Cholera Comes to The Blue Ridge Tunnel


by Mary Lyons

Track workers in a photo circa 1880.
Track workers in a photo circa 1880.

Irish canal workers sang a doleful tune about the “choleray” in the 1830s. A coffin maker in Waynesboro called it “cholery” in the 1850s. Whatever the pronunciation of cholera in those days, it was the scourge of Richmond, Scottsville, and Rockfish Gap in the summer of 1854. It seemed to appear out of nowhere during that brutally hot season, then mysteriously vanish.

The cause of cholera is now well known. In 1883, a German scientist named the Vibrio cholera organism as the culprit. The bacteria enters the digestive system of victims who drink water contaminated with feces. Or, victims eat food harvested from contaminated water or washed in it. Some sufferers recover after a mild bout of diarrhea, but many cases lead to loss of a quart of water every hour from acute watery diarrhea and vomiting. Kidney failure and cardiac arrest soon follow. Death by cholera was—and is—hideous.

No wonder the Staunton Spectator and Republican Vindicator newspaper editors downplayed the news when cholera appeared in the summer of 1854. A survey of cholera-related articles in the two papers from June through September of that year shows that the editors tried to prevent local panic, and with good reason.

A cholera epidemic in the Augusta County area would have been disastrous for Staunton business owners. By June 1854, hundreds of Richmonders were crossing Afton Mountain daily on passenger train cars. The train ran on a temporary track that Irish immigrants and enslaved Virginians had recently built for the Blue Ridge and Virginia Central Railroads. It stopped in Staunton so passengers could dine or spend the night at local hotels before boarding stagecoaches headed west.

Thanks to the temporary track and promised completion of the Blue Ridge Tunnel at Rockfish Gap, as well as three shorter tunnels in Albemarle County, the economy in Staunton and Augusta County was booming. Arrival of a cholera epidemic would have destroyed profits. Dropping revenues would then lead to loss of advertising dollars for the newspapers.

Still, as epidemics erupted across the country, the editors could put off the news for only so long. The Spectator printed a brief but ominous announcement on June 28 about cholera in Fayetteville, Tennessee. “There have been seven deaths—of whom three were white persons,” the editor reported. “The schools were all broken up, and the inhabitants had fled the place in a panic of fear.”

The distant location of the outbreak must have comforted readers—until they read the July 17 issue of the Vindicator. Cholera was “daily carrying off a moderate number of persons” in Richmond. The editor calmed his audience: “The cases,” he wrote, “are principally confined to the dissipated in habit and the careless in diet.” In other words, civilized readers had nothing to worry about, especially if they followed Richmond doctors’ advice to avoid cucumbers and green corn.

On July 26, the Spectator reported worse news from Richmond: “The Richmond Dispatch gives the number of burials at one of the city cemeteries from the 9th to the 17th of July, which shows that there were buried there in that space of time sixty-three bodies, forty-two of which had died of cholera. Most of these were colored persons.”

Then the death rate soared. “From a statement made in the Richmond Enquirer of Tuesday last,” the Spectator announced on July 31, “there had been up to that time, 125 deaths from Cholera from the 19th of June, the day the first case occurred.” Richmond physicians later estimated that the final tally was between 200 and 225.

It may be just as well that the true numbers never reached nervous readers, because cholera had already reared its frightening head nearby. After Richmond’s first case on June 19, cholera struck Scottsville in Albemarle County. The Vindicator editor noted that “the victims of cholera were persons of intemperate habits, and one of them died in Richmond. No new case of either disease has occurred, and no apprehension of sickness is felt. The place is now as healthy as usual at this season of the year.”

But within a month of the outbreak, 25 people would be dead from cholera in Scottsville, a drop-off point for goods transported along the James River and Kanawah Canal. The cruel disease appeared next at the Blue Ridge Tunnel at Rockfish Gap. It landed first on the eastern side in Nelson County on July 24. One week later, it jumped to the western side in Augusta County. Its victims were malnourished Irish railroad workers and their families.

Between 1850 and 1860, about 2,000 Irish men, women and children moved in and out of crowded shanty housing or equally crowded rental houses during construction of the four tunnels and connecting tracks. This long railroad village began at Ivy Depot, climbed up Afton Mountain and ended at Staunton. Most of the Irish were exiles from the great famine that raged in Ireland between 1845 and 1852.

The Spectator editor already knew that Irish immigrants made good copy. On February 13, 1850, he had run a front page satire that featured a brogue-ridden Irishman digging for gold in California. “Biddy Darlan,’” the Irish character wrote, “I’ve been to the mines, bad luck to ’em. For siven weeks, Biddy, achushla, I sarched the bowels of terry firmer for goold, and all I got was the dissenterry, by rason of workin on an empty stomack.”

One and a half million Irish were dying of an “empty stomack” or fever during the famine. The editor’s insensitivity to their tragedy is noteworthy, especially in light of his announcement in the same issue that Irish laborers had arrived in the city with great fanfare to work on the railroad.

So, when cholera struck Blue Ridge tunnel workers in 1854, the editors’ perspective toward the Irish was well in place. Recycling a Vindicator announcement, the August 9 issue of the Spectator ran a column entitled “Cholera at the Tunnel.” It reported that 14 cases were “confined to the six or eight shantees situated on the ravine running from near the top of the mountain at Rockfish to the Eastern mouth of the Tunnel—a distance of sixty to a hundred yards—and is hence attributed to some local cause. No case has originated in the neighborhood out of the locality described.”

The text gave readers a geographical reason to believe they were safe. Tennessee. Richmond. Scottsville. Rockfish Gap. According to the paper, only “away” people could die of cholera. Race or foreign birth also seemed to shield readers: cholera victims in Virginia were “colored persons” or Irish living in “shantees.”

An Irish tunnel man’s headstone and footstone.
An Irish tunnel man’s headstone and footstone.

As millions of immigrant laborers arrived in the 1850s, American newspapers dosed readers with editorials, cartoons, and articles that were contemptuous of the newcomers, especially the Irish. Irish laborers, in the main, constructed the roads, canals, bridges, and railroads that became the arteries of  19th-century American commerce. But as scholar Kevin Kenny notes in Making the Irish American, the “immigrants of the Famine generation were close to the bottom of the American social scale . . . the American Irish in the period 1845 to 1870 were clearly the least successful and the most exploited of all European Americans.”

Cholera wiped out entire families on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Tunnel. The Irish workers often frustrated Claudius Crozet, chief engineer for the project. Earlier, in 1853, he had complained that the men took two days off for a funeral when someone died, even a “mere child.” Still, Crozet was the only person to honor the dead Irish by naming them publicly. In a July 31 letter to the editor of the Jeffersonian Republican in Charlottesville, he listed a few of the victims, whose burial places are still unknown:

“Daniel Harrington, a sober and valuable man, aged about 45,” wrote Crozet. “Old Downey, probably 70 years old; Cain Holland 20; Dan’l Sullivan 22. Jeremiah Harrington’s wife, her child and her mother. The wife of old Downey had recovered, but relapsed on Saturday and died on that day. Yesterday young Downey attended the funeral of his father, and on his way back was taken sick and was himself buried to-day. Another Harrington also died in a few hours—in all 11 in about a week. The men of the east side have generally scattered and fled, otherwise the disease would take more victims of course.”

Crozet later noted that hired slaves working in the tunnel area weren’t susceptible to cholera—a silly conclusion. Obviously many African Americans were dying of the disease in Richmond. Blue Ridge Tunnel payroll records show that the slaves and the overseer escaped illness because they stopped all work on August 1 and remained away from the area for two weeks. Their “owner,” George Farrow of Albemarle County, agreed to lease them to the railroad during 1854,  but only if they worked safely away from dangerous tunnel explosions. The enslaved workers were working along the track bed. It’s likely they had little contact with the tunnel.

By the time the Spectator and Vindicator reprinted Crozet’s July 31st letter, cholera had traveled to shanties farther east toward what is now Afton Depot. It’s easy to imagine progression of the disease along the line. The Blue Ridge Tunnel slopes downhill from west to east, which made water flowing from mountain springs a perennial problem during construction. The men sloshed in water for multiple eight-hour shifts as they drilled, blasted, and hauled away granite. After they relieved themselves in outhouses or the woods, they had no way to wash their hands. Contamination of water in the tunnel was inevitable.

Workers who fled the eastern side probably sought refuge with friends or family in Augusta County. More contamination occurred there, causing an “awful fatality,” as Crozet put it in a September 1 letter. Among the dead were Michael McCarty, Pat Crowley, Mrs. Crowley, Pat Harnett, Mrs. Holleran, James and Joseph Haggerty, 10-year-old Peter Haggerty, Mrs. E.J. Duvall, William Newman, Edward Walsh, and John Driscoll, an infant. In all, at least 33 Irish died of cholera at the Blue Ridge Tunnel.

The Center for Disease Control says that two factors must be present for a cholera epidemic: a significant breakdown in water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructures; and the presence of Vibrio cholera. Cholera could have easily contaminated water at the Blue Ridge Tunnel. No one in those days was aware of infectious bacteria, and few realized the importance of a sterile environment. Family members who nursed dying relatives wouldn’t have known to wash their hands or contaminated surfaces. Unchecked, Vibrio cholera rampaged through the tunnel area.

But how did the bacteria arrive at the tunnel to begin with? Newspapers of the time often blamed outbreaks on newly-arrived Irish immigrants. It’s true that thousands of people in Ireland died of cholera during the great famine. Evicted by landlords, many took refuge in ditches along the road. They had no food or shelter, much less a sanitary infrastructure. More immigrants died of cholera on ships that brought them to America.

According to Blue Ridge Railroad payroll records, no new Irish workers arrived at the tunnel in the weeks prior to or during the cholera outbreak. New immigrants didn’t bring cholera to the tunnel, but perhaps the movement of people, and possibly oysters, did. Scientists now know that the cholera bacteria can easily spread over large geographical areas by water and contaminate plankton in estuaries. Recent research says that one percent of oysters and other shellfish bathed in this poisonous stew become vehicles for spreading cholera.

Though 19th-century doctors were ignorant of the science behind oyster contamination, they recognized the link. Baltimore papers announced 40 cholera deaths in July due to oysters from Chesapeake Bay tributaries. In late September, the Alexandria Gazette reported the presence of cholera in oysters from the bay.

Raw oysters were a popular alternative to meat in summer. Three Staunton merchants ran weekly advertisements for the delicacy during the sweltering summer and early fall months of 1854. One was William R. Smith, who opened an “Eating & Oyster Saloon” where he sold oysters by the dish for 25 cents.

Follow the trail: Cholera began in Richmond on June 19, 1854. It moved to Scottsville on June 24 and landed at the Blue Ridge Tunnel around July 24. Meanwhile, oysters from Chesapeake Bay estuaries would have arrived in Staunton via two routes. The first was by boat up the James River to Richmond, then by express train to the temporary Staunton Depot where merchants picked up deliveries. “Our citizens are now supplied, daily, with these low-land luxuries by the Central [Railroad] Cars,” the Spectator proudly announced. “Oysters sell here for $1.50 per gallon.”

Oysters also surely arrived via the James River and Kanawha Canal—a traveler on the canal in 1835 remembered that the boat carried “fish of the very best, both salt and fresh.” A Blue Ridge Railroad account book shows that canal boats from Richmond brought staple foods such as coffee and salt for tunnel workers in 1854. The boats also delivered sundry goods for track and tunnel construction. Wagoners would meet boats at the Scottsville landing to load foodstuffs, kegs of blasting powder, and tools. From Scottsville, they followed the Staunton Scottsville Turnpike (called the Plank Road in Albemarle County), then the Stagecoach Road to the Blue Ridge Tunnel, where they unloaded goods.

We can rule out oyster consumption as the source of cholera for the tunnel workers. Oysters were beyond the budget of laborers paid at most $1.25 per day for often deadly work. But more than 200 people died of cholera in Richmond that summer. One of them might have been an unlucky canal boatsman who ate an oyster destined for Staunton. Though not all oysters are contaminated with cholera, it only takes one bad oyster and one case of cholera to start an outbreak. Now infected, the boatsman could have contaminated a bucket of drinking water or a town pump handle in Scottsville.

Symptoms start anywhere from a few hours up to five days after ingestion of the bacteria, so it’s impossible to identify the exact point of transmission. But picture this scenario: An infected wagoner leaves Scottsville, feeling queasy. He reaches the Stagecoach Road in Nelson County. A line of shanties perches on the hillside just below. He stops, and a few Irishmen help him unload goods from the wagon.

It’s thirsty work. The wagoner reaches for the tin dipper that rests in the workers’ bucket of drinking water, takes a long gulp, and drops the dipper back in the bucket. The lethal cholera is now deposited on the dipper handle and in the water bucket, waiting for its Irish prey. Then the wagoner continues across the mountain to deliver oysters in Staunton.

We’ll never know who purchased and ate oysters in Staunton, but we do know that Abraham Venable, the Staunton jailer, died of cholera on August 8. The August 30 issue of the Spectator furiously denied rumors that 16 people had died of cholera in the city, though the paper reported sudden deaths almost every week. “Some people delight in exciting the alarm of persons at a distance,” the editor fumed, “by misrepresenting facts.” He was especially insulted by the Charlottesville Jeffersonian newspaper claim that “whiskey and filth” caused cholera in Staunton.

It’s plausible that cholera led to some or all of the following deaths between July and September 1854: Thomas Tinsley of Richmond died suddenly while staying at Mountain Top Inn at Rockfish Gap, where the hotel served “capital fare,” according to the Spectator. Roseann Crickard in Staunton died of what official death records called “inflammation of the bowels.” After Reverend Garber died of flux in New Hope, the Spectator reported that “dysentery has been prevailing to a fearful extent in the neighborhood of New Hope. A number of deaths have occurred.” Peter Livick, who lived three miles from Staunton, died of dysentery, along with four of his children.

Dysentery is highly infectious, and the symptoms are the same as those of cholera. To add to the confusion, the unpredictable severity of cholera’s symptoms confounded 19th century doctors. Flux, inflammation of the bowels, and dysentery might actually have been deaths from cholera—the invisible killer that arrived, then disappeared, that dreadful summer of 1854.

Mary Lyons thanks Clann Mhór: The Blue Ridge Railroad Project ( for research assistance.