We went camping in Mitchell, Indiana, this August for Central Indiana Grotto's annual Cave Capers event, a weekend of caving and camping and fun. The caving itself was overshadowed by an adventure, though, to another place whose history is said to be as dark as its interior.

In the Tunnel

We had reconvened at the campsite Saturday evening after a day of caving and our friend Sam suggested that we take a field trip to an old train tunnel not far from where we were. Night was falling, and he told us that the tunnel was supposedly haunted; we jumped at the opportunity to check it out. Alison stayed at camp with some friends while Carl, Arwyn, and I joined Sam and a few others to see the tunnel. After driving for a while, we turned onto a gravel road, which we followed for the final few bumpy miles before pulling into a cut-out to our left and disembarking. We initially took the first trail we saw, inclining steeply into the woods; before long, though, we saw headlamps moving further along in the woods and called out, learning that we had actually overlooked the correct trail. We doubled back and corrected course, and were much happier for it as this trail was nowhere near as steep as the initial one; soon, we crested this smaller hill and were able to see the tunnel entrance. It was a perfect night for such an outing, with a light mist forming at the mouth of the tunnel; we stared up at the brickwork that states the obvious in painstaking letters. We spent a few minutes looking around the entrance, then started our stroll through. We stopped a few times, listening; our footfalls echoed hollowly against the bricks that surrounded us. It was easy to imagine how the haunted reputation could begin; an undercurrent of our own voices bounced back at us mockingly.

Big Tunnel

If it couldn't already be surmised by the name, the town of Tunnelton sprung up around this creation, 1750 feet of brickwork carved straight through a hill. Completed in 1854, the need to build such a tunnel is an oddity for mostly flat Indiana, but the alternative was an eight-mile long detour. It was a few days after that initial nighttime visit that returned during daylight to check out the place some more. As I bumped my way down the gravel road in the morning light, I had a much better view of the area: off to the right stretched the White River's east fork, and the tangle of woods rose along my left. I took the short hike back, then scrambled up the slope alongside the mouth of the tunnel. Once I began doing research, many rumors and stories popped up about the area. One of these was that there had been a graveyard previously atop the hill, and the stories go on to say that while they were boring through the hill, caskets fell through into the fledgling tunnel. I could find no information to corroborate this, however, and while I trekked to the hilltop it occurred to me that this would be a poor area for a cemetery due to the terrain being rough and steep. I did check out the town’s “current” cemetery as well, looking for information that could clarify these questions, and found burials dating back to the early 1800s, ordered correctly to imply that these graves had never been moved. Previous to that time period, the population of the area was less concentrated, making it difficult to track down previous burials, but here the terrain comes into play again; it would be unnecessarily difficult to bury atop that hill when other, more accessible areas abound, such as the hill that houses the current cemetery. Finally, a further question could be raised about earlier indigenous burials, but this can be dismissed in regards to these stories as those burials would not have produced “modern” styled caskets. Thus, unless further information surfaces, I think we can effectively debunk the idea of caskets falling through the ceiling during construction.

The Tunnelton Cemetery

Other stories relate to the death of one Henry Dixon, said to have occurred within the tunnel in 1908. The legend goes that Dixon was a railroad worker who was murdered and dumped in the tunnel, and whose violent demise trapped his spirit and now he wanders the tunnel, decapitated, with his head in one hand and a lantern in the other. It turns out that there is some corroborating evidence for this story: accounts of the murder ran in multiple local papers, including the Rushville Daily Republican, the Montpelier Evening Herald, the Mitchell Commercial, and the Bedford Weekly Mail. The most substantial of the articles was the one from the Bedford paper from July 31, 1908, titled “Death Agent May Never Be Known: Tunnel Victim was Buried Friday.” Dixon was the night watchman for the tunnel, who would signal with lanterns to indicate when it was safe or unsafe to enter the tunnel. Some accounts bring up the question as to whether he had been hit by one of the trains that he directed, but this is shown to be unlikely: his body was found within the tunnel, but not on the tracks, and his only wound was the blunt force trauma to his head that killed him. His lantern was found next to him by the next shift’s watchman, unbroken and still burning, all of which is inconsistent with having been hit by the train. The inconsistency extends to the supposed sightings now: while a head injury killed him, there is no record of him having been decapitated in the attack.

Approaching The Big Tunnel

While some of the stories are just that- stories- the tunnel is a fascinating location nonetheless, especially in the flat state of Indiana. And while strolling through in the darkness of a midsummer night, it's easy to see how such stories could take root.