A team of student archeologists led by University of Maryland anthropology professor Stephen Brighton spent June carefully excavating around stone platform structures above the old track bed leading to the original Blue Ridge Tunnel but found nothing that would tie them to the shanties Irish tunnel builders are known to have built in the vicinity.
“Basically, there’s no cultural material here,” said Brighton, a specialist in archeological sites related to the Irish diaspora after the potato famine of the late 1840s. Some 1,500 immigrant Irishmen, many with families, worked on the tunnel from 1850 to its opening in 1858. Slave laborers hired from area farms were also employed.
“There’s no nails, no ceramics. Nothing,” said Brighton. “The only evidence is the stacked stones. It’s impossible naturally. Somebody put these here sometime, but I don’t know who.”
Brighton, who last year organized a summer archeological project that investigated a cluster of old stone buildings on what is now Pollak Vineyards in Greenwood—that very likely are the legacy of the tunnel builders—investigated mysterious structures off Stage Coach Road in Afton during the winter. He returned with a six-person team in May to dig around two stone platforms discovered on the mountain slope above the tracks. He conjectured that they might be there to support the shanties that diaries and other documents from the period of the tunnel construction describe as the homes of Irish workers.
Brighton said that Augusta County historian Nancy Sorrell was aware of the documents and when she visited the site to examine the platforms, she determined that they are unlike any agricultural structures typical of this area. This raised the possibility, just as was found at Pollak farm site, that the platforms were made with techniques typical of Irish building. Buildings investigated at Pollak showed customary Irish design. But, with the dig over, Brighton discounted that possibility at the new dig.
“There’s uniform topsoil from the surface down. That tells me that at one point this was all exposed and then filled in later,” he said. One platform is about seven feet wide and the other nearby is about 12 feet wide. The carefully dug pits reveal very large slabs of stone that are under a shallow layer of soil about six inches deep.
Brighton speculated that the structures may have been built to protect the tracks below—or possibly other structures—from rock slides. He said it’s also possible that the shanties simply sat on the platforms and did not anchor in the soil, in which case they could have decayed without leaving traces.
“But we should have found something somewhere,” he said. They did find one small ceramic piece from the 19th century and another small glass bottle from the same era, but neither is positive evidence of the Irish shacks.
“The idea was to locate the shanties,” he explained. “They aren’t on maps and there are no directions for finding them [in historical documents]. But we know they are between here and the tunnel.”
There is an existing spring above the platforms and the water supply encouraged Brighton to think that the platforms might relate to the shanties. “[The site] has fresh water and it’s between the tunnel and Stage Coach Road. And no one has seen platforms like this before.
“Housing for transient labor would have been built a little ways away from the tunnel to protect it from the blasting. The workers didn’t get to decide where to live. Most railroad labor was at a location from three to six months. They would not spend more than year in one place. There’s not much left that tells you that they lived there.
“So the dig is inconclusive,” Brighton said. “I can’t say what the platforms were used for.”
Amanda Johnson, a Ph.D. student in archeology at the College of William and Mary, was Brighton’s top assistant at the dig and also worked on last summer’s dig at Pollak. Brighton he said he’s encouraging her to return this winter to scout other sites along the slope that may also relate to the Irish as dissertation research.
“These two years have been a profound success,” Brighton said. “Working with Clann Mohr has raised an unusual local consciousness about local history. A lot of people are interested and that’s gone a long way in encouraging us.
“The treasure could be one meter away from where we dug. That’s archeology. I still think this could be a cluster of shanties. And there are still suspect features with cut stones in the direction of the tunnel.”
Brighton said the Irish, like other people of the day, were very fit and would not have minded having to cope with the difficulty of walking on the steep mountainside.
“There was bad air in the tunnel, so they wanted to live a ways away.”
He said a new document has turned up in Clann Mohr’s research that says that Catholic Mass was said near a post office at Rockfish Gap, suggesting that workers may have lived closer to that location.
Researchers have found in a traveler’s account of crossing the gap that the shanties were near the gap and “that the pigs were the cleanest things there,” he added.
“It’s definitely here,” said Brighton, who has the innate optimism of a searcher.
But exactly where is still a mystery.