Cutting across mountains, running underneath the seabed or extending hundreds of kilometers as part of a metro system, tunnels provide a safe and fast shortcut for billions of people at every single day. In rare instances though, this seemingly mundane structure bears some extreme proportions that make it far more interesting. Nestled deep within a forested area in Tennessee, Backbone Rock is officially the world’s shortest tunnel, challenging our very understanding of this term.
During the early 20th century, several logging companies began harvesting trees for lumber across the Cherokee Forest in northeast Tennessee. To transport the incessant supply of wood, a 10-mile railway line named Beaver Dam Railroad was established in 1901, connecting the town of Damascus, Virginia with Crandull, Tennessee.
At first, construction works went smoothly according to plan. Nevertheless, all of a sudden, the workers faced with an unexpected obstacle, a large crag standing in their way, exactly where the rail tracks were supposed to be laid. Undeterred by this challenge, the companies resorted to using dynamite, blowing a 75 feet tall hole in the formidable rock. Later on, when the first locomotive made its way along the track, it was realized that the tunnel’s gap wasn’t tall enough for the smokestack. It wasn’t until an additional small crack was carved out using chisel when freight trains could finally complete the entire route.
Despite its initial success, the line was abandoned after merely two decades amid the mass exodus of timber firms, almost entirely due to over deforestation and the subsequent lack of trees to cut. Shortly after, the rail tracks were replaced with an asphalt, when the route along with the tunnel were incorporated into State Highway 133.
At a length of a measly 20 feet (6 meters), the Backbone Rock, as it is locally known, is by far the shortest tunnel anywhere in the world. In the midst of the great depression, the top of the hollowed rock became accessible when a set of steps with uneven footing and massive drop-offs was constructed.
The mini tunnel is situated only meters away from the crystal-clear waters of the Beaverdam Creek, both of which are part of the Backbone Rock Recreation Area. The secluded nook was established in the 1930’s, while a campground was added a couple of decades later. As of today, this wooded hideaway provides a refreshing respite from the scorching sun during the summer months, and for some, also a prelude for the sheer wilderness Cherokee Forest has to offer.