Murray Tunnel: The only thing consistent is the mystery

Murray Tunnel: The only thing consistent is the mystery

The Murray Tunnel, located near Glenmont, is quite possibly one of the most enduring mysteries in Holmes County. How old is it? Who built it? What was it used for? No one truly knows the answers to these questions, despite countless hours of archaeological research, expert analysis and laboratory testing.

“The only thing consistent is the mystery,” said Mark Boley, director of the Holmes County Historical Society.

What is known about the Murray Tunnel are the basics. The structure itself is not that large, about 30 feet in length, a short tunnel leading to a small circular chamber with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The tunnel is less than 5 feet in height and narrow, which means the average adult must crouch to pass through. Once inside the chamber, the ceiling opens up to a maximum of about 8 feet in height, roughly 50 inches in diameter, large enough for three or four adults to stand upright.

Another interesting feature of the Murray Tunnel is the spring that runs through it, originating from cracks in the back wall of the chamber and running a straight path down the tunnel itself and out into the field the tunnel overlooks. In addition to this, the rear wall of the chamber appears to have shelves carved in solid bedrock, and there is evidence that the vaulted ceiling was once supported with wooden framework.

Once owned by Bob Murray, the Murray Tunnel was willed to the Holmes County Humane Society. The organization still owns the property today, allowing researchers from a variety of sources such as the Midwestern Epigraphic Society, the Ohio Historical Society, the New England Center for the Antiquities and others periodic access for further research.

These are the things that are known about the Murray Tunnel. All of the rest so far remains a mystery, like the tunnel’s age.

“We’ve had speculations of everything from 500-5,000 years old or older,” Boley said. “Absolutely no artifacts were ever found on the site, but wood and mortar samples were taken from the ceiling and sent to Scott Wolter, who does the show 'America Unearthed.' He has a stone masonry analysis lab. The results were mixed, but the wood carbon dating appears to be 500-plus years old.”

But as Boley and other experts can attest, carbon dating on samples younger than 1,000 years old is problematic, the results generally inaccurate. Thus the data collected from the testing of the wood is open for interpretation with some historians believing it to be closer to 200 years old, placing the construction of the Murray Tunnel sometime at the beginning of the 19th century.

So who could have built the Murray Tunnel and why? Boley offered a few insights.

“They have ruled out certain things. They’ve ruled out Native Americans because of the way it is built. The Native Americans didn’t make underground structures like that. The Mayans did. The Mayans built a lot of underground structures. More importantly the dead giveaway is that Native Americans didn’t know how to build arched ceilings. That was more technology than they had.”

Beyond that, the rest is speculation. Writings from the Midwestern Epigraphic Society suggest perhaps the Murray Tunnel is closer to the 5,000-year-old age mark, perhaps created by a splinter group of Mayans or another ancient civilization that migrated into Holmes County from South America or elsewhere, building the tunnel for religious purposes.

This theory is based on the tunnel’s celestial alignment, which is 9 degrees east of due north. Given the shift of the Earth’s axis over time, had the Murray Tunnel been constructed around 2353 BC, it would have pointed directly north.

Engineers that have examined this tunnel, however, routinely argue against this theory, saying the construction method is consistent with 18th- and 19th-century methods brought to the Americas by European colonists. Many believe the tunnel is aligned that way, not because of any celestial reason, but because that was how it would have been most convenient to build, stretching straight back into the knoll in which it is situated.

Others believe the tunnel was built much more recently. During a presentation given by the Holmes County Historical Society, it was suggested perhaps it was used for the Underground Railroad or as a safe house of sorts to hide from Native American attacks.

However, this theory too is problematic because the tunnel has no ventilation, which means an attacker or search party could easily flush occupants simply by lighting a small fire at the tunnel’s entrance. And there is only room in the chamber for four people anyway, and that is only if the people remain standing, not an ideal place to hide more than a couple of people at a time.

So according to Boley and others who have speculated, perhaps this underground structure was used by more recent settlers as storage. But this theory doesn’t fit because of the spring that runs down the center of the tunnel, making it much too damp to store gunpowder, food and other necessities. Additionally the cramped tunnel itself would make it extraordinarily difficult to move goods.

Which leads to the thought that perhaps the tunnel was simply built as a springhouse, but again, experts say this theory doesn’t work well either. Because the tunnel is partly carved into bedrock and partly made of massive sandstone blocks, Boley and others say it would have been far too much work for settlers to build a springhouse in this way when there were much easier ways to access spring water.

And that is what leads many to believe the Murray Tunnel had some kind of religious significance, perhaps to an ancient culture or more likely to more recent European settlers in the area. However, there appears to be no historical documentation on the subject and no evidence of an older, pre-Columbian culture who would have created underground structures like this in Ohio.

That is the fascinating problem with the Murray Tunnel. No matter what theory is proposed about its origins or possible uses, there seems to always be reasons why that theory cannot be the correct theory.

“Very recently,” Boley said, “they’ve been connecting the dots. This tunnel is aligned with tunnels in New England and in Ireland. They’re very similar. Up in New England there is the Upton Tunnel that is very, very similar. They’re not sure who built these. They think that those in Ireland might have Celtic connections.”

New England’s Upton Tunnel, just like Holmes County’s Murray Tunnel, is mysterious in origin, although the two tunnels are nearly identical in design, both with a short, narrow tunnel that leads to a larger round chamber with a vaulted ceiling.

With luck researchers will eventually be able to come to some conclusions about the history and origins of the Murray Tunnel. Right now, however, one of the main concerns is preservation.

The tunnel’s entrance is weakened by the sandy soil that it is embedded in, which means work needs to be done to shore up the entrance. Engineers have proposed using concrete to stabilize the front of the structure, and that means funds and volunteers are needed to help complete such a project.

For those interested in helping with potential preservation efforts or who may have information about the Murray Tunnel, it is recommended they call the Holmes County Historical Society at 330-674-0022.

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