Cumberland Times-News

Local News

October 7, 2013

Looking Back: The day Paw Paw almost blew up

It was a pleasant day in late April 1904 in Paw Paw, W.Va., when all of the bells and steam whistles in town began sounding.

“Look out! Look out! It’s going off!” was the cry carried throughout the town.

For three days, the residents had been watching cans of black powder carried into a shaft cut into the mountain next to the town. The final count was that 325 cans of powder weighing 8,125 pounds had been placed in the mountain and then the shaft was closed.

“As the number of cans disappearing in the mountainside increased, the alarm of the people grew, and some in terror left the town, while those remaining filled their ears with cotton and waited for — they knew not what,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

They had good reason to fear. When a similar cut had been made through Sideling Hill, 1,400 cans of powder had been used. The resulting explosion threw rocks as heavy as half a ton hundreds of yards from the explosion site. Telegraph poles along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had been sheared off near the ground by flying debris.

The Fuller Syndicate, a group of wealthy men who were invested in railroads, had acquired the Western Maryland Railway and West Virginia Central and Pittsburg Railway in 1902. The following year an extension of the Western Maryland Railway was started to take the railroad into Western Maryland in direct competition with the B&O Railroad.

“Until the advent of the Wabash it was supposed there was no feasible route through the narrow gaps in the mountains between Cumberland and Hancock, forty miles, save those followed by the Chesapeake and Ohio canal and the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. It was this belief that has kept life in the old waterway, life sustained by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad company to bar out any possible rival,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

The 6-mile extension line began in Big Pool and moved west toward Cumberland. “Though the route lay entirely in the Potomac River Valley, the going was far from easy, since the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the National Turnpike had already been built on the best routes. Thus, Western Maryland needed twenty-three bridges to cross the Potomac River, five streams, the C&O Canal, the B&O Railroad and three county roads,” Roger Cook and Karl Zimmerman wrote in “The Western Maryland Railway.”

A tunnel through the mountain was one of the needed improvements that Western Maryland needed to make to connect the Western Maryland railroad at Cherry Run with the West Virginia Central railroad at Cumberland. The plan was to connect these railroads with the Wabash Railroad in the Midwest and turn the Wabash into a transcontinental system.

A few minutes after the whistles and bells sounded in Paw Paw, someone pushed an electric button to trigger the explosion.

“There was a deep, rumbling report, the whole earth seemed to rock as though shaken by an earthquake and tons of rock plunged forward and toppled over into the canal and river,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

The feared destruction of the town didn’t happen. In fact, no loose rock flew more than 100 feet away from the mountain, but 20,000 cubic yards of rock was torn away from the mountain. The explosion was deemed a great success. It had accomplished what was needed with no unnecessary destruction.

The extension from Big Pool to Cumberland was proving to be very costly because of the number of bridges and tunnels that needed to be built along it. The Western Maryland had 2,629 men, 300 animals, nine locomotives and nine steam shovels building the extension. The average cost per mile was $100,000 (about $4 million today). The extension was completed in 1906 and opened March 15. However, the railroad never became part of a transcontinental Wabash system. The Western Maryland Railway continued to service Allegany County until the Chessie System absorbed it in the mid-1970s.

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