The Tunnel Hill Connection

Five persons buried in the Basilica graveyard (Sections A10 and B10), three men and two women, lost their lives in 1859 at Tunnel Hill in Oconee County near the German settlement town of Walhalla. The three men, Wm. Costelloe, Frs. McKiernan, and Wm. Humphries, are on the same marker with Ellen Hesslin who “died naturally,” which seems to imply that the three men did not die naturally. The fifth person, Rose McKeirnan, according to a separate marker established by her husband, John McKeirnan, died at Tunnel Hill April 21st, 1859.

For the four on the same marker, the Tunnel Hill reference is in an inscription at the top and remains barely legible. Here is how it looks in the dark with a flashlight highlighting the pertinent words.

Tunnel Hill was a community of 1500 or so Irish workers at the construction site of Stumphouse Tunnel, part of a plan to create a direct railroad line from Walhalla, SC to Knoxville, TN. Apparently the Irish were seen as not only good canal builders but good tunnel diggers as well. Or maybe they were just good cheap manual labor.

Whatever the reason, many Irish were recruited from New York and New Jersey to come south for such work. It was not always an easy sale because the work was difficult and dangerous, yellow fever was a concern, and the hot summers were just not suitable for natives of Ireland. But many came, poor people in a new land with few options, often facing racial and religious persecution and rejection.

What we know about Tunnel Hill and these five deceased is very limited. The following  paragraph screen shot is from The proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association 2004, P 51; Tunnel Hill: An Irish Mining Community in the Western Carolinas by Jim Haughey. Read the whole article. It is excellent!

Here is the clip from Professor Haughey’s article:

And here are illuminated current photos of two of the names on the monument in the Basilica graveyard:

Given spelling and pronunciation issues and difficulties, I think most can agree that “scalded to death”  “William Humphreys” and “Frances McTiernan” in the clip from the article are the same persons as “Wm. Humphries” and “Frs. McKiernan” in the  Basilica Graveyard. As an example of spelling and copying difficulties, the 1936 WPA workers recorded “McKiernan” as “McKlernan” and John McKeirnan as John M. Keirnan even though both markers are easily readable today, 84 years later.  Here is what the WPA workers wrote:

Note that the marker was erected by “The St. Patrick’s Temp. Soct.” That brings up a strong Catholic connection mentioned by Professor Haughey. (Read his entire article, a dozen pages or so, and very interesting. It begins on page 51.) Here are two pertinent clips from the professor’s article:

With respect to Father O’Connell, in the Basilica Graveyard, there is a fenced O’Connell family section. On the largest monument inside the fence, there is this engraving on the south face:

I can’t help believing that Father J. J. O’Connell must have been one of those three priests. But that is for further investigation.

For a quick interesting summary of why the tunnel was never finished and what happened to Tunnel Hill and what the dead-end tunnel was used for by Clemson University, check out this blog post.

Below is the marker for four of the five who died at Tunnel Hill. It is in section A10. Stroll out there and take a look and meditate a bit on the lives of the founders of The Basilica of St. Peter.







One thought on “The Tunnel Hill Connection

  1. Richard Burton Peterson

    I am a descendant of John Crowley (Transfiguration stain glass window) my brother is buried at
    the Family plot. Behind the Basilica there is a grave stone of an Irishman whose ship sank on the
    way over but they still had the burial. I remember seeing it as a little boy. Can you identify the location. I give tours periodically and would love to get as many “Talking Points” as possible that you may have for the 200th. I would love to meet sometime and talk about all the History High Points.
    Thanking you in advance
    Richard Burton Peterson

Leave a Reply