PATCH EXCLUSIVE: The Treasure Known as Dillinger Train Tunnel
A two-part story on the most interesting bit of local history you may have never heard about.
Editor's note: Our newest feature, Local Legends, will look at history right in your own back yard.
Part 1: The Hardest Working Landmark
Dillinger Tunnel--Upper Milford Township’s only train tunnel. Actually, it’s the only train tunnel still in use in Lehigh County.
When former Vera Cruz resident Joe Benner heard this, the 85-year-old remembered a close call from the 1940s.
"I got caught in the tunnel when a train came," Benner said. "Thank goodness for the area around the shaft -- that's where I stayed until the train passed."
Benner also recalls that at the age of 11 or 12, he and his buddies would "hop the train at the tunnel, because it was going slow enough, and ride it to the next station, which was Dillinger Station—just a short distance from the tunnel."
It's illegal now for people to enter, but the Dillinger Tunnel has endured the changes of time -- a 136-year-old historical landmark south of Vera Cruz dug through solid mountain granite and still used for freight runs. The tunnel is located off Churchview Road--a little less than a mile from the east side of Vera Cruz Road; however, because it is around a bend, it cannot be seen from the roadway.
The 1,793-foot Dillinger Tunnel—about a third of a mile--was completed in 1875 on the Reading Railroad’s Perkiomen line, which ran from Emmaus to Philadelphia. A special train for dignitaries passed through the tunnel on September 27, 1875.
According to Rick Bates, archivist & publications editor, Reading Railroad Heritage Museum, Hamburg (Berks County), “Regular freight and passenger rail service between Allentown and Philadelphia via the Dillinger Tunnel commenced on October 11, 1875.”
The Perkiomen line primarily transported anthracite, but also carried four passenger trains daily until 1955.
“I think it’s great that we have such a historic landmark right here in our own township,” said Rose Parry, Upper Milford Historical Society president.
The line, now used three days per week, is owned by East Penn Railways and is 16 miles long, running from Pennsburg to Emmaus Junction, where it joins the Norfolk Southern line.
In a 1951 centennial history of Vera Cruz, R. Paul Dries wrote in his article “The Vera Cruz-Dillinger Tunnel” that about 300 Irish laborers were employed to build it.
They worked from four directions, he said--“one group from each outside end worked towards the middle; two groups from the center worked towards each outside end.”
A vertical shaft placed in the middle of the tunnel, through which stones and rocks were hoisted to the surface, became an air vent allowing smoke and gas to escape. Above the tunnel, a cement wall 8 feet high surrounded the top of the shaft to prevent stones, animals and people from falling into it. The wall and shaft are still there, but hidden among trees and underbrush.