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Montgomery Bell's Tunnel

Cheatham County, Tennessee
Completed 1818

Claim to Fame: As the earliest known rock tunnel of significant size in the United States, the Montgomery Bell’s Tunnel served as a guide to early American civil engineers and thus can be said to be the precursor to later American tunneling accomplishments.

Montgomery Bell's Tunnel 
Courtesy Flickr/Wayne Hsieh

"Doubtless [Bell's] neighbors and enemies considered the tunnel excavations absurd and totally impossible."- Tennessee Historical Quarterly Spring, 1976

Montogomery Bell was a land developer and iron maker who purchased the Harpeth Narrows site to expand his industrial empire - which ultimately consisted of 14 iron blast furnaces throughout middle Tennessee. 

The Harpeth River makes a tight bend around a steep limestone ridge, losing 17 feet of elevation in a run of 5 1/2 miles. Bell excavated a tunnel through the limestone ridge, creating a shortcut for the river. The hydropower derived from this drop in elevation was used to drive the Patterson Iron Works built by Bell.  

Montgomery Bell's Tunnel is one of the oldest tunnels in America. Though historic records are incomplete, it is likely that Bell both located the site and designed the tunnel himself. Slave labor was used to excavate the tunnel. The project is also significant because it is believed that all excavation for the 290-foot tunnel was performed using hand drills and black powder.