As we travel throughout our local regions, we can get used to the scenery and structures we pass. We get so focused on the destination that we fail to notice the view from our car window. This holds most true on our oft-traveled routes. For example, I often drove past a dilapidated concrete structure on my way to and from town, only to learn that locals call it the “Watering Trough.” Years ago, mountain-crossing wagoners watered their horses there.
When living in Kentucky, we drove Interstate 68 many times on the way to Philadelphia and back. Living now in south central Pennsylvania, this road is our path west. I-68 runs from Hancock, Maryland, to I-79 in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Construction on I-68 started in 1961 and took 25 years. Clearing this 112-mile pathway through the mountainous terrain faced many problems. Sideling Hill presented one such problem. The long-running ridge stretches south-southwest from Pennsylvania into Virginia. When construction started, the ridge stood in the path of I-68 at a height of 2,311 feet, just west of Hancock, Maryland.
Project planners debated whether to go through it or over it. They considered five options: two going through it and three going over. Projected costs to build and maintain a tunnel pushed them to choose one of the latter. The result is the engineering and geological wonder Sideling Hill Cut. The cut runs 320 feet deep. Crews removed 4.5 million cubic yards of dirt and rock, requiring 2,600 tons of explosives. The excavation is 720 feet wide at the top and tapers to 200 feet wide at the bottom. The work took 16 months, cost $24 million (including road costs), and opened in 2½ years.
The Sideling Hill Cut might be the best classroom east of the Mississippi for geologic structures. The cut exposes formations that geologists describe as a syncline mountain in a region of downward folded (synclinal) rock strata between two upfolded anticlines. In layman’s terms: “U”-shaped rock structures. Sideling Hill formed by the collision of continents about 330 million years ago. The cut exposes the various geologic strata, namely the Devonian-Mississippian Rockwell Formation and underlying the Mississippian Purslane Sandstone.
Viewing the walls of the cut, you see vertical grooves from the drilling operations. This got me thinking about the drilling during construction. When construction began, I worked for a drill string manufacturer in western Pennsylvania. I remember a salesman named Harry Wachob, who worked with one of our customers, excited about a huge project in western Maryland. I wonder now if that project was the Sideling Hill Cut. Wachob worked at Stockdale Mine Supply and at the time, and they were populating the drilling industry with Davey drills. I seem to recall that some of the drilling was done utilizing Davey M5 drills. These single-pass rigs ran a 2⅞-inch OD by 35- or 40-foot round fluted Kelly bar.
I wanted to learn more, but a visitor center and museum built at the site had closed due to budget restraints. The museum had moved its displays to a local museum in downtown Hancock. (I understand the center is now open but the museum is still in Hancock.)
I traveled the 15 miles to Hancock to see what I could learn. They museum feature some photos and geological samples. I asked if there was more and they showed me a stack of old photos. I could not find a photo of the drilling operations, although a couple seemed to show a rear view of a parked rig in the background that could be an M5.
So, is my memory correct? Did the M5 do the job or, perhaps, a bevy of top percussion rigs? Perhaps a reader will be able to help. If you know anything about the project, let us know.
Taking a family road trip to check out the Sideling Hill Cut and stop by a small Hancock museum may not make you a hit with the kids. But, while there, you can check out the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. It runs 164 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. Some of the actual canal is gone, but the towpath became a bike and hike trail. There is also the artsy community of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
When Pennsylvania built their east-west turnpike, they opted to go through Sideling Hill near Breezewood. That tunnel closed in 1968 and, along with Rays Hill Tunnel, became part of a 13-mile stretch of abandoned turnpike now used as a hiking and biking trail. Beware: People say the abandoned turnpike tunnel is haunted.
I think those of us in the drilling industry get a different perspective on sights like these, much like an artist visiting an art exhibit. Whether it is those grooves in a road cut or watching a movie like “Armageddon” and jumping up and shouting “No! No! No!” when they chose that tricone steel-tooth bit to drill the hard surface of the asteroid.
What are you missing in your daily travels?
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