A cluster of what are now farm buildings on the Pollak Vineyard in Greenwood were dwellings for Irish workers who chiseled their way through Afton Mountain to build the Blue Ridge Tunnel in the 1850s.
A summer archeology field school led by University of Maryland anthropology professor Stephen Brighton methodically investigated the site and at a layer about 12 to 18 inches below the surface found evidence of habitation during the time frame of the tunnel’s construction. While they did not find a single “smoking gun” artifact, such as an intact small clay pipe of the type the Irish were known to favor, they found parts of one as well as other corroborating ceramics.
There were disappointments at the dig, too, especially in the interior of what Brighton believes was a small stone cabin duplex that reflects Irish building styles. One of the team’s first goals was to excavate the presumed location of the cabin’s shared central chimney. But not far into the delicate job of shaving away soil in paper-thin layers, the students discovered a deep concrete box, two-feet wide and six feet long. That spot had been dug up to install a mechanics pit for working under vehicles. Any remains from the 1850s were gone. That discovery also explained why the east end wall of the cabin had been knocked out to create an opening large enough to be a garage door.
To do a methodical and scientific investigation of the site, Brighton established a grid system overlay for it using a laser transit. The main axis ran down a farm driveway between stone buildings. Originally, it seems to have been the central lane of the settlement. From that base line Brighton extended the grid 20 meters east and west and plotted out a checkerboard of square meter “units.” Using ground-penetrating radar images that suggested where anomalous objects seemed to be buried and also deductions from existing features, certain locations were chosen for excavation.
“This whole area is a piece of graph paper to me and each square has coordinates,” explained Brighton. “Everything is in the grid, so when I get back to my office I’ll have it all in scale. It will take months in the office to analyze the data and organize it.”
Six University of Maryland students had signed on for the six-week dig—they earned six credits for it—as well as a graduate student in archeology from the College of William and Mary.
“The students are learning not to use computers, but to do it from basic principles,” said Brighton. “They can do unit locations now just by doing the geometry.
“The ultimate purpose is that it is reproducible. That’s science. If an archeologist comes back 30 years from now that benchmark will be there. They could set up and they should see every unit and they should be able to reproduce what we did. The first week is always hectic until we get control of the site.”
Brighton stressed careful measurement to the students. “It’s real important. I try to hammer on it. They think they are doing it over and over, I know. But this is science. It has to be recorded in detail.”
Brighton has been doing archeology for 20 years. “Sometimes I think I can’t face being out in the sun, but I still show up.” His specialty is sites related to the Irish diaspora after the potato famine in the 1840s.
The first unit dug was in the location with the most enticing radar image. “It turned out to be concrete,” said Brighton. “We don’t know why it is there. It might be a footing. A greenhouse used to be here.”
Brighton called Dan Walsh, who had done the radar survey with him last summer, to tell him. “He laughed. He knows what it feels like.”
The next intriguing radar image suggested a building foundation in the lower part of the site near a creek. “We never found it,” he said. “The unit started filling with water. We did one meter and two-meter units. It’s a mystery. At 30 centimeters, the ground water level is really high. Construction over time on a site changes the way groundwater moves. The kids looked like they were in World War I in mud. The units would never dry out and it got to be not worth it. Whatever it is, it’s under water. You have to come to grips with reality. So we shifted gears.
“I had thought there were two cabins making up the large barn [still in use], but it turns out it’s always been one long building. It was a barracks-style building with a walkway along it. It seems like workmen’s quarters to me.”
All the Irish stone structures were one story tall and had low-pitched shed roofs on them. Regular gable roofs replaced them some time later.
“Census data show that two groups were here in the 1850s,” Brighton explained. “We know of two households of Irish with children who had been in the United States less than a year. They probably came into New York or Baltimore and then were recruited to come down here. Women came to do service work. If you follow the list of the census, it goes from property to property [through Greenwood]. It seems to be running right through here. There’s the Collins Family, with William as the head and Ellen. Both were born in Ireland. The second family is the Mahoneys, Jeremiah and Judy and three children under age 10. All Irish.
“It was not uncommon for two families to live in the same place. You see it in row houses in Baltimore. The second unit seems to be all women and children. No occupations are given. The ages are 16 to 43. In camp settings where you find that the first reaction is brothel. But here they could be widows and women whose fathers and brothers are working on the rails and living in the shanties along the tracks. They worked as laundresses and cooks; they grew the gardens and raised pigs. Because it’s next to two families, I think it’s not a brothel. It’s for people moving up the line. The beauty of archeology is that there is no historical record where you’re working. We’re working on a mystery. Aside from the payroll documents, the only marks they left behind are the tunnels.
“If there is any money anywhere it’s with the single men up on the mountain in the shanties. That’s a lethal workplace. The families come down here to live. The women provide the structure for that and maintain the households.
“We know a priest came from Staunton to the area and I believe the Irish cemetery [about 200 yards west from the village] is consecrated ground. In that religious climate, Irish would not have been buried with slaves.”
Brighton speculated that the village was a place where men with trade skills, such as blacksmiths, made things that were needed to dig the tunnel.
The barracks building is about 30 feet wide by 60 feet long. “It’s amazing how they have it in thirds,” said Brighton. “This is the game-changer room,” he said, standing in the central space. “These hewn beams [supporting the roof] are probably original.” He pointed out a window now half buried by an embankment that perhaps contains the rubble of a demolished building. The Irish buildings were dry-laid and did not have foundations. The walls are simply stacked on top of the ground, a sign they were expected to be temporary.
“So this looks like three or four buildings on an intersection,” said Brighton. “All the doors face south. It’s a little street grid and it’s centrally located for all the work of the next eight years. Walking a mile was nothing to them. It’s below the Brooksville tunnel where bricks were needed and close to the Brooksville Inn where Crozet was living. This is probably rental housing for workers who had other jobs than blasting or tunneling or laying track.”
Slightly south of the village, where a main road of the day passed, is another stone cabin, apparently meant for a single family. It is now attached as a wing on a 19th-century farm house. This structure includes what seems to be an office and Brighton thinks it was a superintendent’s house. “He can see everything that’s going on from here.”
The digging turned up charred animal bones, and the remains of cooking. Brighton will consult a fellow expert, a zooarcheologist, on what they say about the diet of the Irish.
“The workers don’t complain about the food. They complain about not being paid. The tunnel was built on the canal company model. One main individual was doing the whole job and from him the money trickles down. Everybody gets a taste and a lot of it disappears. The guys at the bottom get the smallest share and a promise about getting more later. For them it’s about just staying hired. Railroads are transient labor. [The workers’] footprint almost doesn’t exist. Here is unique because they are here for eight years. You get a good lens on their life because they left more.”
An Irish immigrant named John Kelly (Kelly’s Cut, which modern trains still pass though, is named for him) was the main contractor. “The Brooksville tunnel kept falling in,” Brighton related. “Seventy feet of mountain once collapsed on them. Crozet wrote to Richmond and said that ‘where men are now, no craven would venture.’ Kelly somehow got the men to go back in.”
Still, gleanings are small. Rockingham pottery and white graniteware, identifiable by their glazes, have been found, as well as a teacup base, molded glass from bottles and parts of a doll’s porcelain limb, proving the presence of children. Apparently the Irish had little they could afford to lose. Bone and small pieces of broken mid-19th century ceramics are about all they gave up on. “These people would mend broken ceramics,” said Brighton. Their technique involved drilling small holes in the broken pieces and then sewing them together.
“I’m satisfied with what we’ve found. It’s been fun and if we knew the answers there wouldn’t be a reason to go looking. These bits we are finding are telling us their story. We don’t know much yet, but we will. It all ties into the large scope of American history and the expansion of the railroads. We’re frustrated that we haven’t found that one piece of evidence. It’s like fishing. Some days are good.”
Brighton also had hopes for a small stone building that he speculated may have been a four-hole latrine. Archeologists like those sites because if people dropped something accidentally through the hole, they generally didn’t try to recover it. Good evidence can be found that way. An open pipe also extended out of the ground inside the door, which Brighton said sometimes indicates a vent for waste pits. Brighton set students to work at all such suspect areas. But two units inside the shed-size building, carefully scraped and sifted, turned up nothing, and the building’s purpose remains a mystery.
Student archeologists advanced about 18 centimeters a day (about 7 inches) in their excavations. They dig until they reach what is called “sterile soil.” Joining the students as a volunteer was Amanda Morrison of Greenwood, a sophomore at Western Albemarle High School. “I found out about it through a neighbor,” she said. “They allowed me to come.” She worked on units outside the door of the cabin where sweepings from the dirt floors are sometimes deposited.
“Everyone here is self-motivated,” Brighton said about the tedious tasks done under the roasting sun. “So it’s been easy.”
Students went into the Waynesboro side of the tunnel and explored it. “It made it real to me, what we are looking for. It actually happened,” said Shelby Van Santan. “The drill holes going up into the ceiling are crazy. Those people must have been crazy strong [to hammer star drills over their heads].”
State Archeologist Mike Barber came for a tour of the site, and he and Brighton compared ideas about what they saw. The site is unique in Virginia, which has little that relates to the Irish immigration. Virginia archeology tends to be focused on the colonial period.
Clann Mhor, the group of local citizen-scholars who first undertook to research the tunnel’s construction, also sponsored an Irish music festival at Pollak Vineyard June 24, where the public saw items discovered in the dig and talked to Brighton. He also gave a talk to the Crozet Community Advisory Council at its June meeting, and Supervisor Ann Mallek’s summer science campers also visited the dig.
Brighton will organize another summer field school for next year that will focus on a brick kiln location nearby, where he does not expect to find much, and also on a promising array of terraces built on the slope above the tracks near the tunnel opening in Afton. The terraces seem to have been built from rock removed from the tunnel. Brighton’s theory is that the Irish created level spots near the shanties to plant vegetable gardens. The terraces thus indicate the locations of shanties, and Brighton is excited to have a shanty town to explore because their locations are usually so transient as to be not traceable. He has permission from the landowners to do the work and intends to return during the winter to inspect the site and plan next summer’s grid.