By Mary E. Lyons
In 1849, after two decades of resistance, the Virginia Board of Public Works initiated an ambitious strategy to reach the Ohio River—and its lucrative trade connections—by rail. Their elaborate plan called for 423 miles of track between Richmond and what is now Huntington, West Virginia. The scheme involved three railroad companies. The Virginia Central—formerly the Louisa Railroad—would continue its tracks westward to Charlottesville. Moving farther west, the company would then lay rails to Mechums River in western Albemarle County, at the intersection of Routes 250 and 240.
Meanwhile the state-funded Blue Ridge Railroad would lay tracks from Mechums River, bore a tunnel through the mountain at Rockfish Gap, and wind down to the South River on the west side of the mountain. The Virginia Central would pick up the path at the South River and lay tracks west to Covington in Alleghany County. The Covington and Ohio Railroad, still an unfunded gleam in the Board of Public Works’ eye in 1849, would approach from the Ohio River—then the western border of the state—to meet Virginia Central rails in Covington.
Only 16.81 miles long and sandwiched between Virginia Central Railroad tracks, the Blue Ridge Railroad was a railroad inside a railroad. Yet those few miles were the most difficult to build, passing through mountainous terrain that Virginia’s chief engineer, Claudius Crozet, once described as “dangerous ground.” Four tunnels would pierce the mountain at Rockfish Gap. Three lay in Albemarle County. East to west, they were the Greenwood, Brooksville, and Little Rock Tunnels. The almost one-mile-long Blue Ridge Tunnel would begin in Nelson County, just over the Albemarle County line.
It would pass 700 feet under the mountain and emerge in Augusta County. These were the pre-dynamite years. All work would be done with hand tools, gunpowder, mules, and muscle.
Irishman John Kelly was contractor for the Greenwood, Brooksville, and Blue Ridge Tunnels. Born in 1812, likely in Rathcooney, County Cork, Ireland, Kelly was the son of a respectable but small farmer who tilled three acres of land near Cork City. Young John would have attended one of two Catholic schools in the civil parish of Rathcooney, where he received the “rudiments of a plain English education,” as a nineteenth-century biography stated.
John Kelly’s biographer wrote that he worked in a flourmill as a young man. This would have been the extensive Glanmire Flourmills, located a mere three hundred yards from Rathcooney. The job became tiresome for Kelly after a few years—a situation made more frustrating by his Catholic father’s annual burden of a mandatory tithe to the Protestant Church of Ireland. The mills were next to a river that flowed into the world-class Cork Harbor. With the sea almost at his doorstep, Kelly must have felt a powerful urge to try his luck elsewhere. He sailed to the United States in 1834.
Immediately after landing in New York, John Kelly found employment on the Long Island-Jamaica Railroad. The following year he worked on the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad. Kelly was a quick learner and a frugal saver. By 1837, he was a sub-contractor on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. During the next twelve years, he became a full contractor and, working under civil engineer Benjamin Latrobe, Jr., directed construction of bridges and tunnels on the Baltimore and Ohio line in Maryland. Kelly’s qualifications were surely apparent when he responded to advertisements that Claudius Crozet placed in numerous newspapers in the summer of 1849, including a version that appeared in New York’s Irish American Weekly.
The notices called for contractors to build two tunnels for the Blue Ridge Railroad. On December 1, 1849, Kelly and his Irish partner, John Larguey, signed on for the Brooksville and Greenwood Tunnels. The latter included a difficult, unstable section that came to be known as Kelly’s Cut. Crozet unwisely chose New Yorker John Rutter, the cheapest bidder, to build the Blue Ridge Tunnel, but by early 1850 Rutter failed to meet the terms of his contract. Kelly and Company then signed on for the mammoth bore. Three tunnels. Towering, man-made embankments to connect them. Numerous culverts. Kelly’s Cut. It was an astonishing amount of simultaneous construction that far exceeded the commitments of other contractors on the project, and it called for many hundreds of laborers.
Blue Ridge Tunnel payroll names, combined with matching marriage, citizenship, death, and burial records, indicate that the majority of Irish in the Blue Ridge Railroad-Virginia Central Railroad community were from County Cork. A good many had lived along the Cork-Bandon Railway, a line with tunnels and embankments under construction in southwest Cork during the late 1840s. The men may have learned their tunneling skills on the Cork railway or in mines that dotted the region.
Kelly had a remarkable rapport with his workmen. This was due, in part, to their shared origins in Cork, where regional allegiance trumped nationalistic sentiment that meant little to the British-ruled Irish, anyway. Some of the men may even have known Kelly in Rathcooney—letters he would have sent home might well have contained an invitation for friends and acquaintances to work on his various railroad projects. This would have been especially true during Ireland’s Great Hunger, which began in 1845.
The greatest natural disaster of nineteenth-century Europe, the famine lasted through 1852, just as the Blue Ridge Railroad project was approaching a critical shortage of laborers. More than one million Irish fled the chaos and disease wracking their homeland during these years, most with the help of friends or family members who had already immigrated. Several nineteenth-century documents state that Kelly was known for his hospitality. One of them noted that “no appeal from the needy was ever made to him without a generous response.” We can imagine that Kelly, via letter, offered railroad jobs in America as an escape for desperate families in the Rathcooney area.
Whatever the reason for the men’s allegiance to John Kelly, it remained steady, despite many crises that shadowed the Blue Ridge Railroad. By early 1851, night shifts—which were unpopular with Irish laborers on public works—were underway on the east side of the Blue Ridge Tunnel. Still, under Kelly’s direction, the men drilled and blasted around the clock, boring an average of only nineteen feet a month through the extremely hard greenstone. Claudius Crozet defended the slow pace to the Board of Public Works. “All I can say with certainty about it,” he wrote, “is that the contractor [John Kelly] is alive to his interest and remarkably energetic and skillful in this business.”
In December 1852, a blast ripped off the hands of Blue Ridge Tunnel worker Michael Curran. The Blue Ridge Railroad Company continued his wages of one dollar a day through January 1853, but ended their benevolence in February. Kelly asked the Richmond men to reconsider. They refused, but at least Kelly’s workers knew they could count on his advocacy. This was no small matter. Curran’s disabling injury and possible subsequent death was not an isolated incident. Nine men at the Blue Ridge Tunnel had already died—most from blasts—by this time, with more to come.
Men boring through the Greenwood Tunnel worked under equally hazardous conditions. In 1853, pressure at the east portal crushed timbers one foot square. It was, Crozet reported to the Board, “an awful impending mass.” Kelly’s men stabilized the timbers by the fall of that year. “That this dangerous work has been brought to a successful completion without the least accident,” Crozet wrote, “reflects much credit on the contractor Mr. John Kelly.” The men completed the tunnel in December 1853.
Brooksville Tunnel proved to be the most perilous of all. Kelly’s shanty was hard by the passage in a mountain cleft known at the time as Kelly’s Hollow. From there, he guided his workers through the daily dangers of earth slides and cave-ins. “I must do justice to his unflinching energy, skill and perfect control over his men,” Claudius Crozet told the Board, “who expose themselves, even recklessly, wherever he directs them. Where they are now at work no craven would venture; but his commands are unhesitatingly obeyed; and all the difficulty I experience is rather to impress him and them with the necessity of caution.”
Word of John Kelly’s leadership qualities eventually spread to the halls of Richmond. “At times the work has been accompanied by such threatening aspects,” the Board of Public Works reported to the General Assembly in 1855, “that the laborers have retreated from it in dismay, and under a less intrepid and indomitable contractor, they could hardly have been persuaded to return.”
Had John Kelly and his men abandoned their perilous efforts, the railroad might have found willing replacements eventually because the labor shortage on the Blue Ridge Railroad eased in 1855 as more Irish immigrants poured into the country. By September 1855, the company had hired an additional twenty-eight men “from the north,” as the payroll stated.
But it’s improbable that any other contractors on the project would have saved the entire venture with personal funds. During a financial crisis that began in early 1855, Virginia’s bonds fell below their stated value. From then until September 1857, Kelly and his partner advanced money to the state from their “private resources,” as a state report termed it, for the cost of construction materials and wages at the unfinished Brooksville and Blue Ridge Tunnels. Kelly and Company also paid for labor on the 135-foot-high tall embankment leading to the east portal of the Blue Ridge Tunnel. (Designated as the “Great Bank” on payrolls, the embankment was greatly lowered by construction of the replacement Blue Ridge Tunnel in 1944. It’s now part of the Blue Ridge Tunnel Greenway in Nelson County.)
“It was fortunate that we were enable to continue the work in both tunnels,” Claudius Crozet wrote to the Board, “for there is no doubt that the most dangerous point of the roof in the main one would not have stood much longer, and the fall of the timbers might have been followed by so much of the loose rock as might have made the completion of this part of the work almost impossible. The arch at that point was closed safely a few days ago . . .”
Sometime around January 1857, stonemasons installed a spectacular arch over the west portal of the Blue Ridge Tunnel. It was a “handsome and massive piece of masonry,” according to the Richmond Daily Dispatch, and topped with a carved, stone plaque. “This work was constructed by the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the inscription began. “It was commenced in 1850 Under the Direction of the Board of Public Works.” A list of seven names followed, including those of the governor, Claudius Crozet, his former assistant engineer on the Blue Ridge Railroad, and state officials. In light of earlier praise, and considering that John Kelly and John Larguey had expended money out of pocket for that very stonework, the omission of their names on the plaque was odd, indeed.
In September 1857, the Virginia Central assumed control of portions of the Blue Ridge Railroad that it considered safe and complete. Under criticism from a hostile press for the many delays, a weary Claudius Crozet resigned in January 1858. Three months later, the Virginia Central took complete control of the Blue Ridge Railroad, and it opened for business. Work on the Blue Ridge Tunnel was by no means final, however. Some of the Irish laborers continued as employees of the Virginia Central, chipping or blasting away rocky protrusions. An Irishman named Branaman died in the passage on June 8, 1859. Cork man Mick Hurley perished from an explosion that same day.
John Kelly’s job in Albemarle and Nelson Counties was now complete. He followed the railroad west to Alleghany County, where the underfunded Covington and Ohio Railroad was inching east toward Covington with six tunnels. One of them would be the eponymous Kelly’s Tunnel, a then-single-track passage located at a place called Backbone. A number of Kelly’s Blue Ridge Railroad workers traveled with him to this lonesome ridge, living in twenty-six dwellings—most likely shanties—with their families. They completed all blasting and masonry work on Kelly’s Tunnel before the Civil War began.
In 1862, Kelly purchased Sweet Chalybeate Springs resort in southern Alleghany for $100,000. He raised livestock on 2,950 acres there while he sat out the Civil War with his wife, Hanorah, and seven children. According to a family Bible, their eighteen-year-old son, Dennis, was killed, perhaps in battle, on May 9, 1864. Some of the Irishmen who followed Kelly to Alleghany enlisted in the Confederate Army when the war began, but his views regarding the conflict are unclear. We know only that he stored more than 7,000 pounds of tobacco at Sweet Chalybeate Springs for a possible Union sympathizer; a Union general commandeered it mid-war.
Kelly’s biographer found him to be a “wise and thoughtful man,” though a feud with Virginia-born Oliver Beirne, the wealthy owner of Sweet Springs Resort one mile away, began around this time. Local lore maintains that when the new state of West Virginia was laying out its borders, Beirne convinced surveyors to run the line between the two resorts so that he would not have to live in the same state as John Kelly.
The Civil War disrupted all work on Virginia’s rail route to the Ohio. The last spike was finally pounded in 1873. By this time, the state had reimbursed Kelly and Company for expenditures they had made for the Brooksville and Blue Ridge Tunnels through February 1856. But for money they spent from then until the project was complete, the state repaid with bonds still below stated value. In 1873, Virginia made a partial payment of $10,491.97, including interest, to John Larguey’s estate (Larguey died in 1858) and to John Kelly.
The money may have given John Kelly the impetus for still more railroad work. He returned to his former milieu in 1873 and contracted for six sections of the Valley Railroad north of Staunton. He applied the same energy to Sweet Chalybeate Springs as well, making improvements to what his biographer described as “one of the most popular watering places and delightful summer resorts in the whole Southern country.” John Kelly—mill worker, bridge builder, tunnel-maker, self-made man—was now a successful hotelier.
An astute businessman, Kelly never forgot that the state still owed him money for repayments made with bonds below par. Exerting the same force of personality that saved the Blue Ridge Tunnel, he sued the Virginia Board of Public Works in 1881. He won, and the General Assembly paid him $15,000, including interest, in 1884. Kelly also had the last word, after a fashion, in the quarrel with Oliver Beirne. The only Catholic cemetery in the area lay on Beirne’s Sweet Springs property in West Virginia. John Kelly was paralyzed, likely by a stroke, in early 1887. In mid-May, he suffered severe burns. Both led to his death on July 4, 1887. Kelly’s interment in the Catholic cemetery forced Oliver Beirne to endure the Irishman’s postmortem presence until his own demise one year later, at which time Beirne was buried ten miles away.
A few buildings at Sweet Chalybeate Springs still stand, as does the Blue Ridge Tunnel. Though all are somewhat worse for the wear 160 years later, they are reminders of the determined John Kelly who rescued the tunnel with, as his biographer put it, “skills, stability, and workmanship,” along with “honest industry and practical economy.”
Mary E. Lyons is the author of The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia (The History Press 2014) and The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad (The History Press 2015).