Slave Labor That Built The Blue Ridge Tunnel

Jan 25, 2021

Charlottesville author Mary E. Lyons chronicles the history of the Blue Ridge Tunnel and the slave labor that built it in her new book. 

She’s our guest for tomorrow’s virtual Books & Brews.  WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with Mary and asked her to describe the importance of the tunnel.

Mary E. Lyons:  It was part of the movement westward. It was happening all up and down the East Coast regionally. It was to connect the Tidewater area. That is Richmond all the way over to the Alleghenies and eventually to the Ohio River so that people and goods could move vastly faster speed.

WMRA:  Your book talks about the slave labor that built the railroad over.  I understand that the enslaved laborers were actually rented from their owners. Can you talk about that?

ML:  Oh, yes. It's taken me a long time to collect their names and I don't have all three hundred.  The hiring out of slave labor was a very important piece of the profitability of slavery.  As these railroads were being built across Virginia, the price that a slaveholder could get for renting out the labor of an enslaved man kept rising because the demand was so great. And so the local slave holders were extremely reluctant to rent out the labor of their Investments, but there was a huge labor shortage because the Irish went on strike almost every year and so chief engineer Claudius Crozet was desperate to solve that problem and he looked at slave labor to do it.

Mary E. Lyons

WMRA:  In the book, you do uncover some personal stories - people who were enslaved in the railroad like James Williams. Can you tell us his story?

ML:  I was giving a presentation to a wonderful audience at the Waynesboro public library and I said, you know, we don't have any pictures any of laborers.  Then this gentleman raised his hand. He said wait a minute. Did you see that article in the Staunton newspaper a couple of weeks ago and he explained James Williams and lo and behold the article was written by a colleague. So I called him right up and he sent me all kinds of valuable information about James Williams and then before the day was over I called a very dedicated researcher who’s a friend of mine and told her and she put me in touch with a direct descendant of the family that had enslaved James Williams. They rented his labor out when he was 12 years old to work as a cart boy and from what he remembered, I could piece together what contractor he had labored for.  Williams recalled that he helped build the Blue Ridge Tunnel. So I had to think about that a while because this contractor’s name was Robert Smith and had no contractual agreement with the Blue Ridge railroad for the Blue Ridge Tunnel.  His sections were farther east, but I think that there's a very good chance that James Williams as a cart boy hauled rocky debris left over from explosions in the Blue Ridge Tunnel to help build man made embankments on section 2.  He was remembering this when he was 99 years old and being interviewed.

WMRA:  What do you think surprised you the most when you were researching all of this

ML:  My books for young readers were about either black history or Irish history. So as soon as I learned that Irish and slave labor were used at the tunnel I thought well, there must have been conflict. It was really a puzzle to me why I couldn't find any evidence at all. And my thought process about this is explained in the preface and either they kept them apart.  What we don't know is how the Irish immigrants felt about race when they first arrived but most of them remained working class.  There was little to no conflict between the two groups along the line.

WMRA:  When you were researching all of this, was their one fact or thing you learned that just made you say to yourself, oh, I have to tell this story?

ML:  The number of men killed inside the Blue Ridge Tunnel. I just wanted to name them.  While entering their names from the registry, one family's story would sort of fold into another family’s story.  And I ended up knowing a little bit of biographical material for about 85 families.