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Dormant Tunnel Comes Back to Life

Tucked deep within Afton Mountain is a 19th century train tunnel engineered by Cladius Crozet that’s sat dormant for the last 70 years. WMRA’s Jordy Yager went inside both the tunnel and local efforts to bring it back to life.

ALLEN HALE: Basically we’re walking on the original railroad bed that carried trains through the mountain from 1858 to 1944. It was right here. And so over here to our left you will see the current active track, which parallels this all the way to the tunnel.

Allen Hale is the chairman of Nelson County’s Board of Supervisors and he’s referring to the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel. It was the longest tunnel in the country, when it was built in the 1850s, stretching through more than 4,000 feet of solid rock from Nelson to Augusta County—an engineering marvel.

But, if you’re like me, and tens of thousands of others, who pass directly over it every day as you drive up and over Afton Mountain, you’re none the wiser.

STEVE CARTER: The tunnel was abandoned in the early 1940s.

If anybody’s as passionate about the tunnel as Allen Hale, it’s Steve Carter, Nelson County’s County Administrator.

Carter says when the nation’s train system switched from steam to diesel some 70 years ago, it meant switching to bigger rail cars, which meant building a bigger tunnel. Which has meant that the Blue Ridge Tunnel has just been sitting in the dark. But, Carter says, all these years later, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its allure.

CARTER: Just as everyone I’ve taken up there over the last many many years, when they see that portal, the beginning of the tunnel, the entrance to the tunnel, you can see that look on their face. I’m sure I had it. But I haven’t seen anyone who hasn’t just been awed when they get to either side, eastern or western portal. It just sort of captures you.

That awe is a good part of what helped Nelson County and the city of Waynesboro land $1.3 million from the Commonwealth Transportation Board earlier this year to open the tunnel back up, but not for trains, rather, to make it a centerpiece of outdoor public recreation in the area for hikers, bikers, and wheelchairs alike.

JORDY YAGER: Oh look, there’s a little beaver?

DWAYNE JONES: Is that a beaver? Yeah it is a beaver, look at him.

Less than 3 miles from the tunnel’s western portal, Waynesboro’s director of Parks and Recreation, Dwayne Jones, strolls along the city’s new Greenway, a mile-long paved foot and bike path that follows the South River.

JONES: The Blue Ridge Tunnel’s a wonderful wonderful resource but one of the disadvantages is it’s short. If you’re on a bike, you’re going to be through the tunnel and back very quickly. If you’re walking, obviously it’ll take you a little more time, but our Greenway’s accessible for bikes and pedestrians. So you start making those linkages and then you’ve really got a longer trail, potentially folks that may stay overnight, may do the trail more than once, and it really opens up lots of opportunities.

The tunnel was constructed to connect the valley and central Virginia with the rest of the country’s industry to the West, and the state capital and coastal ports of commerce to the East. And now, more than 150 years later, it’s being revamped with the hope of once again bringing business back to an area hit hard by a loss of manufacturing jobs over the last several decades.

[Dripping water in the tunnel]

Allen Hale’s flashlight cuts through the pitch black as we make our way into the tunnel’s western entrance. A structural engineer recently determined it sound and safe, but as Hale says, it leaks. A steady stream of crystalline water trickles through the tunnel’s walls and ceiling, creating puddles and streams that will eventually be funneled off to side ditches when it opens to the public.

HALE: What we’re seeing here is solid rock that has been just this way since the 1850s.

At least a dozen men were killed by explosions in the tunnel and hundreds more in the area died from cholera, according to Mary Lyons, who wrote a book on the tunnel. As enslaved African-American men were forced to work on the outside of the tunnel, hundreds of Irish immigrants labored inside, for nearly a decade, says Allen Hale.

HALE: They had to hand drill these. So, one man is holding a bit, a star bit, or star drill you would say, and another fellow is swinging a sledgehammer. And they bang away on that until they get in, as you can see, they’re not very deep, maybe a couple of feet, then they pack it with black powder, run a fuse back and shoot it. So that was incredibly labor intensive. Some of their slowest months of going through this greenstone, they only made 16-feet of headway, so that takes a lot of months to go all the way through.

Now, a century and a half later, the tunnel’s rehabilitation is just as slow. After a decade of chipping away—one grant application after another—in 2014, the first of three redevelopment phases was completed—a paved parking lot near Afton, and a cleared footpath to the eastern portal. Neither of which will be open to the public until Phase 2 and 3 have been finished, which is expected next year.

HALE: Alright, at this point, we have walked into the tunnel for about 700 feet and we’re looking at a solid reinforced concrete barrier with a 2-foot diameter pipe, and that barrier is 10-foot long, through that pipe, and then there’s another one 2,000 feet beyond this one that is 14-feet long.

Those two giant concrete bulkheads were part of a failed attempt in the 1950’s to create a natural gas storage unit in the middle of the tunnel. The final phases of the tunnel’s rehab will see the removal of those barriers, as well as the re-grading and paving of a continuous path throughout, and a trail and parking area on the western side.  It’s been a long time coming, says Carter.

CARTER: We’re well positioned to move forward. A lot more work to do, but after about 15 years of working on this project, we hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel now.

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.