The counties of Logan, Mingo and Wyoming have more in common than one may realize. Besides containing mountains of coal and many families who depend upon it, each was given an Indian name, unlike neighboring Boone County, which we know was named for a great frontiersman, Daniel Boone.
Logan, of course, was named to honor Indian Chief Logan of the Mingo tribe, while Mingo County was named after the Iroquoian people. Wyoming is the Indian name for “plains,” which actually makes more sense as the name for the state of Wyoming than it does to Wyoming County; the county being created from Logan in 1850. Mingo County was in 1895 also created from Logan and is the youngest county in West Virginia. It is an area in Mingo County that I choose to write about today — a small community located just a few miles from the Logan-Mingo county line on what is known as Dingess Mountain. It is accessible from Logan County through Mud Fork, the Harts area, or from Corridor G near Lenore in Mingo County.
While we know of the bloodletting that took place between the Hatfields and McCoys in parts of what was Logan and is now “Bloody Mingo,” we can also identify with the Matewan Massacre of 1920 that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County the following year.
There are tales of death, both recorded and otherwise, that are associated with a longtime fixture in Mingo County known simply as the Dingess Tunnel. This particular landmark actually played a key role in the success of Logan County even before Mingo County was created. Having been completed in 1892, its historical relevance to Logan is that the tunnel served as a way of getting goods by train to Dingess, which became a wild and busy place. Goods were unloaded at Dingess and transported by wagons to Logan, and from there to other places like Man and Chapmanville. Supplies were hauled either through Mud Fork or over the mountains into Holden even before there were any real roads in those locations. The railroad did not reach Logan until around 1904.
What most people do not realize is that it was the coming of the railroad that helped lead to the formation of Mingo County. When Logan County leadership realized that the area of Williamson, which was then a part of Logan County, was going to receive the first railroads in the area, the political leaders, who controlled the county due to most voters living nearest to Logan, knew the railroads meant industrialization there first — which would mean more residents and equate to more voters there. With this in mind, leaders encouraged Mingo to be created and to become its own “boss,” so to speak, while Logan kept its leadership.
It has been reported that during construction of the nearly mile-long tunnel, many African Americans and other laborers died. When the 3,327-foot dark hole at Dingess was completed through the mountain, it opened a new world to many people in the secluded areas of Dingess and Twelvepole Creek, where folks there did not welcome outsiders into their self-sustaining “moonshine” world. Many immigrants and particularly African-Americans were not exactly greeted with welcome baskets. In fact, it has long been told that many of the “newcomers” were literally shot off the various trains after they passed from the tunnel. Though no official records were ever taken, it has been reported in Appalachian Magazine that it was estimated that “thousands of Black and Chinese workers were killed at the entrance and exits of this tunnel.”
Norfolk & Western, a Virginia-based company, built the railway that extended from Lenore through Wayne County over several bridges along the way. Following an earlier train wreck that killed seven people inside the tunnel, a head-on collision between a loaded freight train and a work train claimed three more lives on June 6, 1905.
Following the opening of what was termed “better” routes along the Big Sandy River, the Twelvepole Creek route was abandoned. Since 1913, the Dingess Tunnel has been used as an automobile highway after a new rail line was opened along the Big Sandy River. For decades the numerous one-lane railroad bridges located nearly all the way to Cabwaylingo State Park were also used by automobiles. Some of the bridges have since been replaced with more modern structures.
The constant dripping of water throughout the eerie structure, and safety manholes designed into the walls for pedestrians who would have been walking through the tunnel, leaves chills on one who can envision himself trapped inside the ghostly dark passageway that is nearly one mile long, especially with a fast-moving train approaching. The noise from a long train rolling would almost be deafening to a person trapped inside the labyrinth, which also has over the years provided the scene for murders and maimings. Perhaps the many deaths in and around the tunnel helps to account for reported ghostly sightings by some visitors.
In 2019, the tunnel underwent a $5.5 million dollar rehabilitation that included adding LED lighting, improved drainage and a new steel liner. However, a trip through the 3,327-foot passage even today will keep your eyes focused on the one-lane road. And may the Lord help you should you meet an oncoming vehicle while halfway through the tunnel.
For those who have not experienced travel through the 129-year-old historic bored out subway, and you plan on doing so, just remember to switch on your headlights — and then hope that a loaded coal truck is not coming from the opposite direction.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.