Paw Paw Tunnel is located on the C & O Canal Path in Old Town, Maryland. The brick canal tunnel, spanning over three thousand feet, was developed to allow pack mules and boats to safely pass on the Potomac River. The tunnel itself was only supposed to take two years to build, but due to ongoing issues during construction, it ended up taking over fourteen years to finally follow the construction through to completion. Even after construction, problems continued to mount for the tunnel and anyone associated with it.
During 1836 and 1850, hundreds died during the construction of the tunnel. Although some deaths for major construction might be expected, the causes of death from things like labor riots, fighting, and disease were not. Due to ongoing issues with workers and supplies, there were many delays in the construction of the tunnel. Added to this were the ethnic tensions due to the diverse workers of Paw Paw Tunnel. The English, Welsh, and German workers could never seem to get along and commonly blamed each other for the ongoing issues.
Those tensions were increased by the wages that went unpaid because of financial difficulties. Many frustrated workers turned violent. There were many riots and murders while construction continued. Unfortunately, even after construction, fighting continued as the passage was only small enough for one boat or mule. Fights would commonly ensue over right of way access even after the tunnel was successfully completed.
Many blame the violent history for the ongoing stories of disembodied whispers and sightings of unexplained shadows and noises for those brave enough to tour the three thousand foot tunnel. Others say the occurrences can be traced back to one man who was brutally killed while carrying out his duties to the tunnel, long after construction; his friendly demeanor fading into pure hatred at the torture he endured.
In the 1890s, as a group of men was exiting the tunnel, they discovered that the lock house was a charred mess. Nothing was left and the tiny building was burned to the ground. Worried about the keeper, they hastily hurried to the building’s remains, noting how odd it was that even though the fire must have been great, there was no damage to any nearby structures and the forest had not caught on fire. They were devastated to find that their long time friend, the lock keeper, had died of burns and appeared to have had his skull crushed in, clearly the victim of a gruesome murder. The case quickly dried up as no clues were found and no motive could be discovered.
Soon after, the men were at a nearby tavern, enjoying drinks and reminiscing about their friend. One of the lock keeper’s greatest joys had been collecting rare coins. The friends talked about sharing coins with the eager man who awaited them after their travels, ready to hear stories and share adventures. They each spoke in turn about the rare coins they had shared and that the man had cherished in his collection. In the midst of their discussion, a stranger appeared in the tavern and ordered a brew. They overheard the bar keep make a comment about the oddity of the coin the man used to pay for his drink.
Looking at one another, the men quickly hurried to the bar and inspected the coin. When they recognized it, they hastily searched the man, discovering many of the prized collectibles of their deceased friend. They had nearly beaten the man to death when the thief was saved. He was held for trial and eventually found guilty of the murder and theft of the cherished lock keeper. He was quickly hanged for his crimes.
Visitors and hikers might argue over the source of the noises and voices heard in and around the tunnel, but one thing is for sure. There is something ominous about the Paw Paw Tunnel. The project, from the start, seemed fated to be one of a perilous sort, bringing misfortune and pain to those involved.