How Tunnels Work

Types of Tunnels

There are three broad categories of tunnels: mining, public works and transportation. Let's look briefly at each type.

Mine tunnels are used during ore extraction, enabling laborers or equipment to access mineral and metal deposits deep inside the earth. These tunnels are made using similar techniques as other types of tunnels, but they cost less to build. Mine tunnels are not as safe as tunnels designed for permanent occupation, however.

A coal miner standing on the back of a car in a mine tunnel
  Photo courtesy National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
A coal miner standing on the back of a car in a mine tunnel in the early 1900s. Notice that the sides of the tunnel are shored up with timber.

Public works tunnels carry water, sewage or gas lines across great distances. The earliest tunnels were used to transport water to, and sewage away from, heavily populated regions. Roman engineers used an extensive network of tunnels to help carry water from mountain springs to cities and villages. These tunnels were part of aqueduct systems, which also comprised underground chambers and sloping bridge-like structures supported by a series of arches. By A.D. 97, nine aqueducts carried approximately 85 million gallons of water a day from mountain springs to the city of Rome.

 Roman aqueduct from Pools of Solomon to Jerusalem
  Photo courtesy Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
A Roman aqueduct that runs from the Pools of Solomon
to Jerusalem

Before there were trains and cars, there were transportation tunnels such as canals -- artificial waterways used for travel, shipping or irrigation. Just like railways and roadways today, canals usually ran above ground, but many required tunnels to pass efficiently through an obstacle, such as a mountain. Canal construction inspired some of the world's earliest tunnels.

The Underground Canal, located in Lancashire County and Manchester, England, was constructed from the mid- to late-1700s and includes miles of tunnels to house the underground canals. One of America's first tunnels was the Paw Paw Tunnel, built in West Virginia between 1836 and 1850 as part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Although the canal no longer runs through the Paw Paw, at 3,118 feet long it is still one of the longest canal tunnels in the United States.

Holland tunnel
Photo courtesy Kmf164/ Creation Commons Attribution Share-alike License
Traveling through the Holland Tunnel from Manhattan to New Jersey

­ By the 20th century, trains and cars had replaced canals as the primary form of transportation, leading to the construction of bigger, longer tunnels. The Holland Tunnel, completed in 1927, was one of the first roadway tunnels and is still one of the world's greatest engineering projects. Named for the engineer who oversaw construction, the tunnel ushers nearly 100,000 vehicles daily between New York City and New Jersey.

Tunnel construction takes a lot of planning. We'll explore why in the next section.