Lyons Traces Irish Lives at Blue Ridge Tunnel

Mary Lyons
Mary Lyons

Charlottesville author Mary E. Lyons has had her account of the building of the Blue Ridge Tunnel published recently by The History Press.

The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia is “a concise introduction for the general reader,” said Lyons, who is now at work on what she called a larger “documentary history” of the project that will have detailed annotations. The book is available in Crozet at Over the Moon Bookstore.

Lyons, who has dual American–Irish citizenship, became interested in the history of the tunnel because her great grandfather, like the Irish who built the tunnel, was a refugee from the Great Famine that depopulated Ireland in the 1840s when a virus caused potato crops to die.

“He migrated to America and worked in a coal mine,” said Lyons, “so the tunnel builders resonated with me.”

Lyons has written two other books on the famine, both intended for young readers. She wrote this book as a residential fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in the fall of 2011.

“The story of the tunnel grabbed me right away and it hasn’t let go.”

The tunnel was part of a 34-mile project to connect Richmond to Staunton and speed transport of Shenandoah Valley agricultural products into eastern Virginia. Besides the main tunnel under Rockfish Gap, three others were needed as the tracks climbed the ribbed east side of the mountain.

Lyons also points to the competition between the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Virginia Central Railroad (later the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad) to be the first to reach the Ohio River and attract trade that was headed for New Orleans. B&O track-layers were also digging tunnels through the Allegany Mountains, and as the leader of the Virginia effort, Claudius Crozet was aware of their progress.

“Crozet’s letters and annual reports are in the Library of Virginia,” said Lyons. “He goes into great detail about the problems. He expected to finish in three years. None of the tunnel builders of the time knew what they were getting into.

“One word keeps repeating—energetic. It’s so American to me. It’s push ahead, make progress. And that’s how he treated the laborers.

“I knew from the beginning I would write about it. The first thing I wanted to do was name the men, remember them. In six weeks I had identified 500 people. I give credit to Crozet. The names of the cholera victims are known to us because of him.”

Lyons’ book collects personal information on many of the Irish workers.

“To me it’s one of the few instances where we have primary documents that will tell us something about the Irish and the enslaved laborers in the same railroad project. I have looked for proof of conflict between the Irish and the slaves and I’ve never found it. It’s perhaps an exception.

“When the Irish went on strike for a raise in 1853, Crozet wanted to turn more to slave labor.”

But tunnel digging was very dangerous, and slave owners were usually unwilling to hire their slaves out for that work. But slaves were rented out for one-year terms for other jobs. Most slave owners had labor needs themselves and not that many slaves were available in the area.

“All the known instances of slave labor on the railroad took place in Albemarle County,” said Lyons. “When you look at the tracks in western Albemarle you’re looking at what slaves built.”

About 200 slaves and 800 Irishmen worked on the Albemarle side of the mountain, she said.  The Irish were more expendable than the slaves because if a slave died, he had to be paid for.

“I think the tunnel broke Crozet,” said Lyons. “He was subjected to so much criticism and pressure. He quit before the first train went through. He always admired the Irish and pressed state officials to support them.”

Crozet died in Richmond in 1863, six years after the tunnel was finished, at age 74.

“I was down on him for a long time because I thought he didn’t respect the Irish culture. He resented the time off the Irish took on Holy Days—there were 36 in a year—and because they would take off two days when they had a funeral for their children. Crozet didn’t dig his heels in. He was quick to lose his temper but he was also quick with praise.

“I have a balanced view of Crozet. Some people want to make him into a big hero. He was a human and he had flaws. He doesn’t give any indication he cared about the slaves. It was the norm then, but our impulse would be to condemn him now.”

More than a thousand Irish people were living in the Greenwood/Afton area while the tunnel was being built, but by the 1870 census none remained. “There’s more to be gleaned from the written record,” said Lyons. “It needs to be mined.”



  1. Am interested in your book re The Blue Ridge Tunnel. Sounds very interesting. I am the Program Chair for the Fluvanna Friends of the Library. We are looking for a speaker for the evening of October 1 at 7 PM. We are very near Route 53 and Route 15. If you are interested, please e-mail me. Thank you so much.

  2. Folks,

    I am with the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society and I would like to contact Mary E. Lyons about using some material from her book . . . which I have purchased through the Society. I am working on two Civil War era articles: 1) Western Division of the Louisa, Virginia Central Railroad, and Covington & Ohio Railroad beginnings and 2) Federal Raids on the Virginia Central Railroad for C&O History Magazine. We have apparently misplaced Ms Lyons’ contact info at our Archives.

    Thank you,

    Al Kresse
    Romeo, Michigan

Comments are closed.