Nelson County, as the leader of a group that is promoting the opening of Claudius Crozet’s 1858 Blue Ridge Tunnel as a hiking and cycling trail, has been awarded a $749,000 grant from the Commonwealth Transportation Board to begin construction. The project’s first phase will secure and develop a parking area in Afton with access to the east face of the tunnel, install a trailhead kiosk, and repair some 1,500 feet of the tunnel’s brick lining on the Waynesboro side where the ceiling is unstable. Trail proponents would prefer to remove the two concrete bulkheads that close off the center of the tunnel, installed shortly after World War II with the intention of storing propane gas between them, while heavy equipment is already at the tunnel, but, as written, the proposal does not cover that cost, estimated at $90,000. Fill will also be needed on the west side trail and the bulkheads could supply part of that. An arch would remain where each bulkhead was removed.
Nelson County Supervisor Allen Hale, who also heads the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, a non-profit organization that is trying to make the trail happen, was reluctant to reopen the proposal after it was approved by the state when the matter came up at a foundation meeting August 6. The foundation is hosting a fundraiser for the project at Veritas Vineyard and Winery September 20, with tickets going for $90 per person, and hopes to raise private funds to remove the barriers. The 4,264-foot-long tunnel is straight, so daylight will be visible at the opposite end of the tunnel from either portal once the walls are removed. Its grade tends slightly uphill from the east opening, so air generally rises to the west and water drains to the east.
Hale said that the biggest hurdle to beginning work was acquiring land near the old Afton depot building, now used as an office by lawyer Bruce Tyler, but that he expected a purchase deal with Tyler to be reached by the end of August. Tyler had asked for $150,000 for 1.6 acres belonging to the depot, Hale said, that would provide a parking lot and ownership of the trail to the east portal. Tyler would keep his office. The tunnel is not open to the public and anyone approaching it now is trespassing.
The possibility of a trail down to the tunnel from the Rt. 250 scenic overlook was also raised. The tunnel is about 700 feet below the gap. Foundation members also would like access from Stagecoach Road, the original road through Rockfish Gap.
The job needs to be advertised, but work could start later this fall. Hale suggested that bulkhead removal be set apart as a separate job for bidders to consider. Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek said that VDOT should be asked about altering the original work plan in any case and that the counties should not assume VDOT will say no.
County leaders from Nelson, Albemarle, Augusta and Waynesboro believe the tunnel trail has tourism and historical value and is fortuitously located at the convergence of the Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachian Trail and the Route 76 cycling trail. Officials envision a long-distance, regional greenway trails system and a connection with the AT. The tunnel, opened in 1858, was designated as a National Civic Engineering Historic Landmark in 1976.