Located near mile marker 23 on what is now the Great Allegheny Passage hiking/biking trail in Somerset County, Pennsylvania lies the structural marvel which is the Big Savage Tunnel.
History of the Big Savage Tunnel
In the early 1900s coal and steel were king, and seeking to connect Cumberland, Maryland (and ultimately Baltimore, MD) to Connellsville, PA (and ultimately Pittsburgh, PA and Lake Erie) the Western Maryland Railway sought a piece of that lucrative pie.
In April of 1910 the 87 mile long “Connellsville Extension” construction project was begun, and 4 tunnels would be needed to make the rail line connection possible. The longest of these 4 tunnels would be the Big Savage Tunnel (the other 3 tunnels were the Borden, Brush, and Pinkerton tunnels).
The Big Savage Tunnel and the Connellsville Extension opened in 1912. The 3,294 foot long tunnel was a critical link in that rail line, until the entire line was abandoned in 1975.
The tunnel fell into a state of disrepair until the late 1990s when the Allegheny Trail Alliance stepped in to restore the tunnel as part of a greater rails-to-trails initiative. A new liner and drainage system were installed, as well as lighting.
How to Find the Big Savage Tunnel
For the purposes of the article I am going to describe a relatively short out and back hiking/biking excursion for those that want to do a simple day trip specifically to see the Big Savage Tunnel.
If you are biking the entire Great Allegheny Passage, you don’t really need directions as you are going to pass through the tunnel near mile marker 23 no matter which end of the GAP you start at.
The closest official trail head to the Big Savage Tunnel is located at Deal, with plenty of parking spots and restroom facilities located there.
GPS Coordinates for the Deal Trail Head
From the Deal trail head you would ride southeast roughly .94 miles to the Eastern Continental Divide (more on that in a minute), and then another 1.2 miles to the mouth of the Big Savage Tunnel.
Sometimes I choose to hike to the tunnel, rather than ride my bike. On those occasions I usually park in the “unofficial” parking spots located at the Eastern Continental Divide itself. The bridge over the GAP along McKenzie Hollow Road (see map above) is where the Divide is located, and several obvious parking spots are located on either end of the bridge. On an out and back hike this saves you nearly 2 miles, compared to hiking from the Deal trail head.
GPS Coordinates for the Eastern Continental Divide
In either event, it is 1.2 miles of hiking/biking from the Eastern Continental Divide to the Big Savage Tunnel.
The Eastern Continental Divide is a raised divide in the terrain of the eastern United States that separates the Atlantic Seaboard Watershed from the Gulf of Mexico watershed. Snowfall, rain, streams, and rivers on the eastern/southern side of the divide flows to the Atlantic Ocean, whereas water on the western/northern side of the divide drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
At 2,390 feet above sea level, this is also the highest point on the Great Allegheny Passage. An elevation chart inside the Divide tunnel illustrates that (see image above).
Moving on from the Eastern Continental Divide towards the Big Savage Tunnel, be on the lookout for wildlife great and small. In the summer months I consistently see as many butterflies on that stretch of the trail as just about anywhere else in Pennsylvania.
Deer are also a frequent sight on and along the Great Allegheny Passage (see above), especially early or late in the day.
The approach to the Big Savage Tunnel is like something out of a Tolkien novel, with the long tunnel disappearing into the massive mountain like the hall of a Dwarven King.
Origin of the Savage Name
The Savage name, incidentally, is not a reference to Native Americans, but rather an 18th century surveyor named John Savage, who led a surveying expedition in that area in 1736-1737.
During the winter of 1736 his survey team ran out of food and nearly starved to death in the cold and snow. In an act of almost unbelievable selflessness, John Savage offered to become the “provisions” his team needed to survive. But as luck would have it they were rescued before this drastic measure was taken.
In honor of his heroic gesture, several nearby mountains, streams, and even a village bear the Savage name, as does the tunnel.
The tunnel is illuminated, but a headlamp and tail light are still good ideas from a safety standpoint.
Emerging on the southeastern end of the tunnel you are treated to majestic views of western Maryland.
It is little wonder that this section of the Great Allegheny Passage is especially busy in the month of October, as the mountain ridges are ablaze with color.
Just south of the tunnel is a restroom and picnic pavillion, also popular with the local deer population.
My Final Thoughts on the Big Savage Tunnel
The Big Savage Tunnel is a remarkable construction feat, and makes for a superb day hike/bike trip. Between the fascinating history, abundant wildlife, and the exquisite views, it packs a lot of punch into a relatively short excursion.
Important Note: The Big Savage Tunnel is closed over the winter, typically from the first week of December until the first week of April. This is to help maintain a constant temperature inside the tunnel and prevent freeze/thaw damage to the tunnel liner. You can find out more specific dates for the opening/closing of the tunnel by visiting the “Trail Alerts” section on the GAP Trail’s official website.
We should all be grateful that the rails-to-trails movement has preserved and repurposed so many of these historic structures. For anyone who enjoys discovering remnants of Pennsylvania’s railroading past, I’d highly recommend adding a trip to the Big Savage Tunnel to your PA Bucket List!