Claudius Crozet’s Richmond Sojourn
by Clover Carroll
On a recent visit to Richmond, after a sumptuous Sunday brunch at the Jefferson Hotel, my friend suggested that we pop around the corner to see the Claudius Crozet house. The what? I had not known such a place existed, nor even that Claudius Crozet had ever lived in Richmond. But there it stood, an imposing edifice of bricks about the same vintage as our Court Square buildings, on the busy corner of 1st and E. Main in old downtown, not far from the main branch of the Richmond Public Library. Although currently owned by Castle Adamson and occupied by the law firm of Adamson & Adamson, the house proudly bears a plaque reading “Crozet House: Erected 1814; Home of Col. Claudius Crozet 1824-1832.”
My curiosity was piqued. Obviously, there were gaps in my knowledge of the man whose likeness so many of us carried with us on summer vacation. I returned a month later during working hours and was welcomed by a kind tenant who not only allowed me to tour the inside, but even copied extensive informative materials from his files for me. So began my education in the illustrious career of our town’s namesake.
B(enoit) Claudius Crozet was a man of many talents. Besides being universally recognized as a brilliant engineer, he was also a teacher, writer, and author of the first state map. Born on Dec. 31, 1789 in the Rhone Valley of France to a successful wine merchant, Crozet graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1807 and was commissioned into Napoleon’s Imperial Artillery Corps as a bridge builder. After Napoleon’s defeat and a stint as prisoner of war in Russia, Crozet emigrated with his young wife to the United States in 1816, where he joined the math and engineering faculty of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. While there he published a Treatise on Descriptive Geometry and designed several West Point buildings, as well as becoming friends with Robert E. Lee, who recommended him for the position of Principal Engineer and Surveyor for the newly founded Virginia Board of Public Works, a post Crozet accepted in 1823.
Crozet moved his wife and two children to Richmond in 1924, where they settled into the lovely house at 101 E. Main St. The first reference to him as Col. Crozet (he had earned the rank of lieutenant in France) came in an 1826 state report and the title stuck with him throughout his life.
One of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), which opened in 1839 in Lexington, Crozet served as the first president of its Board of Visitors and was primarily responsible for its academic program and military organization. Crozet died in 1864 and is buried on the campus of VMI.
Thomas Jefferson called Crozet “the best mathematician in the United States” in his day, and Gen. Winfield Scott wrote that “in point of genius, theory, and practice…he is the first man in America” for the job of state engineer. Our own beloved town got its name in 1870 when railroad officials named a rail depot established here in honor of this remarkable man who profoundly influenced the development of Virginia.
The outside of the Richmond house is impressive, but the inside is absolutely stunning. Built in 1814 by bricklayer Curtis Carter, it is a good example of the Federal style of architecture, with symmetrical structure, interior end chimneys, and molded cornice along the roofline. The inside is elegant and spacious, with light flooding in through many large windows, 12-foot ceilings, and foot-wide heart-of-pine floorboards. Wide doorways with old brass doorknobs lead into big rooms, most featuring fireplaces. In many of the downstairs rooms, wood paneling topped by chair rails gives way to wall paper above, painted a deep blue in what is now the conference room, decorated with a large mirror, period paintings, and a chandelier. The main living room (now the senior partner’s office) features what Eleanor Addison Smith, reviewing the house in the Richmond Times-Dispatch just after its 1940 restoration, calls “one of the most beautiful mantels to be found in Richmond,” five feet high with extensive wood carving. The staircase, featuring a round wood balustrade, turns on a landing, with rooms at various levels leading off it. Overall, the house emanates a calm, peaceful beauty. It has a rambling (and upstairs a somewhat run-down) feel, but it is easy to imagine gay and glittering entertainments taking place there in its heyday. It seems likely that Crozet also had use of the stable, smoke house, carriage house, and two brick outhouses that were included with the original house; the kitchen was located on the walk-out basement level.
While serving as principal engineer for the Virginia Board of Public Works, Crozet was responsible for developing transportation routes around Virginia, and especially connecting trade routes to the fast-growing west. Going counter to the political climate of the time, Crozet strongly advocated for the new technology of railroads over the old approach of canals. When he surveyed the Blue Ridge Mountains—the biggest physical barrier standing in the way of west-bound railroads—he determined that the best way through them was a series of tunnels at Rockfish Gap, four of which were built during his tenure. In 1850, he was given the task of building the Blue Ridge Tunnel through Afton Mountain. Pre-dating the invention of dynamite, the tunnel was mostly hand-dug from either end with pickaxes by Irish immigrants and slaves—some of them from north Ireland, known as “fardowners”—over a six-year period. (For more info, visit www.clannmhor.org. The 4,273’ tunnel, the longest in the world when completed in 1856, was considered an engineering wonder of the modern world, with Crozet’s expert calculations resulting in the two shafts’ meeting only a few inches off dead center. It has since been named a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Engineers “holed through” on Christmas Day in 1856, but it took two more years to reinforce the tunnel with locally kiln-fired bricks and timber. Water drainage, rock slides, ventilation, and cholera were only a few of the many problems creatively solved by Crozet, who wrote in classic understatement when the tunnel finally opened in 1858 that “I have had a more difficult task to perform than is generally admitted.” While supervising the construction, Crozet lived in Brooksville, an old stage stop west of Greenwood, near the current intersection of Routes 250 and 151. Stonewall Jackson used the tunnel during the Civil War for the rapid transport of foot soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley through the Blue Ridge Mountains, baffling Union military leaders. The Blue Ridge Tunnel was replaced in 1944 to accommodate larger train cars; the newer tunnel is still in use.
Sad to say, the phone number listed on the National Park Service website to make tour appointments is no longer in service. But a walk past this venerable old house is well worth the trouble, and if you go during the week, you just might find the offices open. To learn more, visit the Virginia Historical Society website at http://www.vahistorical.org/ or check out Claudius Crozet: Soldier-Scholar-Educator-Engineer, published in 1936 by Col. William Couper of VMI, from your local library. This New Year’s Eve, let’s all wish a happy 222th birthday to our town’s exceptional namesake!