The Sign Above the Tunnel – Knoxville, Maryland - Atlas Obscura
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The Sign Above the Tunnel

Knoxville, Maryland

This advertisement for talcum powder was painted on the rock face and has since defied removal.  

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Visible from virtually any vantage point in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is the high vertical stone face of Maryland Heights. The mountain overlooks the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Also visible is a “ghost sign” that adorns the rock face to the upper left of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridge and tunnel. The rail bridge and tunnel were constructed between 1894 and 1896. They were designed to carry the B&O line over the Potomac and under Maryland Heights.

By the early 1900s, the section of railway connecting West Virginia and Maryland was heavily traveled. In 1906, a 30 x 40-foot advertising sign was painted on the vertical rock face of Maryland Heights. Although it was a common type of advertisement, this one specifically targeted railway passengers traversing the bridge and entering the railroad tunnel. The advertisement read, “Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder C. Maxwell Co. Trenton, N.J.,” in large, white block letters framed with a white border. The sign was painted using a mixture of milk and whitewash.

In 1963, the historic town of Harpers Ferry and adjoining lands located in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia were designated as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Although it advertised a product that relieved “sunburn, prickly heat, and chafing,” Park Superintendent Joseph Prentice was irritated by the sign. He felt it detracted from the park’s scenic views. His disdain was shared by many Harpers Ferry residents who considered it, “a desecration of nature.”

In May 1963, at the encouragement of Prentice, members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club rappelled down the cliff front to eradicate the Mennen’s sign. Paint remover was used on the lettering and carbon black was applied, designed to replicate the darkening caused by smoke from coal-burning locomotives. However, four years later, the sign’s lettering reappeared and has remained visible, albeit faded, to this day.

No additional attempts have been made to remove the sign, but its aesthetics are still debated today. Many feel the sign is an eyesore, detracting from the beauty of the park. Others consider it an early 20th-century historical artifact worthy of preservation. It’s evident that the sign has no plans to leave on its own.

Know Before You Go

Although actually located on the cliff face of Maryland Heights in Knoxville, Maryland, the sign is best viewed looking east from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

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