Big Bull Tunnel is a utilitarian fixture in Southwest Virginia. It’s never been an actual attraction, simply another train tunnel in Wise County. It’s difficult to believe the arched throughway has such a dark and mysterious history. Construction was so problematic, and so many mishaps followed, that many suspected the structure was cursed. Rumors claim that while it’s a forgotten haunted location, it remains as paranormally active as it was then.
Precise information on this infamous tunnel’s origin is difficult to find. It was discussed in a variety of engineering magazines as far back as 1893, but even then had been in use for some time. Construction likely occurred sometime in the late 1870s or early 1880s.
Tunnel construction took three years, much longer than anticipated for the 1,700-foot-long tunnel. Early construction was just underway when the rockslides started, and the few opened spaces flooded. The tunnel is on the lowest ground within a large ravine that drops into Russell Creek. The terrain issues were enigmas to the builders. Engineers thoroughly examined the ground prior to construction. They declared it typical of the region. Natural rock formations cropped out just the same as they did elsewhere. There was no evidence of soft or unstable soil. The ravine had steep slopes, but the conditions were the same with several other tunnels so they had taken usual precautions.
Persistent rockslides continued as construction went farther into the mountain. Builders could only adapt to the changing conditions. When workers cleared the necessary ground to create a workable road, the entire mountain seemed to be nothing more than a debris pile. Troubles only worsened as they moved more ground. Cracks abruptly appeared high overhead in the mountainside. Numerous rains throughout construction only added to the number of slides. The slides often carried such force they crushed every retaining wall, even those that were double-reinforced.
The tunnel’s south side was the most troublesome. Unfortunately, the north side also manifested signs of danger as work progressed. Three men died from accidental explosions, just while clearing the tunnel. The hazards multiplied as work continued inside. Workers were always in danger from falling rocks. Sizable rocks routinely fell on those below, causing serious or fatal injuries.
Rains regularly flooded the tunnel, often to the ceiling on the lower side. Workmen used pumps to draw the water out, but the pumps often failed. One of the most memorable slides happened just after the tracks were laid. So much of the mountain fell it took another four months just to clear the debris.
Cave-ins became a common aspect of life around the tunnel. By 1892, slides weren’t the only problems. The trains themselves became as dangerous. Floyd Francisco, a Clinch Valley flagman, was injured in 1896. His rail car hit a rock and threw him from the train, between the tracks and the wall. He was battered, but nothing was broken. The train was fine from then on.
Another train caught on a rock in 1897. The obstacle caused two of the train’s cars to crash together, which knocked out the ceiling supports. Tons of rock and earth fell as the tunnel suffered yet another major cave in.
A freight train collided with an engine in 1900, within the tunnel. The solitary engine was just repaired in Bluefield, West Virginia. It was on its way back to the station when it met the freight train. For some reason, the fireman on the freight train failed to notice the engine, just as the engine failed to notice the approaching train. Engineers W.O. Alley, Keith, and fireman Bonsack were all severally injured. Bonsack and Alley later died from their injuries.
Robert Lemon, one of the most experienced engineers working for the railroad, was thrown in the tunnel in 1901. His skull was crushed. Blare Turner suffered a similar fate in 1904, when he was knocked off the train and his skull was crushed upon impact. Turner had just married two months earlier. The train traveled three miles further before they realized he was gone. Both tragedies were caused by fallen rock.
Natural disasters weren’t the only dangers in Big Bull. E.H. Pierce was the tunnel’s night watchman in June 1892. He started his shift normally that night. They found his body the next morning. Someone shot him through the head and cut his throat from ear-to-ear. He’d just been paid a few hours before his shift. His money and watch were stolen. Authorities believed the motive was robbery, but no suspects were apprehended.
Families who lived near the tunnel suspected it was haunted for years. Captain Judd Hall helped arch the tunnel in 1903. The rail company believed brick arching would prevent future cave-ins and fallen rock incidents. Hall believed the tunnel was haunted. Workers, who laid the bricks for the arch, reported strange noises and felt uneasy in several areas of the tunnel.
Only locals suspected ghostly activity until 1905, when questions of the tunnel’s supernatural activity became publicly known. Rail officials conducted a standard tunnel inspection on July 17, 1905. Such inspections were performed by driving the train through the tunnel and coming to a complete stop, just as the caboose exited. Flagman John Peery entered the tunnel for the first round of inspection. The other two men busied themselves with exterior examinations.
Peery fled the tunnel. He claimed he heard sounds that weren’t human or animal. He believed they were unearthly. The other two men didn’t believe him. The men reentered the tunnel in an attempt to pinpoint the source of the noise. Peery brought Captain Callaway and Engineer Kerns to the same spot he claimed he heard noises earlier.
A voice from behind the bricks moaned. Callaway was spooked, but remained steadfast. He spoke, “What do you want?”
The last of his composure faded when the voice answered. It sounded like a man being crushed, “Remove that awful weight from my body.” Callaway remained silent, but seconds later the voice added, “They are drinking my blood.”
The three left to regained their composure outside. Callaway was determined not to let it get the better of him. He marched back to the spot to examine the wall. There wasn’t supposed to be anything aside from earth behind the rock, but he wondered if someone might’ve been hiding before the train came through. The men searched the tunnel, but didn’t find any sign of another person or an opening for someone to hide.
The last official mention of the activities at Big Bull Tunnel came just after the three officials were terrorized. The Norfolk and Western Railway declared they would perform their own investigation into the claims. Their findings were not made public.
From that Point Onward
Rumors of the wreck of the “John Robinson Circus” train inside Big Bull started in the 1940s. The legend said all the monkeys died from smoke inhalation. The story ran all the way to Billboard Magazine. No evidence exists to support this legend.
Today, the tunnel is still used and still suspected of being haunted. Hikers visit the structure, but should be warned the tunnel is on private property and trains still pass through.