Hezekiah’s Tunnel

December 6, 2017 OTHER

Steve Conger photo



Robert Boucheron



The Daniel Harrison House was built about 1749, of irregular blocks of gray limestone, near Dayton, Virginia, in the lush farmland of the Shenandoah Valley. It has two stories, two rooms over two rooms, with a center stair hall and end chimneys. It is open to the public on weekends in summer. As I drive up and park, a portly older man springs from a rocking chair on the porch. A volunteer, he gives me a tour and a pamphlet.

Harrison and his brothers were early settlers and land speculators. The Thomas Harrison House of the same date and stone construction is the oldest house in Harrisonburg, a few miles north. Daniel died about 1770, and the house passed to his descendants. Altered in 1856, with a brick addition in back, the house was restored in 1978.

The plaster, windows, and much of the woodwork look new. The stone walls are in excellent condition, with repointed mortar joints. How much remains from 1749? In a skeptical mood, I read this paragraph in the pamphlet:


The mid-1750s were times of considerable danger for residents of the Shenandoah Valley. Marauding bands of Indians frequently roamed the area threatening the settlers. Daniel Harrison’s solidly built stone house was a natural fort to which he is said to have added a stockade and an underground passage to the nearby spring. Loopholes for firing rifles may have been set in the stone walls of the house, giving rise to the name Fort Harrison.


Andrea Sutcliffe repeats this information in her 1999 book Touring the Shenandoah Valley Backroads. The possible source, Nancy B. Hess includes it in her 1976 book The Heartland: Rockingham County. In the manner of Livy, who used legends to write his history of early Rome, Hess sometimes flags a statement in her text as a verbal tradition or an assumption. Here is part of the section titled “Dayton:


Captain Daniel Harrison . . . erected the old stone house located near Route 42 just north of Dayton. This home built in 1749 was built of stone and later stuccoed. One interesting feature of this home is the underground passage which led from the house to a nearby spring. It is presumed this was to provide water in case of a siege. . . . There was a palisade around the home and there is evidence of loopholes in the gables of the house. In 1754 there was a severe Indian attack.


The pamphlet has a drawing of “Fort Harrison” surrounded by a palisade. The volunteer guide cautions me that this and other details may be folklore. Teams of archaeology students from nearby Bridgewater College and James Madison University have excavated at the site. They found no evidence of a palisade, an underground passage, or a mill said to be on Cook’s Creek. The loopholes, if they ever existed, are not visible now.

In reading about the Shenandoah Valley in the 1700s, I find that almost any stone structure is called a “fort.” Stories of “Indian attack” are common, but few can be verified. Two that can occurred in July 1755 near Blacksburg, and in summer 1758 near Edinburg. There were no permanent Native American villages in this part of the valley, which was used as hunting ground by several tribes. They disputed ownership and fought each other. The Iroquois expanded aggressively from the north against the Shawnee and Tuscarora. The tribes also were embroiled in the competition between France and Great Britain for control of North America. French agents instigated raids on English settlers and sometimes joined in.

Native American warriors did not lay siege. Instead, they moved quickly in small parties, made surprise attacks, set fire to buildings, and carried away what they could—food, livestock, weapons, and women and children as hostages. Weakened by new diseases brought from Europe, the tribes were quickly outnumbered by European settlers. The Iroquois sold their claims to land in the valley in 1744 to the colonial government of Virginia. By 1755, the few Shawnee who remained in the valley left to join their kindred to the west.

There are stories of peaceful encounters in the valley between Native Americans and Quakers and with German speakers called Deutsch, Dutch, and Dunker. Their Mennonite descendants are a prominent ethnic group today. But the “forts” and stories of “Indian attack” dominate. Hess repeats the story of the underground passage or tunnel at other sites in Rockingham County, which suggests that this bit of folklore has lodged in the landscape. The spring of water and the underground passage are powerful symbols of life and refuge. Where did the story come from?


The English-speaking and German-speaking ethnic groups that settled the Shenandoah were Protestant and intensely religious. Like the English Puritans who settled Massachusetts in the 1600s, they tended to identify with the Hebrews of the Bible. Just as the Hebrews fought the Canaanites who already occupied Palestine, the godly Europeans of the 1700s fought the heathen savages of America.

Biblically literate, the valley settlers must have read about Hezekiah, a righteous king of Judah, and his public works in Jerusalem. He repaired and built new city walls. He improved the water supply. The texts are 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:2-4, 30:

The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah, all his power, how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?


When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and intended to fight against Jerusalem, he planned with his officers and his warriors to stop the flow of the springs that were outside the city; and they helped him. A great many people were gathered, and they stopped all the springs and the wadi that flowed through the land, saying, “Why should the Assyrian kings come and find water in abundance?”

This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the City of David.

(translation The New Oxford Annotated Bible)


The events in these passages happened about 700 B. C. “Gihon” is an intermittent spring southeast of the old walled city of Jerusalem. The precise meaning and location of the “City of David” is disputed, but most archaeologists believe the phrase refers to a ridge that runs south of the Temple Mount, a ridge that is now bare and has the geographical name Ophel. The Gihon spring issues from a cave in the eastern side of this ridge. Ruins excavated on Ophel show that a small ancient city existed here, most likely the city of the Jebusites that David captured around 1000 B. C. and made his capital. Solomon added the Temple to the north of this city. Extensions were later made to the west. The Jerusalem city wall that exists today is medieval, rebuilt more than once, probably on the foundations of the wall built by the Romans after 70 A. D.

The Pool of Siloam, also mentioned in John 9:1-12 as a place where Jesus heals a blind man, is just west of the southern tip of Ophel. The “conduit” runs underground and connects the Gihon spring to this pool. Hershel Shanks explains all this and more in his 1973 book The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem. For Shanks, the spring is a decisive feature:


Jerusalem lies on a narrow crest in the central part of the country through which all north-south traffic—both commercial and military—passed in ancient times. . . The Spring Gihon . . . is the only defensible ancient spring in the area, and for that reason Gihon determined the location of Jerusalem.


The site was inhabited as early as 3000 B. C. The spring lies outside the city wall built about 1800 B.C. Either then or soon after, the Jebusites built a wall down to the spring and a defensive tower. They also dug a shaft from inside the city to reach the cave, for access to water during a siege. In the time of Solomon, a covered trench was built from the spring to deliver water to irrigate gardens in the valley below.

Shanks summarizes the archaeological finds, offers helpful photographs and drawings, and interprets the often enigmatic data. “Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” as he calls it, is about 1750 feet long, carved through solid rock in an S-shape with some wiggles. It has a gradual drop of about seven feet, so water flows by gravity. It is about two feet wide and tall enough to stand in. Tourists who bring a flashlight can walk the length of the tunnel. You can also watch videos posted online of people doing this.

The tunnel was dug by hand by two teams starting at each end. We don’t know how long it took or how it was engineered, but an inscription was found at the Siloam end in 1880. “Written in elegant classical Hebrew,” Shanks says, “it reads as follows:”


This is the story of the boring through. While [the tunnelers lifted] the pick-axe each toward his fellow and while 3 cubits [remained yet] to be bored [through, there was heard] the voice of a man calling his fellow—for there was a split [or overlap] in the rock on the right hand and on [the left hand]. When the tunnel was driven through, the tunnelers hewed the rock, each man toward his fellow, pick-axe against pick-axe. And the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1200 cubits. The height of the rock above the head of the tunnelers was a hundred cubits.


The story is exciting, and the dimensions given in cubits match the facts in the ground. But as Shanks admits, “the inscription does not mention the name of Hezekiah, although we would expect it to.” Tool marks in the tunnel show that it reused earlier work. A king often took credit for a project begun by his predecessor, and Hezekiah may have done so. Or the writers of Kings and Chronicles may have exaggerated his good deeds. Or the tunnel may predate Hezekiah, as Shanks says in an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review of September 2013. Pottery in fill which blocked the Gihon spring dates to the late ninth or early eighth century B. C., about one hundred years too early. On the other hand, a radiocarbon date for organic material in plaster in the tunnel is about 700 B. C., which would be right.

Aside from these dating problems, the tunnel poses questions. Why does it take a meandering route instead of a straight line? Why does it emerge outside the wall of the City of David? Since a shaft already existed to give access to the spring from inside the City of David, why was the tunnel necessary? Could it have been dug in an emergency, or did it take years to complete?

Shanks gives possible answers to these questions. The tunnel route may have exploited softer rock, another city wall may have enclosed the Pool of Siloam, and so on. Hezekiah’s Tunnel illustrates how hard it is to match biblical texts with archeological evidence. The tunnel may not be Hezekiah’s after all. It may have inspired a good story, which in turn inspired another good story centuries later, on another continent, at the Daniel Harrison House.





Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, Fictive Dream, Litro, New Haven Review, Porridge, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.

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