Parallel Points of Interest: The Towpath & The Indigo Tunnel

The Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal was once a means of commerce and a way of life for many. Construction began in 1828 and continued for 22 years. Running alongside the Potomac River from Georgetown (Washington D.C.) to Cumberland, Maryland, the canal was a transportation route for such goods as coal, lumber, and even farmers’ produce.

Nearly 185 miles long with a 608 ft. gradual climb, the C&O Canal consisted of lift locks, aqueducts, culverts, and even a 3,118 ft. tunnel—the Paw Paw Tunnel—which cut through the mountains, shaving off five miles of travel around a challenging bend in the river. The canal, which incidentally played a part in the American Civil War, had reached its heyday by the mid 1870s and ceased operations altogether in 1924. [1]

Today, the C&O Canal is a national historical park operated by the National Park Service.

The C&O Canal is unique in that it remains virtually unbroken and without substantial modification affecting its original character for its entire length of 185 miles. [2]

We set out last Saturday afternoon along the C&O Canal towpath where Fifteen Mile Creek joins up with the Potomac River near Little Orleans, Maryland. Our destination: Indigo Tunnel.


Headed to the Indigo Tunnel, along the C&O Canal towpath near 15 Mile Creek aqueduct in Allegheny County, MD. The canal is on the right in this photo, the Potomac River is just out of view on the left. (Pictured here: my Mom, nephew, sister, and Dad)

This stretch of towpath was once part of my Dad’s “beat” when he worked for the National Park Service maintaining portions of the canal a few years back. He’d seen the tunnel plenty of times before. It would be a first for my Mom, sister, nephew, and me.

Dad pointed out the old Western Maryland railway bed, built in 1904, which runs parallel to the canal. The rails close proximity, coupled with devastation by local flooding, eventually put the waterway out of business. But the old Western Maryland soon met a fate of its own. In 1975, the rail was abandoned when Western Maryland merged with the C&O and B&O railroads as part of the Chessie System (now CSX). The “new” rail is well within earshot on the other side of the Potomac. As we walked, we could hear the persistent whistle blows and clickity-clack of the tracks.

We eventually reached the vicinity of the tunnel’s west entrance, which is roughly a mile from the 15 Mile Creek parking area. Although it’s not clearly visible from the towpath, you’ll know you’ve reached the tunnel’s opening when the old railway bed starts to turn away from the canal, and the mountain becomes more prominent. (This is one of the few places where the old rail separates from the canal route.)

My Dad, nephew and I scurried across the canal, (the bed was dry there), and up the hill to the abandoned railway bed.

There it was. The Indigo Tunnel. I was thrilled!


The Indigo Tunnel (west portal) — old Western Maryland railroad; Allegheny County, MD

“We can see it!” I called over to my Mom and my sister, who had stayed behind on the towpath.

Bats live inside the abandoned tunnel these days. Eight different species of bats, in fact. These include the Maryland state-endangered small-footed myotis, as well as the federally-endangered Indiana bat.The Maryland Department of Natural Resources considers the Indigo Tunnel one of the largest bat hibernacula in the state.[3] As a result, the tunnel is closed to the public—barred with “bat gates”—to protect the colonies from intrusion and disease.


At the Indigo Tunnel’s west portal, my nephew peers through the bat gates in hopes of spotting some webbed-winged creatures of the night. — Little Orleans, MD

We heard the flutter of wings. Dad pointed out a bat, but it was gone before my nephew and I could distinguish it from the dark shadows. The smell of creosote, used to treat the railroad timbers, assailed our noses. All was silent as we gazed across the 4,350 ft. span to the light at the other end of the tunnel.


Here’s a look inside Western Maryland railroad’s abandoned Indigo Tunnel, taken through the west portal bat gates. The east entrance, a white splash of light in the distance, is nearly one mile away. — Allegheny County, MD

Hard work went into building the canal, laying the rails, and carving tunnels like Indigo and Paw Paw out of the mountains. The fruit of such labor was profitable for a season; but now the canal, the rails, and the tunnels are remnants of yesteryear. The “Grand Old Ditch” (the canal) still dips and bends, but runs mostly shallow to completely dry. The upper ridge bears faint and rustic reminders of the Western Maryland rail. And the Indigo Tunnel has been transformed into a bat cave.


Braces, Chords & Ties: Bunker Hill Covered Bridge

Leaves crunched underfoot on a worn path that had once been a Native American trail—a trail later named the Island Ford Road. The dirt road crossed Lyles Creek near Claremont, in the foothills of western North Carolina.

In 1894 (or 1895 according to some records), Bunker Hill Covered Bridge was built by Andy J. Ramsour to span the creek. He designed it using “Improved Lattice Truss” methodology patented in 1839 by General Herman Haupt, Chief of Military Railroads for the Union Army during the Civil War.

One of only two covered bridges in North Carolina standing today, Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, (which was named after a nearby farm), is the only remaining wooden example of Haupt’s truss design. Its construction incorporated braces, chords, and ties that were efficiently positioned to eliminate redundant materials and unnecessary counterbalances traditionally used at the time. Haupt’s rational engineering method helped to eliminate cross strain and the risk of split timbers. [1],[2]


Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, a Catawba County Historical Association Restoration, is built of oak with wooden pins, called trunnels. — Claremont, NC


A look inside Bunker Hill Covered Bridge: Originally built in 1894 as an open span, the bridge was covered with a 91-foot wood shingle roof five years later. Today, the roof is made of tin. — Catawba County, NC


Covering a bridge served to protect the structure from sun, snow, sleet and rain for up to 100 years, whereas an uncovered bridge held up to the elements for 15-20 years. — Bunker Hill Covered Bridge; Catawba County, NC

To view the bridge, parking is available at Connor Park off of US Highway 70. From there, it’s just a short walk—maybe 1/4 of a mile. Hours of operation are from dawn until dusk.


A view of Connor Park from the trail leading to Bunker Hill Covered Bridge: Picnic tables are available along the creek, and the parking lot is just out of view on the right. — US Highway 70, near Claremont, NC.


The trail leading to Bunker Hill Covered Bridge from Connor Park off of Highway 70. — Catawba County, NC

Bunker Hill Covered Bridge survived major floods in 1916 and 1940. During the 1930s, the bridge was closed to local traffic as part of legislation to improve roadway systems and travel. In 1970, Bunker Hill Covered Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge was fully restored in 1994; and in 2001, it was designated as a National Civil Engineering Landmark. [3]

[2]The other covered bridge in North Carolina is Pisgah Covered Bridge (1911) in Randolph County.


January is typically a month of reflection—of looking back on the past year, while looking forward to the new one. I’ve done my share of reflecting upon a rather eventful 2014, and looking forward to what God has in store for 2015.

One thing I’ve concluded is that life is ironic. In February of last year, I wrote a post about the Duke Cancer Center’s grand piano and the volunteers who tickle the ivories, spreading the peace and joy of music to patients and their loved ones.

Six months later, I found myself sitting in one of their waiting rooms, a patient myself. An unexpected diagnosis of “intermediate concern for cancer” had struck a dissonant chord. Although it was a surprise to me, it was but one part of the preordained composition of my life playing out in perfect time.


Completed in 2012, Duke Cancer Center was “designed to heal.” In addition to a world-class staff, soothing elements include framed photos of Duke Gardens and unique lighting. (Durham, NC)

The remainder of 2014 was a staccato of imaging, biopsy, excisional surgery, and follow-up care—none of which I endured solo. God worked through doctors, nurses, family, and friends to grant me comfort and care, hope and love. Terms like “atypical,” “high risk,” and “precursor of cancer” are now a part of my DNA so to speak, and the Oncology department is my new best friend.

I’m fortunate that I don’t have cancer…yet. It may never come to that—God, after all, is in control, not statistics, not risk factors, not even genetics.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience can be summed up in instructions my childhood piano teacher, Miss Reichard, often wrote in red pencil on my Modern Course for the Piano book: Slow down! Keep eyes on book!

Yes, I must slow down. Enjoy life. Serve others. Not only that, I must (first) keep my eyes on the Good Book (the Bible)—and on its Author, almighty God. He holds our lives in His Hands.

Plan though I might for 2015, it is God’s purposes that prevail. Come what may, I am in good Hands.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. — Proverbs 19:21 (ESV)

For recommendations on screening and early detection of cancer, consult the American Cancer Society’s useful guidelines.

Holiday Afternoon Tea at The Carolina Inn

Although I “bleed Duke Blue” most of the time, I enjoy all goods things in the Triangle—including the University of North Carolina’s beautiful campus in Chapel Hill.

I’ve wanted to explore The Carolina Inn, a “National Register of Historic Places” hotel on the campus of UNC, for quite some time. Its blend of Southern plantation style, Georgian flavors, and neoclassical elements give it an alluring charm.


The front entrance of The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)

This year, I had Holiday Afternoon Tea at The Carolina Inn. (Sorry Duke Inn, I still love y’all!)


The Carolina Inn’s tea service incorporates an eclectic mix of bone china pieces. No two tea pots, cups and plates looked alike, but each no doubt held an interesting story; and the scones (delicious!) went well with my “Tea of Good Tidings” black tea.

The Inn was decorated for the 17th year in a “Twelve Days of Christmas” theme. Each day was a creative rendering by a southern artist. These various vignettes were displayed throughout the Inn, making it an adventure for young and old to locate and investigate the artists’ interpretations of the verses that comprise the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Interspersed with this theme were other festive elements, such as poinsettias and elves busy at work.

But why am I telling you this? Please, allow me to show you the wonder:


Elves were busy decorating the tree in the main lobby of The Carolina Inn. (Chapel Hill, NC)


The topper for the tree in the main lobby was the crystal chandelier that’s a mainstay–you can see a little bit of it in this photo. The ornaments were a mixture of crystal and blown glass. — The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)


Poinsettias lined the corridor leading to the Ballroom and Colonnade at The Carolina Inn. (Chapel Hill, NC)


“On the First Day” was created in 2008 by UNC alum Jeannette Brossart. The pear shaped carving was made from scraps of foam, finished with a cement and fiberglass mess exterior containing a partridge and the words “On the first day” in 24k gold leaf tesserae. — The Carolina Inn


Felix & Fiona, two turtle doves, were perched in the Colonnade. — The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)


The sight of these three plump and playful french hens, created by Betsy Vaden in 2012, made me smile. — The Carolina Inn


Larry Hearth of Hickory, NC, created “Four Calling Birds” from 100-year-old metal roofing of tobacco barns. (This wall hanging was designed in 2002 for The Carolina Inn’s “Twelve Days of Christmas.”)


Five golden rings! This Gingerbread House was created by The Carolina Inn’s Executive Pastry Chef, Sara Thomas as a replica of the Inn. The five golden rings were “hidden” in the display.


Can you spot a few of the golden rings in this photo? I see three of the five! — The Carolina Inn “Twelve Days of Christmas”


“Six Geese A-Laying” consisted of hand-blown European ornaments on an iron urn. Very pretty in person—and looked like a lot more than just six because of the mirror! — The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)


One of my favorites, “Seven Swans A-Swimming” was an origami cut from the pages of a 1964 history book created by The Carolina Inn’s Reservations Manager, Elizabeth Rodriguez.


LEGO artist William Stroh of Holly Springs created “Eight Maids A-Milking” from, you guessed it, LEGO building bricks and figures! — The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)


Lance McRorie, a glass artist from Georgia, created the elegant “Nine Ladies Dancing” in the old tradition of flame working glass. — The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)


“Ten Drummers Drumming” was created by Riley Foster of Mebane in 1999 from recycled machine and vehicle parts and other found objects. — The Carolina Inn


SPOILER ALERT: “Eleven Pipers Piping” was an imaginative invention of artist Susan Philips from Apex, NC in 2001. A peek into a stained-glass looking box (left) revealed eleven pipers of surprising style and character (right). — The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)


A mechanical toy tops off the twelve days. The “Twelve Lords A-Leaping” crank toy tree designed by photographer Mark Crummett appeared to be a fan favorite. — The Carolina Inn (Chapel Hill, NC)

There’s still time to see the “Twelve Days of Christmas” at The Carolina Inn. The celebration runs through January 2, 2015.