the shade of green and wooded banks.

Nor have nature’s efforts been confined to the production of these more plainly apparent monuments of her power. Proud of her might, and capricious in her fancy, she has marked this region with many and wonderful results of her skill and labor. Out of materials, lasting as her own existence, she has constructed altars, meet for the orisons of her worshippers; shrines where love and admiration of nature, adoration and reverence of Nature’s Author may be poured forth, unchecked by the intrusion of crowds, unshackled by the futile pomp of man’s poor grandeur. To some of these I would fain, (so far as mere description can effect that object,) introduce the distant readers of the Messenger; and if they will accompany me, in lieu of a better guide, I will lead them to one the Natural Bridge, as it is called, but in reality Natural Tunnel, in Scott county.

Turning Southwardly out of the Cumberland Gap Turnpike, about twelve miles North-West of Estillville, a rough and Broken bridle-path leads down Stock Creek, a large branch of Clinch River, between two very high hills, or rather small mountains. Following the course of the glen nearly a mile, in a Southern direction, we find a third ridge stretching across from hill to hill, forming the valley into a vast but irregular representation of the letter H. This crossing ridge is several hundred feet in height; steep and inaccessible on each side. Against the base of this mound the water rushes in search of a passage, and it finds a channel, perhaps the most awful and sublime on earth, hollowed out by nature’s own mighty hand. Standing in the brink of the chasm, the eye is raised to a vast arch, two hundred feet in height, and as much in width, composed of whitish limestone sand formed with considerable regularity. This arch gradually slopes downwards and narrows into the bosom of the mountain. Clamoring over huge masses of rock, that have evidently fallen from begins to expand again, and with more regularity, symmetry and beauty than at the Northern extremity. Strange and awful, yet wondrously beautiful, is the spectacle which we behold on emerging from the bosom of the mountain. The arch opens out of a circular wall of solid rock, which, if extended in a straight line, would be four hundred feet in length; and is fully as much in height. On coming out we experience feelings akin to the sensations we would attribute to Sinbad the Sailor, when he found himself enclosed in the rock- walled Valley of Diamonds. The vast rampart extends in an irregular circle, or rather oval; and on coming out of the tunnel do not immediately perceive a long opening, save that from which we have just merged. Thus we are apparently confined in an immense dungeon, walled in by rock, and ceiled by the heavens alone. The stream does not run directly across this oval area; but entering near one end, we perceive it, after turning to the right and washing the base of a segment of the wall, plunge through a narrow outlet, and rush on down the glen, between rough and wild crags.

I have stood on peaks from which the eye’s farthest range was unobstructed by any obstacle; I have almost trembled on the summits of precipices, from whence a single false step would have hurled me, a shapeless mass, to feed the carrion birds which alone could have reached my shattered remains. I have stood beneath the arch of the real natural bridge, and admired its vast proportions and finished symmetry: I have seen many of nature’s master pieces in a region where she works on her most magnificent scale; but I have never experienced, amidst them all, such sensations as when standing alone in this mighty amphitheater of God’s own workmanship. In such a scene what an overwhelming sense of man’s weakness and insignificance seizes upon us! how strong is the feeling of the almost visible presence of Deity. An eye, accustomed from infancy to measure lofty heights and penetrate profound abysses, reeled in its socket when upturned to view that towering wall: a shuddering frame witnessed the performance of an homage due to nature, in this temple fitted for her holiest worship. Then came the thought of man: his power, his strength, his pride: his weakness, his woe, his madness. And I thought of pyramids, cathedrals, and coliseum: aye! here is a coliseum, prouder than Rome could boast when Caesars were her rulers and monarchs were her citizens. Yonder jagged rocks, protruding from the wall, and those deep, shaggy crevices are seats:that over arching summit, sweeping round in ample curves, is gallery too noble for man’s imitation: that dark tunnel, piercing the mountain’s rugged breast, is a den whence ye might lead the wild beast and fiercer gladiator. But away with such thoughts, in such a scene. What should blood and misery, and man’s crime and fearful fierceness do. A tolerably good road leads over the ridge, at a right angle with the course of the tunnel. From this road the valley on the upper or northern side invisible; but the precipice on the southern side, rising, above the level of the road, shuts out the view in that direction; and I cared but little about in this temple of nature-amidst these memorials of her skill and her grandeur.

The length of the tunnel is some two hundred, or two hundred and fifty yards: but on this point I cannot be exact, having visited it alone, without the means of measuring. In the centre it is not near so high nor so wide as at the extremities; still a man can walk through erect. At the northern end, the arch, or precipice, is about two hundred feet high: nearly double as high at the southern opening. The oval area, which is so nearly surrounded by the precipices at the southern extremity, contains about half an acre of land. There is no view through the entire length of the tunnel, owing to the curve in the centre; and when standing immediately in that curve, neither opening is visible, though the light finds its way from both, and renders a torch unnecessary.

The material of which this stupendous fabric is composed, is a whitish limestone, strongly impregnated with saltpeter. The saltpeter was formerly collected in large quantities for the purpose of making gunpowder. I saw large heaps of earthy matter from which the nitre had been extracted. Gathering the earth which contained the nitrous matter was an occupation almost as perilous as the “dreadful trade” of a samphire gatherer in Shakespeare’s day. A tradition is current in the neighborhood, which I will give, though I cannot vouch for the exactness of the details. In order to reach a certain vein of saltpeter, it was necessary to lower a man to a small hole, one hundred and fifty feet below the top of the precipice, into which he could crawl, and thence throw the nitrous earth to the bottom of the rock. At that period, in this region, ropes were scarce and costly articles; and their place, in the labor which I have mentioned, was supplied by green hickory wythes, lashed together, which made a very good substitute. The task of descending to the opening was, at all times, one of difficulty and danger; for the cliff arches over at the top, and its side presents several sharp, jagged points. Upon one occasion an adventurous man had performed his task, and prepared for his ascent in the usual manner. He fastened the wythes under his arms, and having been swung off from his foothold, his companions commenced drawing him up. Conceive the poor fellow’s horror and dismay when, at this moment, he perceived that just above him one of the fastenings of the wythes was untwisting. His fellow-laborers, ignorant of their comrade’s situation, pulled away as if nothing was the matter; and at each involuntary gyration his peril became more imminent. There he was, swinging above the frightful abyss with nothing between him and a horrible death, save the slender grapple of the weak bough. Terror deprived him of utterance, though speech would have availed nothing. Slender as was his hold upon life, it proved sufficient. He was brought to the top before the wythe became wholly untwisted; but though life was preserved, terror had produced an effect similar to that recorded in other instances. His bushy locks were blanched ” white as wool,” and to his dying day he bore a memento of his narrow escape from a fearful death.

This place has been often compared to the Natural Bridge; but there is little resemblance between the two. Whilst the one is really a bridge, finished complete and symmetrical, the other is a tunnel. Born in the neighborhood of the Natural Bridge, I had been taught to consider it the master work of Nature: but this prejudice to the contrary notwithstanding, I know not if the bridge can claim the palm from its rival of the South-West. The bridge is certainly the more beautiful, the more curious, the more artistical: but it sinks almost into insignificance when compared in magnitude, in massiveness, in sublimity to the tunnel. Nature finished off the bridge with the more elegant touches of her skillful hand; but she piled up, in yon mountain archway, rock enough to make half a dozen Natural Bridges creeping to the edge and throwing aby eyes down the profound abyss below. Even now the thought of it makes me shudder. My eye never before faltered when gazing from the loftiest pinnacles but it is, in truth, at least doubtful if the firmest nerves would not quail on that wild arch. I cannot imagine why this place has attracted so little attention from the travelling public. It is but little known beyond the distance of a day’s journey from its location. This is most likely owing to its remote situation in the midst of a rough and broken country. Now, however, this obstacle to its proper examination is partially removed. A capital road has been lately constructed, passing within less than a mile of the spot; and I understand that the people of the neighborhood are about to make a passable road down the creek immediately to the arch. Hereafter I hope that the many travelers who resort annually to our mountains, will behold the “Giant’s Archway,” among the many other natural wonders of Western Virginia. W. H. C.