Clann Mhór is a small group of freelance citizen scholars dedicated to piecing together the history of the Irish and slave workers who built the Blue Ridge Tunnel under Claudius Crozet’s supervision from 1850 to 1858. The group’s name means Great Family in the Irish language. The workers who blasted their way 4,263 feet through the granite mountain with black powder deserve to have their story told and to have a public memorial to their sufferings and accomplishments, said Clann Mhór member Michael Brittingham.
The group is hosting a benefit concert at Fardowners on The Square May 14 to raise money to support archeological investigations of possible worker shanty towns along the route of the tracks. The evening will feature Tom Martin, one of Ireland’s finest guitarists, at 7:30 p.m. and King Golden Banshee, a traditional Irish music band, at 9:30. Admission is free.
Brittingham became involved with the effort when he learned that topographical features on his property near Newtown are actually the remains of switchback roads built to haul bricks from a kiln at the base of the slope to where they were used for tunnel reinforcement.
“We thought they were terraces,” he said. “It’s been fascinating.” Temporary tracks were built around the side of the mountain while the tunnel were being built, he added, and their remains are visible too. The temporary route was used again when the modern train tunnel was built in 1944 and when Interstate 64 was built through western Albemarle in the late 1960s.
“You look at the 1850 census and the Irish are all over here,” he said. “In 1860, you can’t find them. They came and went.”
Clann Mhór hopes to hire University of Maryland archeologist Stephen Brighton, who investigated a large grave of Irish railroad workers at Duffy’s Cut, a section of track built in 1832 about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. Brighton will visit Crozet in July for a preliminary survey of potentially interesting sites, Brittingham said.
“Our long-term goal is to educate people to make them aware of the contributions of the workers connecting eastern and western Virginia. And we want to erect a memorial to honor them. We even have an iron sculptor who is willing to make it.”
Clann Mhór is researching the impact of Catholic vs. Protestant feeling in the area, as well as trying to recover details about how workers lived and worked. Brittingham said the Irish introduced their music to the area and “that bled into the community.”
Clann Mhór member Dan Burke will make a presentation on the tunnel at the Library of Virginia May 12. Presentations will also be made at the Fardowners fundraiser, which will feature Irish food.