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2011 Fire Damages Iconic Montgomery Bell Tunnel

It was Labor Day 2011 at 7:45 in the evening when Harpeth River State Park Rangers got the call saying the historic Montgomery Bell Tunnel was on fire. When Rangers arrived, two gentlemen who’d been watching the flames from a distance reported the fire had been raging since 6:30 PM.

glowing embers of tunnel fire

How does a solid stone tunnel burn? During the spring of 2010, thirteen inches of rain inundated the Harpeth River Valley flooding homes and businesses and putting the 200-year-old tunnel underwater. The raging Harpeth waters ripped huge trees and brush from its banks, wedging the drifting wood in Bell’s Tunnel. Eighteen months later the floodwaters had receded, the driftwood was now dry and still crammed tightly in the tunnel, creating a dangerous fire threat.

On that 2011 Labor Day, something or somebody ignited the accumulated dry wood, and a strong draft rushing through the tunnel intensified the roaring flames. Bystanders could hear the hissing & popping of moisture trapped in the porous limestone that expanded fissures in the rock and loosened massive layers of stone that dropped from the tunnel ceiling with thunderous booms. Witnesses say the roar of the inferno was deafening & the intensity of the heat was so searing it could be felt a football field away.


By midnight, firemen had quelled the flames, and road department engineers assessed the damage to the county highway bridge over the intake side of the tunnel. The fire had cut off access to residents living north of the tunnel bridge, but by daybreak, officials pronounced the steel bridge safe to travel.

morning after the fire

Neighbors have long deemed the fire to be arson, but Parks Division investigators were

never able to establish a cause. Now, massive layers of fire-loosened limestone lay on the floor of the famous 1820’s-era tunnel, obstructing access and causing park management to post signs designating the tunnel as unsafe to enter. The well-engineered river diversion tunnel had remained largely unscathed by 200 years of flooding, freezing, and thawing, but the popular park attraction couldn’t withstand the fierce flames of undetermined origins.

today's collapsed ceiling

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