The B&O was forever plagued with trying to find through, main
line routes over the steepest regions of the Alleghenies after the
state of Pennsylvania forbid the railroad from building through its
borders during the mid-19th century (they feared the B&O would too
steeply compete with their Pennsylvania Railroad). By 1852 the B&O, upon building to Cumberland, Maryland and through
north-central Virginia reached the Ohio River city of Wheeling. Five
years later in 1857 the railroad had secured a more southerly route
connecting to Parkersburg, thus bolstering its western connections.
Realizing it still needed a direct connection to the growing city of
Pittsburgh, which had originally been denied by Pennsylvania in 1847,
the B&O began looking for another route.
To do so it underwrote the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad, which began building east from Pittsburgh in 1847 and had connected its namesake cities by 1857. The B&O nearly lost its controlling interest in the P&C when the PRR was allowed to takeover the line in 1864. However, the B&O took the issue to court and won back the railroad in 1868. By May, 1871 the line was open between Cumberland and Pittsburgh. The original Sand Patch Tunnel began construction in the early 1850s and opened in 1854. However, the B&O elected to construct a new bore in the late 1860s to lower grades and increase capacity. The new structure, still in use today, was completed in 1871. For more reading about the grade's history please click here.
Sand Patch is quite long for an eastern railroad, listed by the B&O at 4,474.7 feet (although the railroad then proceeds to list the length in its timetable at 0.9 miles). In 1911 the tunnel was widened by the railroad to accommodate two tracks as traffic levels required additional capacity, which was completed in 1912. Today, the tunnel remains double-tracked since it is CSX's only main line between Chicago and Baltimore. According to the B&O's 1948 records the tunnel is 31-feet wide and 24-feet, 10-inches tall and is entirely concrete lined with arched portals (which also are also bricked). For an employee timetable of Sand Patch, including mileage, grades, and stations please click here.
While the grade and tunnel are still a sight to see
today with CSX freights conquering the Alleghenies, it was truly
something to see during the steam era on the Baltimore & Ohio.
Large steam locomotives like the 2-8-8-4 Class
EM-1 and others literally shook the earth in their efforts to move
freight over Sand Patch. During the B&O era the route was
officially listed as the railroad's Pittsburgh Division between
Cumberland and Pittsburgh. However, under CSX ownership it is now known
as the Keystone Subdivision. If you plan to watch trains conquer the grade the area is quite accessible and easy to reach, even if
it is in a rather remote part of Maryland.
Related Reading You May Enjoy
Baltimore & Ohio