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The Big Tunnel

Most urban legends that are told date back to the 1950’s or late 1940’s at the earliest. It was about this time that teenagers found themselves more mobile than ever with the automobile becoming a permanent part of the American lifestyle. Having supposed “haunted” places to check out gave the curious teens someplace to go on a summer evening. It is interesting to note, however, that stories of strange happenings around the big tunnel go all the way back to the early part of the 1900’s. Maybe this is because of an incident which happened at the tunnel in 1908 which would explain the hauntings. But first let me tell you a little about the tunnel.

The big ‘haunted’ railroad tunnel is on the CSX railroad between the tiny hamlets of Fort Ritner and Tunnelton, in one of the roughest, most rural parts of Indiana. A drive today through either town after 9:30 pm makes the traveler wonder why everyone seems to be locked inside with the lights out that early. The railroad was built through the region in 1857 and followed right beside the White River for many miles, taking advantage of the river’s valley to get through the steep hills in the area. The railroad workers had to tunnel through over a mile of solid rock to finish the line, thus the big tunnel was created.

Not only is the tunnel over a mile long, but it curves, so that when you are standing at one end, you see only pitch black, damp darkness in front of you. It is so dark that once inside, if you are brave enough to turn out your flashlight, you can not see anything, including who, or exactly what, is standing beside you. The size of the tunnel is overwhelming. A great description of a visit to the tunnel can be found in the book “Indiana Folklore” by Linda Degh:

“The entrance dwarfs the visitors. Its total blackness makes the night seem light by comparison. Without lights, the teenagers-sometimes with hands joined-walk into the Tunnel and feel their way along the right wall. At intervals their hands slip and the wall seems to disappear; manholes, recesses about five feet high and two feet deep built as places of refuge from passing trains, are spaced throughout the Tunnel and are disquieting breaks in the solidity of the wall. To walk through the Tunnel is to walk through the haunts of headless watchmen, ghosts, and ogres, any of whom might be hidden in one of the manholes. Potential dangers are magnified by perceptual distortions inside the Tunnel. The air is chill and damp; the darkness is so complete that vision seems to fail; the walls amplify even the slightest sound-dripping water echoes through the Tunnel.”

When the tunnel was finished in 1857, the inside was just bare rock. The railroad soon learned that it was necessary to employ a watchman to walk through the tunnel after each train passed to check for any rocks which might have worked loose as the trains rumbled through. The watchman could then signal the next approaching train to let them know whether or not the way was clear. In 1908, the tunnel was enlarged to make room for larger train equipment, and the inside of it was completely lined with brick, so the watchman’s job was no longer necessary. As our story opens, it is 1908, and the brick lining process is nearly finished….

Henry Dixon raised his hand and waved a greeting to the lighted window as the caboose on the end of the freight train noisily receded into the tunnel, headed west. There was more freight traffic at night, when fewer passengers were moving from town to town. As the noise slowly subsided in the big tunnel, he once again starts his walk west, into the dark opening. The cool breeze, which continued to whip through the dark hole, made a chill run up his spine.

“Better put on my coat,” he thought to himself as he turned around to find where he had laid it down, and glanced at his pocket watch, “No need to hurry anyway. The next freight won’t be through for another 55 minutes.”

Soon enough he was making his way down the dark corridor, just like he had done hundreds of times before. His lantern carried at his side made ghostly shadows of himself dance along the newly bricked wall beside him, falling into and out of the cubbyholes, which were designed to give pedestrians a place to step into if they were caught inside when a train came. The brickwork was most of the way done by now, so his walk was pretty boring with the threat of falling rocks almost eliminated. This gave his mind a chance to wander to other thoughts, like the end of his watchman’s job. He wandered just what his new job would bring. His thoughts were also on his wife, who was at home and pregnant with their first child. A smile crossed his face at the thought of becoming a father in a few months.

“Hope it’s a boy, Henr…..” his thoughts were interrupted by a sudden scream piercing through the darkness, which brought him back to his place inside the dark tunnel.

“My God! What is that?” Henry thought as he heard more screams, and a muffled voice coming from farther down the tunnel. Hurrying his pace, he soon drew closer to the shadows in the distance. He could make out two struggling figures silhouetted in the bit of moonlight coming in from the Tunnelton end of the tunnel. As he came closer, he slowly pieced the scene together…..a man and a lady….he has her wrists pinned to the wall….she is trying to get away….

The fighting couple didn’t even notice Henry until he was nearly to them. As the light from his lantern brightened the figures, he recognized them. He didn’t know either of them by name, but he knew they both were frequent visitors to the local taverns.

“What’s going on here?” asked Henry in the toughest voice he could muster up.

“This don’t concern you! Go on about yer business!” barked the man back.

“Please! Help me!” sobbed the girl, dirty tears rolling down her cheeks, “He won’t let me go!”

This was all Henry needed to hear. He was glad when he felt his hand touch cold metal inside of his coat pocket. He pulled out his small Iver Johnson pistol and pointed it at the man, who still had his hands firmly locked around the young woman’s wrists.

“Let her go….NOW!” ordered Henry.

The rather surprised man reluctantly loosened his grip on the girl, and she pulled away from him and ran to Henry. The man started backing out of the tunnel.

“You are gonna be real sorry ya ever done this!” Spat the man, pointing a bony finger straight at Henry. “Sorry I say!” The words rang into the night, as the man disappeared from sight.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here.” Henry said to the girl as he put his pistol back in his coat pocket, and the two of them turned to go.

“Thank you…” was all the girl could manage to choke out as the two made their way back through the darkness in silence. Once to the Fort Ritner end of the tunnel, Henry made sure the girl had somewhere she could go to for help in town, and told her goodbye.

It wasn’t long before the next train passed, and Henry was once again making his way through the tunnel. His free hand clutched the pistol in his coat pocket as the rough-looking man’s threats echoed through Henry’s head. As he approached the far end, before he knew what was happening, four guys were on top of him.

The blow to Henry Dixon’s head was so severe that he was probably dead before he hit the ground. The headlight from the next train through the tunnel gave the engineer a grisly sight. Henry’s lifeless body was sitting up, propped inside of one of the cubbyholes. His face, and his whole left side, was stained crimson with blood from the gapping hole in his skull.

Though the family tried to keep the news of Henry’s death from his pregnant wife, it couldn’t be helped. She could tell that something was wrong. The concerned looks, the excitement, her husband not coming home…. The news of her husband’s death sent Henry’s wife into premature labor. In a few hours she gave birth to a son, Henry, Jr. The horror of the night still wasn’t over, though, because the baby was born with an exposed brain, in the exact same place that his father had received the blow to his head. The baby lived but a few days, and there are people who say that its cries sounded eerily like it was repeating over and over, “Oh my God….Oh my God….”

Not long after that terrible night in 1908, reports started circulating about the strange occurrences people began experiencing inside of the tunnel; strange sounds, distant screams, and a strange light, which seemed to float through the dark tunnel. The reports continue to this day, and many people say the light is from the lantern of Henry Dixon, floating mysteriously through the damp, black tunnel, still checking the tracks for passing trains.

The End

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