Archeologists Survey Possible Site of Irish Tunnel Builders’ Village

Dr. Stephen Brighton and Dan Welch conduct the radar survey.
Dr. Stephen Brighton and Dan Welch conduct the radar survey.

A settlement built by the Irish workers who dug the Blue Ridge Tunnel through Afton Mountain in the 1850s may have been located in the midst of farm buildings on what is now Pollak Vineyards in Greenwood.

Archeologist/anthropologist Dr. Steven Brighton of the University of Maryland, a specialist in the investigation of sites related to Irish immigration to the United States, joined by Dan Welch of Geophysical Survey Systems Inc., based in Salem, New Hampshire, scanned sections of turf where stone foundations may be buried. They used groundpenetrating radar for three days in July at the invitation of Clann Mhor, a group of area citizens researching the history of the construction of the tunnel. Clann Mhor is a Gaelic term meaning “great family.”

Ground-penetrating radar—the device resembles a lawn mower—sends signals 10 feet down into the earth and the data it records can be interpreted to identify anomalies underground. The radar uses one percent of the energy required by a cell phone.

“He’s the best at this,” said Brighton of Welch. “He’s trained as an archeologist also. He’ll get maps of patterns.”

“He’ll have to dig there to see what it is that’s there,” returned Welch.

Moving at a walking pace, the pair methodically covered an area 300 feet by 100 feet and called it “a very productive day.” They had studied aerial photographs and topographical maps to conjecture locations to study. The site is near what appears to be a brick kiln at the base of the mountain slope where bricks were made to reinforce the three approach tunnels to the main bore. Five sections of switchback road appear to lead from the suspected kiln—an area with bricks fused by intense heat remains around it—to the tracks above. A million bricks were required to build the tunnels, and records show that Claudius Crozet fired the first brick maker because his bricks could not stand up to the pressures. Brighton said he suspects there is a second kiln location too.

“What struck me here,” said Brighton, “was we’re looking at a settlement. These barns used to be cabins. They started as cabins. And they are near a water source.”  Flat high spots near water was the geography Brighton had looked for.

A farm building that may have been a cottage
A farm building that may have been a cottage

Gesturing at the thick stone walls of the barns, he added, “These are dry-laid walls, probably pointed up with mortar at a later date. They are not well-laid. The stones are not cut or shaped. They just stack them and move on. Railroad buildings were transitory. That’s where shanties come in. It’s make-shift.”

The men working on the tunnels were there six to eight years, Brighton said. “They were mostly single young men from Ireland. It was a cowboy-esque lifestyle. It’s rough men and it’s rough work. Once it became clear the work would take a while, the laborers wanted something better for their families.”

He pointed out one barn that has one door and one window together on opposite walls. There was a partition down the center of the building, he speculated, and probably a central chimney. One family lived in each side of a small stone duplex. But the building has clearly had a new roof structure built on it and those internal features no longer exist.

In the vicinity are a half-dozen other raised, flat pads of similar scale, presumably other cabin sites arrayed along a central road that is now a gravel drive to the farm buildings.

“This becomes a vibrant community, anchored by a cemetery,” said Brighton. A cemetery with about 26 Irish graves has been discovered on an adjoining property. “I see this as a living and social space.

“We’ve found anomalies—we call them linears. Lines do not happen in nature.”

Welch meanwhile reported a “good hit,” apparently a row of large stones at the end of a rise.

“It’s a company town, put on a grid. This is ground zero,” asserted Brighton.

The 1850 census counts one building in this approximate vicinity with 99 men living it, Brighton reported, “as well as a cluster of buildings with two or three women and families.”

Welch said he had found “four to six linears,” individual spots that deserve to be dug up. He called them “high-confidence spots.” Some show 90-degree turns, he said.

“The way an archeologist works is we look at the landscape as a piece of graph paper,” said Brighton. “We’ll overlay his grid and ours and bring in a larger transit. We’ll do a checkerboard pattern of one meter squares and excavate units on either side of the linears. If we find a wall, we trench along it.”

Brighton runs six-week summer field schools in archeology through the University of Maryland in which a dozen students can earn six credits each. Students from other colleges can participate. Should the Greenwood site prove out as important, he will try to organize a summer dig for it. He would also seek local volunteers.

“About four million Irish left Ireland during the famine. Where did they end up?” he asked. “There are 2,000 names on the [tunnel] payroll. Nine ‘Daniel Sullivans.’ There were 13 bidders on the main tunnel project. It eventually went to John Kelly of Baltimore, an Irishman.” His implication is that Kelly would have hired fellow countrymen for the jobs.

“We’re getting hits on the radar where I would expect them, so it’s very encouraging.”

Brighton said.

Clann Mhor members will make a presentation to the public about their research at Crozet Library on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. to kick-off this fall’s Crozet Library Soiree Series.