University of Maryland archeologist Stephen Brighton is back for a second year of scientific excavation of sites that appear related to the construction of the Blue Ridge Tunnel between 1850 and 1858. Last year he and a crew of student archeologists probed the ground around a set of stone farm buildings at what is now Pollack Vineyards and concluded that they are probably the legacy of Irish workers. This year his team is investigating three stone foundations nearby each other on a treacherously steep slope off Stagecoach Road in Afton. Each wall creates a small platform that Brighton thinks may have been an outdoor space, or possibly a garden spot, for shanties that perched on the hillside above the scene of the track and tunnel construction.
Brighton’s digs, inspired by the scholarly investigations of Clann Mhor, a local group of citizen researchers into the history of Claudius Crozet’s tunnel, got the attention of Charlottesville independent documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner and he is now making a film about both the history of the tunnel and the effort to secure awareness of its cultural legacy for western Albemarle. Wagner, who received an Academy Award and an Emmy for his film The Stone Carvers, a film about the Italian-American carvers who worked on the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., was at the scene of Brighton’s first efforts to open up the hillside site in late May, filming as students cleared away brush from around the foundations. Wagner will follow this summer’s archeological discoveries for the film.
“We have a diary entry from a woman living on Stage Coach Road at the time the tunnel was being built, so we know there were Irish living here in shanties and raising gardens,” said Brighton, whose professional expertise is in sites related to the Irish diaspora in the wake of the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s.
“They stacked the stone and leveled off a platform. They notched the shanty into the hill and the platform is sort of their outdoor space. Nothing like this has ever been done in archeology.”
Joining Wagner were his soundman Neil Means and Paul’s wife Ellen, who is serving as the producer of the film. She is on the board of Preservation Piedmont and got acquainted with the tunnel through an architecture class at the University of Virginia last fall.
“We were already aware of Clann Mhor,” she said, “We want to talk about how it’s a case study for how very complex projects happen to preserve a cultural landscape.”
Paul Wagner is already working on a similar project, a documentary about the Erie Canal titled “Hard Times: Boom and Bust on the Erie Canal.”
“At the time [the canal] was considered a dubious project,” he said. “It essentially connected Europe with the American Midwest. We look at it from its beginnings through the end of World War II when upstate New York went into decline.”
The film team is trying to raise money to make the film and has requests before two philanthropic foundations, Wagner said. “We don’t have a dime yet. We’re committed. We think it’s a great film. We’d love to have it finished in a year. It documents an effort to save history. We think it’s a good public TV program. We’ll take it to them and we hope it’s a national program. It’s got the historical interest in the tunnel—that’s a good story—and it’s a story about how local people try to save their own history.” Donations can be made through Wagner’s website, paulwagnerfilms.com and its companion nonprofit organization, American Focus.
“We are hoping to make the tunnel trail idea happen,” said Ellen Wagner, “and to connect it with the Appalachian Trail and the ’76 bike route.” Nelson County has been spearheading an effort to reopen the old tunnel to hikers and cyclists. That will require removing two massive walls in the tunnel that were built to close off its middle third when the tunnel was considered for use as a gas storage site during World War II. That storage plan never happened.
Ellen (Casey) Wagner has all-Irish heritage and Paul is partially Irish. “This has resonance for us,” she said. “Our first film was about Irish immigration and we’ve also made one about Irish music.” Wagner has made more than 30 films. He also won an Emmy Award for A Paralyzing Fear, The Story of Polio in America.
The film crew trekked to the tunnel’s solid-rock east portal below Rockfish Gap to film the current appearance of the entrance. It is partially blocked by stones that have fallen in front of it and created a small dam for the water that continually flows from the tunnel. A lagoon of clear water extends back into the dark and spooky shaft and tree trunks have fallen from above the tunnel’s face.
The tunnel and the archeological site are on private property and are not accessible without permission, which has been granted temporarily to the summer dig crew. Reaching the site is difficult, and there is no parking near either location.