Making travel possible through the rugged ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, the 3,291-foot Big Savage Tunnel is a marvel to behold. Built by the Western Maryland Railway in 1912, and refurbished for bicyclists and hikers in 2003, the tunnel offers a cool alternative from the summer sun and a respite from gusty winds in the spring and fall. It’s fitted with custom arched portal doors and a modern lighting system. The eastern portal reveals an expansive overlook with benches and a picnic area where travelers can gaze into four states.
Big Savage Tunnel is named for surveyor and inventor Thomas Savage, who, along with the rest of his party, was stranded on his eponymous mountain in the winter of 1736. According to legend, he offered himself up as food to save the rest of the party from starving. Fortunately, a rescue team showed up, saving Savage’s life.
History and Restoration
In the early 1900’s, lucrative coal and steel traffic sparked the Western Maryland Railway’s ambitious westward expansion from Cumberland to Connellsville. In order to compete with the existing B&O Railroad, it built nine tunnels and over thirty bridges and viaducts to shorten the route and reduce the grade. While tunneling through Big Savage Mountain, workers encountered soft, wet mud and sand 600 feet from the western portal, slowing progress. Conventional methods did not stem the flow, so the railroad brought in air locks used in New York City subway construction. The tunnel was completed in 1912, but the soft material continued to plague the railway, requiring continual repairs.
After the rail line was abandoned in 1975, the tunnel deteriorated. In the late 1990’s, the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy garnered support for the tunnel restoration. Work included extensive rock-bolting of the original liner and installation of a new liner with an aggressive drainage system to minimize the freeze/thaw conditions that damaged the tunnel in the past.
Open daily, dawn to dusk, from approximately April 1 to approximately November 30. The Big Savage Tunnel is closed during the winter months to protect its inner concrete liner from damage — and travelers from falling debris. There is no easy or recommended alternative route. The closest parking is at the Deal trailhead.